Big Ten: Johnathan Hankins

There will be a point this season when we'll know whether Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis has turned a corner.

It won't be after he mauls a quarterback or fills a rushing lane with his 6-foot-5, 313-pound frame. Davis already has shown flashes of being a dominant interior lineman. When Penn State guard John Urschel was asked on an ESPN.com chat last month to name the toughest lineman he blocked last year, he picked Davis, a backup for the Hawkeyes, ahead of players like Purdue's Kawann Short and Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, both second-round picks in April's NFL draft.

Davis can deliver a great play or two. But the true gauge for the Hawkeyes junior will come when opposing offenses sustain drives. Davis will be on the field for Play 1 or Play 2. If he's still there for Play 8 or Play 9, Iowa will be a lot better off.

"I believe my best football is ahead of me," Davis recently told ESPN.com. "I had some problems with my knee, I had some mental work being an every-play guy, and I'm still working on that. You've got to do it every day. You can't come out here like, I had a good practice today,' and then slack off tomorrow. You try to put days back to back to back."

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsCarl Davis' size and strength have Iowa's staff optimistic on the defensive tackle's future.
Davis appeared in 11 games as a reserve in 2012, recording 14 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, to go along with a forced fumble. Hawkeyes defensive line coach Reese Morgan said the experience, even during a rough 4-8 season, bolstered Davis' confidence that he's built to last.

After being limited by a wobbly kneecap early in his career, Davis attacked conditioning and strength training during the offseason. He hang-cleaned 395 pounds -- a Hawkeyes defensive tackle record -- and boosted his squat max by 100 pounds.

Davis also shaved one-tenth of a second off of his 10-yard dash time, going from 1.7 seconds in 2012 to 1.6. He came into camp a little heavy at 313 pounds -- "I'm paying for it right now," he said with a laugh -- but hopes to get down to 310 before the season kicks off Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois.

"He developed a lot of strength and confidence with the records, the work ethic," Morgan said. "Being a big guy, sometimes they're worried about running out of gas and pushing themselves to get out of their comfort zone. Carl started doing that a little bit in the spring, worked hard through the summer, really did some diligent preparation."

Head coach Kirk Ferentz describes Davis as an "Iowa guy," meaning Davis didn't walk onto campus game-ready but has developed himself into a position to contribute significantly as an upperclassman. What stands out about Davis is his size. Iowa's recent defensive tackle standouts -- Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Karl Klug, Mike Daniels -- all played around 280 pounds. Only Christian Ballard (297 pounds) approached the 300-pound mark. Davis, meanwhile, was 295 when he signed with Iowa in 2010 and quickly went north of 300.

"We haven't had many guys like him," Ferentz said. "Colin Cole was never as big with us as Carl is currently. Carl's a guy who has a great attitude, he’s got good ability, good size. We’re all confident this is going to be his time to really step up and play well."

Cole is the gold standard for Iowa defensive tackles. He earned first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America honors for Iowa's 2002 co-Big Ten champion team, recording ridiculous numbers for a defensive tackle: 85 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and two fumbles recovered.

If Davis comes anywhere close to those totals, Iowa's line will be much improved.

"I want to have at least 40 tackles and eight to 10 sacks," he said. "If you shoot high, you see where you fall, and you might not be disappointed."

Davis is a big man with big goals. One of his challenges, somewhat ironically, is to use his size more to his advantage.

"He's a big guy who thinks he's a finesse guy, instead of being a physical guy," said Morgan, who attributes Davis' approach in part to his background as a basketball player. "Now he’s starting to become physical. That's really what you like about Carl, understanding that assignment. He's really a caring, solid person. As a player, he's really grown a lot, and we’re excited to see what he's going to do this fall."

A Sterling Heights, Mich., native, Davis grew up a Michigan fan and wanted to play for Lloyd Carr but didn't attract much interest. He actually became sold on Iowa after attending the Hawkeyes' 30-28 win against Michigan in 2009 under the lights at a geared-up Kinnick Stadium.

When Davis arrived, Iowa was enjoying arguably the most successful run of defensive linemen in team history (three were drafted after the 2010 season, and another followed after 2011). Daniels took Davis under his wing, and Davis admired the power Daniels generated despite being a smaller interior lineman (6-1, 280).

Davis still reviews practice clips from Daniels, Ballard and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.

"I want to be one of those guys that can be the next name that pops up," Davis said. "Only time will tell, and I've got to put in the work."

Ohio State Buckeyes spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
10:30
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2012 record: 12-0

2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)

Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier

Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)

Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)

Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)

Tackles: Shazier* (115)

Sacks: Simon (9)

Interceptions: Howard (4)

Spring answers:

1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.

2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.

3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.

Fall questions

1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.

2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.

3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 2, 2013
5/02/13
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In this scenario he's the Tonya and I'm the Nancy!
Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

(Read full post)

The spectacle known as the NFL draft kicks off tonight in New York with the first round. As Brian pointed out late last week, the Big Ten is in danger of going without a first-round selection for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s final Big Board Insider doesn't include a Big Ten player, and both Kiper's Insider and Todd McShay's Insider final mock first rounds have no Big Ten players.

Lets look beyond the first round, as ESPN Scouts Inc. has put together a complete seven-round mock draft Insider.

How did the Big Ten contingent fare? If Scouts Inc., is correct, 42 selections will be made before a Big Ten player hears his name called. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short is the first Big Ten player on the board at No. 43, going to Tampa Bay in the second round. Only one other Big Ten player, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, is pegged as a second-round pick.

Here's the rest of the Scouts Inc. Big Ten forecast (in order of predicted selection)...

Round 3: Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell, Wisconsin C Travis Frederick, Ohio State DE John Simon, Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins, Illinois DT Akeem Spence

Round 4: Michigan State DE William Gholston, Illinois DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois G Hugh Thornton, Ohio State T Reid Fragel

Round 5: Michigan State TE Dion Sims, Penn State DT Jordan Hill, Wisconsin T Ricky Wagner

Round 6: Michigan QB Denard Robinson (will play WR), Iowa CB Micah Hyde, Ohio State TE Jake Stoneburner, Penn State LB Gerald Hodges, Michigan State CB Johnny Adams, Purdue CB Josh Johnson

Round 7: Nebraska S Daimion Stafford, Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne, Penn State LB Michael Mauti, Ohio State DE Nathan Williams (listed at OLB)

Thoughts: Overall, it's a pretty gloomy draft forecast for the Big Ten. Denard Robinson in the sixth round? That's lower than many have predicted. Ohio State's Hankins, once considered a likely first-round selection, wouldn't be pleased to slip to No. 89 overall. The Scouts Inc. forecast also excludes Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, plagued by knee injuries during his senior season. Other players not showing up include Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray (will play TE in the NFL), Iowa QB James Vandenberg, Penn State C Matt Stankiewitch, Wisconsin LB Mike Taylor and Michigan S Jordan Kovacs. Once again, Illinois is pegged to be one of the Big Ten's top NFL draft producers despite poor results on the field. Penn State's standout trio on defense will be waiting a while, although I wouldn't be surprised if a guy like Hill goes earlier than Round 5. Three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern -- are pegged to be shut out of the draft. Future Big Ten member Rutgers is pegged to have six draft picks, led by defenders Khaseem Greene and Logan Ryan in the third round, while Maryland is pegged to have just one (TE Matt Furstenburg).

We'll have draft-related posts on the Big Ten both Friday morning and Monday after all the selections are made.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
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In honor of "College Football Playoff," I'm calling this intro line "Lunchtime Links Intro Line."
Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
12:00
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"Is there anything that makes people smile more than Broadway and football?" This clip proves it.
The NFL draft begins a week from today, with the first round taking center stage next Thursday night. But will the Big Ten have any players celebrating before Friday's second round?

Prospects for that are starting to look slim, at least according to our ESPN.com draft experts.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board , which ranks the top 25 overall players in the draft, does not contain a single Big Ten product. His Grade A draft , in which he presents the best pick for every team, has Wisconsin's Montee Ball as the first league player taken, at No. 37 overall. Todd McShay's most recent mock draft likewise does not include any Big Ten players in the first round.

How rare would this be? The Big Ten has produced at least one first-round draft pick in every year since the NFL-AFL merger. The league had four first-round picks last year, though the first one didn't arrive until No. 23 (Iowa's Riley Reiff).

Of course, predicting the draft -- especially the back end of the first round -- is no exact science, and it only takes one team to like a Big Ten player enough to ensure that the league's first-round streak survives. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, Purdue's Kawann Short, Wisconsin's Ball and Travis Frederick and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell all have a chance at cracking the first 32 overall picks.

McShay has a list of draft talent tiers at each position, which gives you an idea of where the Big Ten draft entrants stand. The list includes seven tiers and 109 total players. Here's where the Big Ten checked in on McShay's scale:

Tier 5 -- Value picks early in Round 2 should they fall out of Round 1.

No. 32 overall: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

Tier 6 -- Worthy of mid-to-late-second-round consideration.

No. 56: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 64: Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin

Tier 7 -- Solid third-round prospects.

No 68: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
No. 77: Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
No. 84: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 94: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
No. 96: Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
No. 98: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 106: Hugh Thornton, OT, Illinois

We'll see if the experts are right, and had Michigan's Taylor Lewan not surprised everybody by returning to school, there would be no doubt about the Big Ten's first-round status. Still, next Thursday night is shaping up as potentially a quiet one for the league.
Adolphus Washington is a huge part of Ohio State's future on defense, but he hasn't forgotten the Buckeyes' recent past.

Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.

"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesAdolphus Washington knows he has some big shoes to fill as he replaces John Simon at defensive end.
Many would say Washington, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound defensive end, boasts more natural ability than Simon, the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He undoubtedly came to Columbus as a more decorated recruit, rated as the nation's 65th-best player and No. 7 defensive end in the 2012 class, according RecruitingNation. (Simon had no national ranking when he arrived in 2009.)

But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.

"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."

Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.

"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."

Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.

"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."

Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."

The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.

"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."

Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.

"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."

Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.

"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."

Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.

"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.

"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."
Mike Vrabel enters only his third season in coaching following a 14-year NFL playing career, but the Ohio State assistant might never again face a challenge like the one that sits before him.

It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.

All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State is counting on players like Noah Spence to deliver for an inexperienced defensive line.
"We're not going to claim to be experienced," Vrabel told ESPN.com on Thursday, "but we're going to go out and continue to improve. They work, and they're committed to being great."

Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."

The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.

But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.

"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.

"We're learning every day."

Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.

Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.

Ideally, they can take the reins.

"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."

Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.

"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."

Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.

Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.

"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."

Video: B1G shoes to fill -- Ohio State

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Young defensive linemen like Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence must fill in for John Simon and Johnathan Hankins this spring.

If Urban Meyer had placed a banner with the words "The Chase" in Ohio State's indoor practice facility last spring, he might have been asked, "For what?"

Sure, football players are always chasing something, as Meyer noted Tuesday when asked about the big, bold banner now hanging at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That "something" can be localized: a starting job, a bigger role in the offense or defense, a scholarship, a coach's approval.

But Ohio State couldn't chase many tangible team goals last spring. The Buckeyes couldn't chase a Big Ten championship or a national championship because of NCAA sanctions. They only found out in September that they could chase a Leaders Division title. Undoubtedly their greatest attribute was an ability to chase the grandest goal they could -- a perfect 12-0 regular season, capped by a win against archrival Michigan -- and achieve it.

The banner makes much more sense now. Ohio State has emerged from the shadow of postseason probation and can chase whatever it wants, including the crystal football that has eluded the Scarlet and Gray -- and the rest of the Big Ten -- for more than a decade.

[+] EnlargeOhio State: The Chase
Photo/Ohio State Athletics Communications The above banner is prominently displayed in Ohio State's indoor practice facility.
"Some guys are chasing starting positions," Meyer said, "some guys are chasing a bowl game, some guys an NFL contract. ... It means more, but that's where we're going to stop."

Meyer and his players can stop there for now. They should, as it's only spring practice. But "The Chase" will be a theme throughout Ohio State's offseason as bigger, broader goals are back on the table.

"Everybody’s got big dreams," Meyer said, "and we as a football team have some dreams."

Ohio State can dream big primarily because of an offense that transformed in 2012, rising from 81st nationally in scoring to 21st and from 107th in total yards to 47th. Quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed in Meyer's system, racking up a team-record 3,310 yards of offense, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Miller, who spent part of his winter break working with noted quarterback instructor George Whitfield in California, leads a unit that returns nine starters, including four linemen. Ohio State also regains the services of versatile running back Jordan Hall, who missed most of last season because of injury and turned heads during Tuesday's practice.

After delivering scathing -- and accurate -- critiques of Miller, the receivers and the entire offense last spring, Meyer has a much rosier outlook these days. Tuesday, he called Miller's footwork "outstanding" and praised Hall and several other skill players.

"Last year, who knew what as going to happen," the coach said. "I think the appropriate term was 'clown show' at this time. I don't feel like [it's] a clown show."

If Miller makes strides as a passer, Ohio State should have its most potent offense since the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes played for the national championship (coincidentally against Meyer's Florida Gators). The key to the spring -- and to the season, really -- is whether Ohio State produces a typical Ohio State defense. Otherwise, Meyer says, any discussion about "those two words that we don’t use very often" is pointless.

The spring spotlight shines brightest on the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost all four starting linemen from 2012, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and massive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a possible first-round draft pick. Talented young linemen such as Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence got a taste last fall, and Meyer's staff has recruited extremely well up front, but others must emerge to fill out the rotation. Meyer on Tuesday challenged players such as Steve Miller and Chris Carter to do so.

All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier returns at linebacker, but depth remains a major concern for a group that needed fullback Zach Boren to fill a starting role midway through the 2012 season.

"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won’t. It's pretty simple."

There's also a leadership void to fill this spring. Players such as Simon and Boren made sure the Buckeyes kept up the chase in 2012. Meyer expressed concern last spring at how the team would handle its first brush with failure. Thanks to the seniors, it never happened as Ohio State recorded only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.

The torch has passed to players like Miller, a quiet kid from a quiet family whose voice must be heard more in 2013.

"He needs to be a better leader," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month.

Other likely leaders include Shazier and dynamic cornerback Bradley Roby, a big talker who almost always backs it up on the field. Their challenge differs from that of their predecessors, who kept the team focused in spite of the bowl ban, yet did so under measured expectations.

The expectations are back to Tressel-era levels, and perhaps even higher because of the perfect season and Meyer's recruiting success. Anything less than a celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis -- and perhaps another Jan. 6 in Pasadena -- will be considered disappointing.

"The chase," Meyer said, "is on."
The NFL scouting combine is in the books and pro days at all the Big Ten schools will take place in the coming weeks. There's still time for the Big Ten's NFL draft hopefuls to boost their stock before the selections are made April 25-27.

But at the very top of the draft -- the first round, in particular -- things are looking rather bleak for the Big Ten, according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.

Kiper's post-combine Big Board Insider features zero Big Ten players among the list of 25. Several Big Ten players have been included on previous Big Boards, including Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short. If Michigan LT Taylor Lewan had skipped his final college season and entered the draft, he likely would be in Kiper's top 15.

Few would be surprised to see Hankins drafted in the first round, but his combine performance didn't exactly jump out. Short is another intriguing prospect, and Wisconsin center Travis Frederick also could sneak into the first round.

But if Kiper's forecast plays out, the Big Ten once again could be waiting a while before one of its players is drafted in April. The league didn't have a player selected in the 2012 draft until the Detroit Lions selected Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff with the No. 23 overall pick. The Big Ten hasn't produced a top 10 draft pick since Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft (Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, played his entire career in the Big 12).

Here's a look at the Big Ten's recent highest draft picks:

2012: No. 23, Iowa LT Riley Reiff (Detroit)
2011: No. 11, Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt (Houston)
2010: No. 13, Michigan DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia)
2009: No. 11, Penn State DE Aaron Maybin (Buffalo)
2008: No. 1, Michigan LT Jake Long (Miami)
2007: No. 3, Wisconsin LT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
2006: No. 5, Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay)
2005: No. 3, Michigan WR Braylon Edwards (Cleveland)
2004: No. 2, Iowa LT Robert Gallery (Oakland)
2003: No. 2, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers (Detroit)
2002: No. 12, Wisconsin DT Wendell Bryant (Arizona)

So after six straight years of top-5 picks (2003-2008), the Big Ten likely will go five straight years without a top 10 pick. Not good.

Several Big Ten players appear on Kiper's latest top-5 lists by position. Insider
  • Wisconsin's Montee Ball is the No. 2 running back
  • Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
  • Wisconsin's Frederick is the No. 1 center
  • Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
Neither Hankins nor Short appear among the top five defensive tackles.

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We're previewing spring football in the Big Ten today and Friday. Be sure to check it out.

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