Big Ten: John Moffitt

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June, 16, 2014
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So, how was your Father's Day, Tywin Lannister?
MADISON, Wis. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty Images"Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus ... " Bielema said.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."

Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.

They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.

"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."

Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.

"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."

What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.

"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."

Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.

"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."

Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."

That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."
Upon arrival Tuesday in Los Angeles, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told reporters that Paul Chryst will take one Badgers assistant with him to Pittsburgh following the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

Bielema declined to name the departing assistant, but reports here and here and elsewhere say offensive line coach Bob Bostad is headed to the Steel City. Bostad had been mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed Chryst as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. If he's indeed gone to Pittsburgh, he'll likely move into a coordinator role with the Panthers.
"The last 48 hours have been all of that stuff going on," Bielema said. "It was a good break for our players, because there were some things that needed to get sorted out. I know what's going to happen. I don't want to release anything. … Definitely going to be transition on my side."

It's hardly a surprise that Bostad would join Chryst at Pitt. The two are very close. Had Chryst accepted an offer to become Texas' offensive coordinator following the 2011 Rose Bowl, Bostad likely would have joined him in Austin.

The two men are, in my view, Wisconsin's top two assistants. Chryst's success as coordinator is well documented, and Bostad has tutored standout offensive linemen such as Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and, more recently, Peter Konz. If Bostad isn't the nation's best offensive line coach, he's close.

It's a tough situation for Wisconsin, which will have a new look on offense in 2012 with key coaches and players departing. Quarterback Russell Wilson and receiver Nick Toon are among the seniors leaving, and running back Montee Ball and Konz could declare for the NFL draft.

The good news for Badgers fans is that only one assistant will be joining Chryst. And for recruiting purposes, it's very good that Wisconsin will retain tight ends coach Joe Rudolph. Bostad's departure could mean Rudolph will be elevated to a coordinator role and/or become the team's offensive line coach, a move Bostad made after the 2007 season. Bielema has said he'll promote a coordinator from within the staff. If Bostad is gone, Rudolph and running backs coach Thomas Hammock are the top candidates to move up.

Rudolph is Wisconsin's chief recruiter and one of the best in the Big Ten. Chryst and Bostad aren't known for their recruiting exploits, so Bielema's ability to retain Rudolph is significant.

Bielema now must make some important position-coach hires to try and maintain Wisconsin's continuity on offense.

I doubt the coaching departures will impact Wisconsin too much in the Rose Bowl. Chryst and Bostad want to get this team a win, and the number of veteran players should keep the focus on Oregon.
My apologies for posting these a day late -- blame it on Russell Wilson -- but it's time to break down the Big Ten offensive linemen entering the 2011 season.

Rather than list the top 10 across the three position groups, I've decided to go a different route: top five players at each spot. Despite losing standout linemen like Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, the Big Ten returns several of the nation's top players at their positions.

Center might be the Big Ten's deepest position, while the league also boasts several standout tackles. The guard spot is a bit thin.

Let's take a look.

CENTER

Michael Brewster
Greg Bartram/US PresswireMichael Brewster may be the best center in the country.
1. Michael Brewster, Ohio State, senior -- Brewster enters the season as the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. He has started each of the past three seasons and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. Boasting 36 career starts, Brewster could be the top center selected in next April's NFL draft.

2. David Molk, Michigan, senior -- Molk is right up there with Brewster among the nation's truly elite centers. If not for some injury trouble, he could be at the top of the list. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in 2010 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy. Molk has made 29 career starts and displays top-notch blocking skills and leadership.

3. Peter Konz, Wisconsin, junior -- Konz is a big reason why Wisconsin's line shouldn't take a step back despite losing Carimi, Moffitt and Bill Nagy. He has made 20 starts at center in the past two seasons and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. After missing most of spring practice with an ankle injury, Konz's health this fall is a big key for Wisconsin.

4. Mike Caputo, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers' line has a few question marks entering the season, but center isn't one of them. Caputo is the undisputed leader of the group after starting every game in 2010. The former walk-on earned consensus honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and helped Nebraska eclipse 200 rushing yards in 10 of 14 games.

T-5. James Ferentz, Iowa, junior: Ferentz has emerged as an All-Big Ten caliber lineman and will lead one of the league's better groups this season. He started every game in 2010 and showed impressive durability, playing every offensive down in nine contests. Iowa needs an elite offensive line this season, and Ferentz will be leading the charge.

T-5. Graham Pocic, Illinois, junior: Along with Jeff Allen and others, Pocic leads an Illinois line that punished opponents at times last season. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter. Pocic solidified a line that helped Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank 11th nationally (246.1 ypg).

TACKLE

1. Riley Reiff, Iowa, junior: Reiff has put himself in position to become the next truly great Hawkeyes offensive lineman. He started every game in 2010 and 11 of 13 contests in 2009, earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. Already projected as a potential top-15 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Reiff should be in the mix for the Outland Trophy as he anchors the Iowa line.

2. Mike Adams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes will be counting the days until Adams returns from his suspension to open the season. After some ups and downs early in his career, Adams blossomed last season and started to meet the lofty expectations placed on him coming out of high school. He earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. If not for the five-game suspension, he would be a top contender for the Outland Trophy.

3. Jeff Allen, Illinois, senior: One of the league's best and most experienced offensive linemen, Allen will lead a strong Illini line this fall. He has started 34 games in his first three seasons at Illinois, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last fall. Allen is a bona fide NFL prospect who should challenge players like Brewster, Molk and Reiff for Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors.

4. Al Netter, Northwestern, senior: Besides star quarterback Dan Persa, Netter is the only player coach Pat Fitzgerald considers an undisputed starter entering the fall. Perhaps it's because Netter has started each of the past 39 games. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 and should be primed for a big senior season. Northwestern needs him to help spark its rushing attack.

5. Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin, junior: We'll get a full read on Wagner after he switches from right tackle to the left side to replace Carimi, but the expectations are high. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 after stepping in for the injured Josh Oglesby at right tackle. Wisconsin really likes Wagner's potential, and he'll have a chance to blossom at the more prestigious tackle position.

GUARD

1. Joel Foreman, Michigan State, senior: An easy pick here as Foreman enters the season as one of the nation's top left guards. He has earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and started 36 games at left guard, including each of the past 22. Offensive line is a huge question mark for the Spartans, so Foreman's play will be huge.

2. Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, senior: Zeitler will be a leader this fall for a Wisconsin line looking to continue its tradition of excellence. He has started 22 games at right guard in each of the past two seasons and helped Wisconsin rank among the nation's top rushing offenses. Zeitler earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Hugh Thornton, Illinois, junior: Thornton has played a lot of football in his first two seasons and could take another step in his development this fall. He started eight games at weak-side guard in 2010 after starting seven games at tackle in 2009. Illinois expects the offensive line to be its strength, and Thornton is a big part of the group.

4. Ken Plue, Purdue, senior: This pick is a bit risky after Plue worked his way into the coaches' dog house in spring practice. But he has the size, the skills and the experience (28 starts) to become one of the Big Ten's top guards this fall. If the 6-7, 358-pound Plue can work out his issues, look out for him and the Boilers.

5. Patrick Omameh, Michigan, junior: After starting all 13 games for a record-setting offense in 2010, Omameh is a reason why hopes are high for the Wolverines offensive line. He has started 16 consecutive games and has the ability to contend for All-Big honors. Omameh must get a little more consistent this fall, but I like how he projects for 2011.
The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.
Offensive line experience doesn't guarantee gridiron success, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Phil Steele recently compiled his annual list of career starts among offensive linemen throughout the FBS. Northwestern ranks second nationally with 137 combined starts, trailing only SMU (158). There's a big drop-off as the next Big Ten team comes in 40th in O-line experience (Purdue, 79 starts).

Northwestern returns four starters up front, including left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett, both of whom are entering their fourth seasons as starters.

Here's a look at where the Big Ten offensive lines rank nationally in career starts entering 2011:
  • No. 2: Northwestern (137)
  • No. 40: Purdue (79)
  • T-43: Ohio State (77)
  • T-49: Wisconsin (74)
  • T-53: Indiana (71)
  • T-56: Michigan (70)
  • T-58: Illinois (69)
  • T-74: Minnesota (60)
  • T-77: Iowa (59)
  • T-81: Michigan State (57)
  • T-87: Penn State (52)
  • T-99: Nebraska (40)

I wouldn't get too giddy or concerned about these numbers. Minnesota had the nation's fourth-most experienced line in 2010 and went 3-9. Then again, both Wisconsin and Ohio State ranked in the top 20 in O-line experience and went on to share the Big Ten title.

Several things stand out about this year's list.
  • Northwestern needs its experience up front to translate to a better rushing attack. The Wildcats' inability to move the ball on the ground the past few seasons has put tremendous pressure on the quarterback position. While this has been a decent pass-blocking line, it must generate more push and give the team's running backs more daylight.
  • Purdue is another team relying on its offensive line to be a strong point in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is a nice anchor, and if the Boilers can stay healthy, they should be able to run the ball well with Rob Henry, Ralph Bolden and others.
  • Offensive line will be a group to watch for two league title contenders -- Michigan State and Nebraska. Both teams are solid elsewhere but could sink or swim depending on how their offensive fronts perform.
  • Although both Wisconsin and Iowa aren't among the leaders in offensive line experience, both teams have established a track record of producing elite lines. While Wisconsin must replace two All-Americans (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt), I expect both the Badgers and Hawkeyes to be solid up front this fall.

Big Ten NFL draft wrap-up

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is in the books, and it's time to take a look back at how the Big Ten fared in the selections. In case you missed it, check out my breakdown of the six Big Ten players who heard their names called in the first round.

All in all, 29 Big Ten players were drafted this year. New Big Ten member Nebraska had seven selections.

Let's start off with a rundown of the picks. I'll have some quick thoughts after each round.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft this year.
First round

Quick thoughts: The Big Ten had its largest first-round output since 2007, and several players look like good fits for their teams. Chicago had to be thrilled Carimi was still available, and San Diego felt the same about Liuget, projected by many as a top-15 pick. Kerrigan likely needs to contribute immediately for the Redskins, while Clayborn and Heyward enter situations where they can ease into the transition.

Second round

Quick thoughts: Mouton's selection was a surprise for many folks, but it's a testament to a good player who impressed the scouts despite playing for a lousy defense in 2010. Wisniewski enters a good fit in Oakland, where his uncle, Steve, is an assistant offensive line coach. I really like Leshoure in Detroit, where he'll enter a competitive situation at running back.

Third round

Quick thoughts: Wilson, who entered the draft after his junior season, might have been a bit disappointed to fall to the third round. But he enters a good situation in New Orleans and should have some time to develop.

Fourth round
Quick thoughts: Ballard reportedly tested positive for marijuana use and likely paid a price as he dropped down at least a round. Still, the Iowa standout should help the Vikings early in his career. I really like the Doss fit in Baltimore, which can use more playmakers at receiver. It'll be interesting to see how quickly Chekwa sees the field in Oakland.

Fifth round
Quick thoughts: What a round for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Although Stanzi waited a little longer than expected, he joins a team in Kansas City that has a lot of connections to the New England Patriots, the squad many thought would draft the Iowa quarterback. Klug is a solid player who can play either line position. I'll be interested to see how he fares with the Titans.

Sixth round

  • Penn State RB Evan Royster, Washington, No. 177 overall
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones, New York Giants, No. 185 overall
  • Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker, Indianapolis, No. 188 overall
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle, Philadelphia, No. 193 overall
  • Iowa S Tyler Sash, New York Giants, No. 198 overall
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, Minnesota, No. 200 overall
  • Michigan G Stephen Schilling, San Diego, No. 201 overall
Quick thoughts: This marked the Big Ten's biggest round as seven players heard their names called. Jones, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, went a little later than expected, and Sash also dropped down a bit after entering the draft after his junior season. Homan, who missed some time last season with a foot injury, could end up being an excellent addition for the Vikings. Really like that pick.

Seventh round

  • Illinois LB Nate Bussey, New Orleans, No. 243 overall
  • Wisconsin G/C Bill Nagy, Dallas, No. 252 overall
Quick thoughts: While I was surprised several other Big Ten players didn't get drafted, both Bussey and Nagy are deserving. Both players played integral roles in their teams' success last fall, and both were overshadowed by other draftees (Liuget and Wilson for Bussey, Carimi and Moffitt for Nagy).

NEBRASKA'S DRAFTEES

Husker fans, I didn't forget you or your team. Nebraska actually had more draft picks (7) than any Big Ten team, and here they are.

  • CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants, No. 19 overall (first round)
  • RB Roy Helu Jr., Washington, No. 104 overall (fourth round)
  • K Alex Henery, Philadelphia, No. 120 overall (fourth round)
  • DB Dejon Gomes, Washington, No. 146 overall (fifth round)
  • WR Niles Paul, Washington, No. 155 overall (fifth round)
  • OT Keith Williams, Pittsburgh, No. 196 overall (sixth round)
  • DB Eric Hagg, Cleveland, No. 248 overall (seventh round)
Quick thoughts: Think there might be a few "Husker Power!" chants at Redskins games this season? The Mike Shanahan-Bo Pelini connection likely played a role in the three Nebraska players heading to the nation's capital. Henery soon will succeed David Akers in Philadelphia, and the Giants had to thrilled that Amukamara still was on the board at No. 19.

Big Ten picks by team

  • Nebraska: 7 (players competed in the Big 12)
  • Iowa: 6
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Wisconsin: 5 (four picks in first three rounds)
  • Illinois: 4
  • Michigan State: 2
  • Indiana: 2
  • Michigan: 2
  • Penn State: 2
  • Purdue: 1
  • Northwestern: 0
  • Minnesota: 0
By position (excluding Nebraska)

  • DL: 7
  • OL: 7
  • LB: 6
  • DB: 4
  • RB: 2
  • WR: 1
  • TE: 1
  • QB: 1

Nebraska had three defensive backs, a running back, an offensive lineman, a wide receiver and a kicker drafted.

Draft snubs

Quite a few Big Ten players didn't hear their names called during the weekend, and they'll enter the shaky world of free agency. I was absolutely stunned no one drafted Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. He was the Big Ten's top receiver last fall and brings a combination of football IQ and toughness that should appeal to football people not overly obsessed with measurables.

Wisconsin running back John Clay was the Big Ten's only non-senior who entered the draft but didn't get selected. Clay struggles with weight and his ankle problems might have contributed to him slipping through the draft.

Other Big Ten draft snubs include: Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, Ohio State guard Justin Boren, Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and Purdue receiver Keith Smith. Nebraska's Pierre Allen and Ricky Henry also will go the free-agent route.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin loves to describe its program as "not sexy," but the label is becoming less and less accurate.

After the Badgers made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, nine members of coach Bret Bielema's staff received inquiries from other teams. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren landed the head-coaching job at Northern Illinois. Two assistants, John Settle and Greg Jackson, left for posts in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst turned down a lucrative coordinator offer from Texas to remain with his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Bret Bielema leads a Wisconsin program that has churned out a lot of elite players in recent seasons.
The inquiries also are coming Wisconsin's way, as decorated recruits from "coast to coast" -- particularly running backs and offensive linemen, two position groups where the Badgers have flourished -- express interest in the program.

"They're getting recruited by heavy, heavy people in their area," Bielema said. "We haven't had that number of people respond from outside our area."

Wisconsin is pushing for a $76.8 million athletic performance center that would include new locker rooms and training facilities and an upgrade for the McClain Center, the team's indoor practice facility. Although Wisconsin has remained in the top half of the Big Ten on the field, it needs a boost with its facilities.

So, is Wisconsin bringing sexy back? Perhaps on the surface, but the program hasn't changed at its core.

"The only reason we're at the level we're at is because we maximize what we are," Bielema said. "Our staff, our players and our administration recognizes why we've had this success and not to deviate from that plan just because there might be better things out there.

"We're going to build this new facility, but bigger isn't always better. It's about the components and how functional it is and what it stands for."

The Wisconsin Way will be put to the test in 2011 as the Badgers lose more standout components than any other Big Ten squad. Gone are four All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt -- the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award winner in quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back John Clay, and other key contributors.

Other than Ohio State, every Big Ten team has struggled to reload in recent years. Can the Badgers buck the trend in 2011?

"Here, we really have to develop our players where they're really good their last 2-3 years," co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "We feel like this is a developmental program, and we're proud of that."

No position group better demonstrates the philosophy than the defensive ends Partridge coaches.

In 2009, O'Brien Schofield went from anonymous to first-team All-Big Ten, finishing second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for sixth in sacks. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and finished it as one of the nation's best defenders. He's projected as a first-round pick in this week's NFL draft and could be the first Big Ten player selected.

There are other examples of Badger reloading. Wisconsin has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons. Carimi and his predecessor at left tackle, Joe Thomas, both won the Outland Trophy as seniors.

"People from the outside looking in, they've never heard of these names so they assume they're not any good," Bielema said. "We try to have people waiting in the wings. I remember when no one knew who Lance Kendricks was, or Gabe Carimi, or John Moffitt or Scott Tolzien or J.J. Watt. We were able to develop those guys, bring them through and the results were what you saw last year.

"It's our desire to have a championship every season, but sometimes you're not going to have the personnel to accomplish that. What you want to do is remain competitive, stay in the top level of our conference."

Bielema thinks Wisconsin has a chance to be just as good on defense.

Although Watt leaves a major void, the Badgers boast unprecedented depth at defensive tackle and more overall depth along the line. The secondary returns All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, playmaking safety Aaron Henry and others with experience. If linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy after missing most of 2010 with shoulder injuries, the midsection will be solid.

Leadership shouldn't be an issue as both Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym are stepping forward.

"I'm sure a lot of people out there are counting us out," Henry said. "I could care less about flying under the radar. I just want guys to go out there every week and leave a statement, that we are Wisconsin football, we do play hard-nosed football and we're going to play every snap like its our last."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRunning back Montee Ball, 28, returns to a talented Wisconsin backfield along with speedy James White.
The bigger questions come on offense, starting with the most important position on the field. Jon Budmayr understudied for Tolzien in 2010 and, barring a major surprise, will move into the starting role. Budmayr, who had his ups and downs this spring, must not only display efficiency but remain healthy as there's no proven depth behind him.

Wisconsin once again will lean on a run game expected to be among the nation's best as backs Montee Ball and James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, both return. Although three starting linemen depart, the coaches are excited about who will fill the gaps.

"There's questions for any team, what they can and cannot do," Ball said. "That's why we keep grinding every day so we can show everybody what we're capable of doing."

At Wisconsin, there's no other way. The Badgers aren't a team that can simply show up and win, a fact reinforced last season.

"The thing we did best was we practiced so well during the week," Butrym said. "The one time we didn't practice well was [before the Michigan State game]. It was a Thursday and it was very sloppy and the end result of that was a loss."

Butrym admits the poor practice made him "a little paranoid" about sniffing out signs of complacency. So far, the attitude is good.

"We definitely have to earn it," Henry said. "Ohio State's still in the conference, we added Nebraska, Iowa's still in the conference. Guys know nothing's going to be handed to us."

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 22, 2011
4/22/11
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Wisconsin wraps up its spring practice session Saturday with the annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers will put the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense and the second-string offense against the second-string D.

Let's take a quick look at what's happening in Madtown.

The vitals: 1 p.m. CT Saturday (2 p.m. ET) at Camp Randall Stadium; tickets are $5 (first year Wisconsin is charging), parking in Lots 16, 17 and 18 is $10 and free in Lots 51 and 60.

More details: Wisconsin will hold a kids sports fair in the McClain Center from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. CT and other events. Click here for more information.

Three things to watch

1. Jon Budmayr: After backing up Scott Tolzien in 2010, Budmayr has the inside track to land the starting job this fall. He has had some good moments this spring but still must cement himself as the top option or face a potential challenge from Curt Phillips in preseason camp. Wisconsin asks its quarterbacks to be efficient and limit mistakes. Budmayr has a big arm and can do some things Tolzien couldn't, but he must limit turnovers. A strong performance in the spring game should give Budmayr some confidence heading into a big summer.

2. Defensive end: Besides Tolzien, Wisconsin's biggest loss comes at defensive end as All-American J.J. Watt departs. Watt contributed in so many ways and will be impossible to replace with just one player, but Wisconsin needs to identify its primary pass rushers. Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both boast experience at the end spot, and Brendan Kelly is healthy and performing well this spring. Wisconsin has shuffled the line at times this spring and used 320-pound Beau Allen on the outside. Pat Muldoon and others also are in the mix. Who will step up Saturday and put pressure on the quarterbacks?

3. Leadership: No Big Ten team lost more stars than Wisconsin, which said goodbye to four All-Americans in addition to team leaders like Tolzien, linebacker Culmer St. Jean and safety Jay Valai. Fans at the spring game should watch for who is taking charge on both sides of the ball. Is Budmayr taking command of the offense? Who has stepped up along the offensive line, which loses Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy? Free safety Aaron Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym seem like natural leaders on defense, but who will help them? Saturday's game should provide some clues.

Notes from Badger Country ...

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
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MADISON, Wis. -- The Wisconsin Badgers are on the practice field (thankfully inside the McClain Center) right now, and I'll post a list of observations and other nuggets Wednesday morning.

I had a chance to visit with head coach Bret Bielema, assistants Paul Chryst and Charlie Partridge and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym today. Wisconsin is aware of all the stars it loses from the 2010 team, but the coaches are confident they can fill the gaps, pointing to their track record of developing players. This isn't a program that can survive lapses in leadership and work ethic (see: the 2008 season), but it seems like those areas have been strong so far. Butrym and safety Aaron Henry are taking charge on defense, while receiver Nick Toon and fullback Bradie Ewing are two potential leaders for the offense.

Here are a few notes:
    [+] EnlargeJon Budmayr
    Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJon Budmayr seems to have a tight grip on Wisconsin's quarterback job.

  • Jon Budmayr entered the spring as the favorite to land Wisconsin's No. 1 quarterback spot, and nothing really has changed. Although Budmayr has had his ups and downs, Curt Phillips is still recovering from ACL surgery and it's hard to call Joe Brennan or Joel Stave legit threats for the top job right now. Budmayr has taken the bulk of the reps, and barring a setback this summer or a truly incredible surge by Phillips, I'd be surprised if he doesn't start Sept. 1 against UNLV. "You don't have a true competition with veteran guys," Chryst said. Chryst added that while a starter will be named at some stage, the race isn't a huge focal point right now. "We don't spend as much time on that as we do with each guy [saying], 'How can you get better today?'" he said.
  • The other big hole comes at defensive end, where Wisconsin must replace All-American J.J. Watt. Three players have separated themselves: redshirt senior Louis Nzegwu, who started opposite Watt last season, and juniors David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly. While Nzegwu and Gilbert were expected to step up, Kelly has really come on strong this spring after redshirting in 2010 and missing time in both 2009 and 2008 with injuries. I remember the hype around Kelly as a true freshman in 2008 until he hurt himself against Ohio State. The good news is Wisconsin boasts plenty of options inside, led by Butrym. "Probably as deep at D-tackle as we've been since I've been here," Bielema said.
  • The two players currently limited by injuries who really need to come back strong are Toon and linebacker Chris Borland. Wisconsin is extremely thin at receiver. Jared Abbrederis has had a good spring and provides a nice No. 2 option, but the coaches want to see more from Jeff Duckworth and others. Toon had somewhat of a disappointing junior season, but he has All-Big Ten capabilities. Borland can help with the versatility and playmaking Wisconsin loses with Watt's departure. He also would solidify the linebacking corps with Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton. The recurring issues are a concern, but Borland can provide a major boost on defense if he can stay healthy.
  • The coaches don't want to minimize the losses of players like Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, John Clay and Bill Nagy, but Wisconsin is very confident in its ability to run the ball at a high level this fall. Running backs Montee Ball and James White both have had strong springs, and Kevin Zeitler, Ricky Wagner and Peter Konz will lead the way on the offensive line. "Up front, we're going to be very, very good," Bielema said. "No question we have guys who can step into the roles that Gabe and John and Bill left."
  • Wisconsin seems to have moved on well from the Rose Bowl, although there are still reminders of the 21-19 loss to TCU in Pasadena. "Watching ESPN and Gruden Camp [Monday] night and they had [TCU quarterback Andy Dalton] on there, and it's all about the Rose Bowl and I'm like, 'Aw, jeez!'" Bielema said. "Makes me want to turn it off." We hope you keep watching, Bret.

I'll have more on the Badgers in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Checking in on the Badgers ...

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
1:00
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MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from Madtown, where it feels more like late fall than late April. Snow and freezing rain are falling. Badger weather.

I'll be spending the day with coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers, who come off of their first Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. Wisconsin came up short in Pasadena, a loss that likely still stings around here, but it's time to turn the page.

We'll find out a lot about the Wisconsin program this coming season. No Big Ten team loses more star players than the Badgers, who say goodbye to five All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks, tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and running back John Clay -- in addition to quarterback Scott Tolzien and other standouts. While Wisconsin has proved it can mass-produce running backs and offensive linemen, the team must show it can continue making strides despite the lost production. Bielema and his staff have recruited well as of late, and their player development skills will be put to the test.

Here are some of the items I'll be tracking today:
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr's spring progress. After backing up Tolzien last season, Budmayr seems to have the inside track for the starting job. Curt Phillips is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Joe Brennan has no game experience. Is Budmayr separating himself? If not, what does he need to improve?
  • Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but the Badgers became a big-play unit and no one made more plays than Watt. Chris Ash takes over as coordinator after upgrading the secondary in his first season with the Badgers. He's looking for contributors this spring. Wisconsin should be solid in the secondary with Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith, but it needs to replace two starting linebackers and Watt, of course. I've heard a lot about the Trotter twins (Michael and Marcus) this spring. How do they factor in the mix and who else is stepping up?
  • Like most teams, the Badgers have been at their best when they boast strong leaders. They lose quite a few from the 2010 team, and it'll be interesting to see who is answering the bell along both lines, at linebacker and at the quarterback spot.
  • Despite losing Clay and three starting offensive linemen, Wisconsin's run game should once again be scary good this fall. No Big Ten player improved more throughout the season than Montee Ball, and Wisconsin also returns reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White. Fifth-year senior Zach Brown also has re-entered the mix. It'll be good to check in with the backs and see how they're doing this spring.

More to come from Badger country. Stay tuned.
There's little doubt that the first Big Ten player drafted in April will be a defensive lineman.

(Not including Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played his entire career in the Big 12.)

Who will hear his name called first? Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan? Illinois' Corey Liuget? Iowa's Adrian Clayborn? Ohio State's Cameron Heyward?

I'll have more on the hopefuls as we get closer to draft night, but colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are always dissecting the draft and have come out with their latest three-round mock selections.

Here's McShay's mock draft and where the Big Ten players fall:

First round
  • Illinois DT Corey Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, No. 16 overall to Jacksonville
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, No. 17 overall to New England
  • Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi, No. 21 overall to Kansas City
  • Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 24 overall to New Orleans
  • Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, No. 32 overall to Green Bay
Second round
Third round

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft and where the Big Ten prospects fall:

First round
  • Watt, No. 10 overall to Washington
  • Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Kerrigan, No. 20 overall to Tampa Bay
  • Carimi, No. 23 overall to Philadelphia
  • Clayborn, No. 27 overall to Atlanta
  • Heyward, No. 30 overall to New York Jets
Second round
  • Wilson, No. 34 overall to Buffalo
  • Leshoure, No. 53 overall to Indianapolis
  • Doss, No. 64 overall to Green Bay
Third round
  • Ballard, No. 67 overall to Denver
  • Kendricks, No. 68 overall to Buffalo
  • Moffitt, No. 77 overall to Tennessee
  • Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, No. 81 overall to Oakland
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, No. 85 overall to Philadelphia
  • Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, No. 93 to Chicago

Some interesting stuff here. Both McShay and Kiper think the Colts' Big Ten pipeline will continue, and both also like Buffalo to draft Big Ten players. Kiper includes three players McShay leaves out -- Chekwa, Homan and Wisniewski -- while McShay includes one player (Brewer) who Kiper leaves out. It also stands out how teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have more high-level draft prospects this year than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.

Amukamara is the only Nebraska player included in both mock drafts. Both McShay and Kiper have Amukamara going 13th overall to Detroit, where he'll reunite with former Huskers' teammate Ndamukong Suh.
The 2010 Big Ten postseason player rankings (Top 25) are in the books. Wipe those tears away. A new rundown for 2011, which will include Nebraska players, isn't too far in the distance.

Let's begin to break down the rankings.

By team:

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

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

By position:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 12: Chimdi Chekwa, CB, Ohio State, Sr., 6-0, 190

2010 numbers: Led Ohio State in interceptions (3), pass breakups (9) and passes defended (12); recorded 42 tackles, including four for loss and a sack; tied for second in the Big Ten and 41st nationally in passes defended; earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes defensive back Chimdi Chekwa
Andrew Weber/US PresswireOhio State defensive back Chimdi Chekwa led the Buckeyes in interceptions, pass breakups and passes defended.
Preseason rank: Unranked in preseason Top 25 players

Why he's here: The Big Ten lacked a ton of truly elite defensive backs in 2010, but Chekwa certainly fit the description following an outstanding senior season. His ability to make plays and take away a side of the field proved invaluable for a Buckeyes secondary that endured several season-ending injuries but still ranked 15th nationally in pass defense (179.3 ypg) and tied for 12th in takeaways (30). Chekwa's 2010 honors included: consensus first-team All-Big Ten, first-team FWAA All-American and semifinalist for both the Thorpe Award (nation's top defensive back) and the Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year). He was named National Defensive Player of the Week following a two-interception performance against Miami. Often overshadowed by other top cornerbacks, Chekwa gets his due in these rankings and should go on to have a strong NFL career.

  • No. 12: Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa
  • No. 13: Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor
  • No. 14: Wisconsin G John Moffitt
  • No. 15: Michigan C David Molk
  • No. 16: Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward:
  • No. 17: Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi
  • No. 18: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins
  • No. 19: Indiana WR Tandon Doss
  • No. 21: Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski
  • No. 22: Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn
  • No. 23: Wisconsin RB James White
  • No. 24: Ohio State LT Mike Adams
  • No. 25: Indiana QB Ben Chappell
The 2010 Big Ten postseason player rankings continue with ...

No. 14: John Moffitt, G, Wisconsin, Sr., 6-5, 323

[+] EnlargeJohn Moffitt
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireJohn Moffitt earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive season.
2010 numbers: Started all 13 games at left guard after splitting time between guard and center in 2009 and starting the entire 2008 season at center; named a first-team AP All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and the media; named Wisconsin's co-Offensive Player of the Week against Michigan after the Badgers' dominant rushing performance.

Preseason rank: No. 15 in the preseason Top 25 players

Why he's here: Moffitt and classmates Gabe Carimi and Bill Nagy anchored a dominant Wisconsin line that helped the offense set record-setting numbers in 2010. The Badgers ranked 12th nationally in rushing, fifth in scoring, 21st in total offense and 18th in sacks allowed. Moffitt played a significant role in opening up-the-middle rushing lanes for backs John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. He delivered one of his best performances Oct. 16 against then-No. 1 Ohio State, as Wisconsin manhandled a formidable Buckeyes defensive front en route to a historic victory that led to the program's first Big Ten title in 11 seasons. Moffitt earned first-team All-America honors from the AP, CBSSports.com and Rivals.com and earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive season. His 42 starts for Wisconsin and his versatility at both guard and center should serve him well at the next level.

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