Big Ten: Jonathan Brown

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.
The North team lost 20-10 to the South in the Senior Bowl on Saturday, but it was still a good day for many Big Ten draft hopefuls.

[+] EnlargeJames White
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIJames White was one of a few Wisconsin players who stood out at the Senior Bowl.
Wisconsin seniors in particular grabbed the spotlight in Mobile, Ala. Former Badgers tailback James White led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and had the game's only rushing score, a 1-yard, fourth-quarter plunge that also was his team's lone touchdown. White added five catches for 15 yards, showing the versatility that made him a standout for four years in Madison. After he was long overlooked in college, it's good to see White getting a chance to shine on his way toward the NFL.

White's teammate, former Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen, led the North squad with 46 receiving yards on four catches. Meanwhile, ex-Wisconsin star Chris Borland wrapped up a terrific week of practice with a team-best eight tackles, including a tackle for a loss and his signature play: the forced fumble.

Borland was named the most outstanding linebacker at the Senior Bowl on Friday. He appeared to answer any lingering concerns about his height and should be drafted within the first two or three rounds in April.

One Wisconsin star didn't play in the game, as receiver Jared Abbrederis tweaked a hamstring late in the week and flew home to recover. That opened a spot for Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, who contributed two catches for 19 yards on Saturday.

Iowa's Christian Kirksey finished second on the North team with six tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He received positive reviews for his play all week. His former Hawkeyes teammate, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, did not record a catch but was credited with two tackles. Fiedorowicz was named the most outstanding tight end at the Senior Bowl on Friday, and his impressive physical attributes should make him attractive to teams on draft day.

Other Big Ten players who collected stats included:

  • Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished with four tackles and a pass breakup.
  • Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had four tackles.
  • Wisconsin defensive back Dez Southward made two tackles.
  • Penn State's DaQuan Jones and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman each collected just one stop but drew praise for their work in stuffing the run.
  • Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis, another late addition to the team, registered one pass breakup.

The North team also featured Big Ten offensive line products Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) and Michael Schofield (Michigan).

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 22, 2014
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Sure, it's cold now. But pitchers and catchers report in just three weeks.

Season wrap: Illinois

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The program hasn’t returned to respectability yet in the Big Ten, but at least Illinois was able to get back in the win column before the season was over.

There were some signs outside of conference play that the rebuilding job might be ahead of schedule for the Illini, but once they got back inside the league, there wasn’t much to feel good about until a late victory over Purdue ended an ugly 20-game losing streak in the Big Ten.

The good news for Illinois is that skid is over. The bad news moving forward is it must replace do-it-all quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as it closes the book on 2013 and tries to get back into a bowl game in 2014.

Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Through all the rough patches and the piles of defeats, the Illini did know they could always rely on Scheelhaase to provide some entertainment and plenty of production leading the attack. With a final 300-yard passing outing to close the season, Scheelhaase broke the school record for total offense previously held by Juice Williams, another indicator of just how much he’s given the program over the last few years.

Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. Wherever the football was, Brown was a safe bet to be nearby as he did everything he could to help the Illini turn things around defensively. He led the team in total tackles (119), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5), and for good measure the senior added a forced fumble and an interception as another veteran at least went out on a personal high note for Illinois.

Best moment: The future looked mighty bright after two games, particularly on the heels of a 45-17 throttling of a Cincinnati team that would eventually go on to win nine games. Scheelhaase produced four touchdowns as the offense exploded, Mason Monheim paced an aggressive defensive performance with a pair of tackles for loss and everything appeared to be trending in the right direction. The buzz was short lived, and it would never be that positive again for the Illini.

Worst moment: The gap between the Big Ten’s elite programs was never likely to shrink that much this season, so blowout scores against division champions like Michigan State and Ohio State weren’t much of a surprise. But the struggles against the rest of the pack were troubling, most notably a 37-34 loss at home to end the season against Northwestern. The Wildcats had been ravaged by injuries and hadn’t won a conference game all year, and dropping that decision a week after ending the epic losing streak wasn’t a strong way to capitalize on any momentum the Illini might have had heading into the offseason.

The rosters for the East-West Shrine Game are set and several more Big Ten players are headed to Mobile, Ala., for the Reese's Senior Bowl. Here's an update of where things stand.

The big news is that Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, suspended for a team rules violation before the Rose Bowl, will be headed to the Shrine Game on Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Bullough undoubtedly will face questions about his suspension as he prepares for the NFL scouting combine in February and the draft in April.

Penn State safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong also was announced to the game today.

Here's the final Big Ten contingent in the Shrine game:

East roster
West roster

The Senior Bowl announced 10 more players earlier today, including four from the Big Ten: Wisconsin running back James White and Jacob Pedersen, Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown and Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. The following Big Ten players had been previously confirmed: Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and linebacker Chris Borland, Northwestern wide receiver Kain Colter, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, Penn State defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey and Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

White and Pedersen both had been committed to the Shrine Game but switched to the more prestigious Senior Bowl.

Season report card: Illinois

December, 24, 2013
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We're handing out grades to each Big Ten team for its regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall play. For Illinois (4-8, 1-7) this serves as a final grade, as there's no bowl game in sight. But at least the marks are higher than they were last year in Champaign.

Here you go, Illini:

Offense: B-plus

There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013.
Cubit engineered a spread offense that averaged 29.7 points and over 426 yards per game. The Illini finished second in the league in passing yardage, and revived quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards by a wide margin with 3,272, to go along with 21 touchdowns. After injuries threatened to decimate the receiving corps, senior Steve Hull emerged late in the year to post huge stats in his final few games. The spread and quick passing game also covered some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, which did a much better job protecting Scheelhaase this season.

The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.

Defense: F

Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.

Special teams: C

The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.

Overall: D-plus

Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
Officially, we only do a first-team All-Big Ten here at the ol' blog. But there were tough decisions and plenty of players deserving of recognition in the 2013 season. So if we had to do a second team, here's what it would look like:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
OL: John Urschel, Penn State
OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State

Defense

DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DL: Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
DL: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
DB: B.J. Lowery, Iowa

Specialists

K: Pat Smith, Nebraska
P: Cody Webster, Purdue
KR: Akeem Hunt, Purdue

Some tough calls here, including the quarterback. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has a strong case. But ultimately we went with the guy who was 9-0 in the Big Ten as a starter and won a league title with a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon couldn't crack our first two teams despite running for 1,466 yards. We thought White and Langford were better in the key parts of the season than Gordon, who did most of his best work in the first six games. ... We had three tackles on our first team, so the interior linemen get their due with four spots on the second team. ... Several of our defensive players here were difficult omissions from the first team, including Allen, Countess, Jean-Baptiste, Lewis and Lowery. ... We chose Smith as the kicker in a close call over Michigan State's Michael Geiger, whom we honored on our all-freshman team.

Video: One Good Thing -- Big Ten LBs

November, 25, 2013
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One good thing in the Big Ten from this past weekend: more outstanding linebacker play.
Linebacker has been arguably the strongest position in the Big Ten this year, so it's no surprise that the league has two semifinalists for the Dick Butkus Award. In fact, the Big Ten might have deserved even more.

The award honoring the nation's top linebacker announced its 12 semifinalists on Monday. The list:
* -- last year's winner

Borland and Shazier are very worthy honorees and strong candidates for the Big Ten defensive player of the year award. It's an impressive group nationally, too. Nebraska found out how good Barr was, and Mack went into beast mode against Ohio State earlier this season. Fortt is a Penn State transfer who faced both Northwestern and Ohio State this year.

There were others from the Big Ten who seem deserving as well, such as Michigan State's Max Bullough, Iowa's James Morris and Illinois' Jonathan Brown. The battle for the three spots at linebacker on the All-Big Ten first team will be a fun one to watch.
We've reflected on the first half of the Big Ten season, evaluated each team and looked ahead to what promises to be a more exciting second half.

As we put a bow on the first half, we're selecting a midseason All-Big Ten team. This list certainly isn't as significant as the postseason squad, but these players merit recognition for their performances during the first seven weeks of the season.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Ted Bolser, Indiana
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL:
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL:
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DE: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan


SPECIALISTS

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Marcus Jones, Minnesota
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

We'll start with the quarterback spot, which has been underwhelming around most of the league, partly because of injury. It was a close call between Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg, but Scheelhaase gets a slight edge with more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions. We had another tough decision at the No. 2 running back spot between Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman, who has been very productive so far. Ultimately, Abdullah has made more out of his carries and got the nod.

The Big Ten's depth at linebacker prompted us to go with a 3-4 defensive alignment for the midseason team. We had some debate for the lone defensive tackle spot between Jones, Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, but went with Jones, the league's leader in tackles for loss (8.5). Linebacker is so deep that it was tough limiting the list to only four. We ultimately went with Morris over Illinois' Jonathan Brown because Morris has made more game-changing plays. Cornerback has been a deeper position than safety through the first half, so we went with three corners and only one safety.

Kick returner was another close call between Minnesota's Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley.

Midseason report: Illinois

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:00
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The schedule hasn’t really even hit the midway point thanks to a pair of bye weeks loading up the front half of the slate.

But Illinois has already played enough games to improve its record from a year ago, and it has plenty of time to build on a productive start and get back into the postseason thanks to a high-flying offense.

The Illini missed out on a chance to put themselves in early position to contend in the Leaders Division after struggling in a lopsided loss at Nebraska with the offense being held to a season-low 19 points. But if new coordinator Bill Cubit and dynamic quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can rediscover the magic that had Illinois racking up touchdowns in wins against Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Southern Illinois, it might not be too late to make some noise in the conference.

The race is still in the early stages in the Leaders Division, and Illinois has only played once so far in league play. However, it could be a grind to go seven straight weeks in the Big Ten without a breather -- and the matchups might not be all that favorable with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern remaining.

But Scheelhaase has appeared much more comfortable leading the offense this season, completing more than 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 12 touchdowns and also complementing Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young in a rushing attack that has collectively topped 1,000 yards already this season. And if the Illini can get a bit more help from a defense that gave up at least 34 points in both losses, it could be a tough out down the stretch.

Either way, Illinois has already shown improvement coming off a brutal 2-10 season, and it still has time to take a few more steps forward.

Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini can spread touches around and get a variety of different rushers and receivers involved offensively, but everything funnels through Scheelhaase and his ability to make decisions with the football. The senior is completing nearly 20 passes per game and averaging almost 260 yards through the air, and while his rushing numbers aren’t all that impressive thanks to 104 yards in losses, his ability to put pressure on a defense in different ways has been instrumental in the Illini's early success.

Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. The senior isn’t hard to find when the defense is on the field because he’s almost always by the football. Brown leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 60, a number that’s even more impressive because he’s racked them up in one fewer game than the rest of the leaders at this point of the season. He’s also been able to disrupt offenses in the backfield, making 6.5 of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
5:00
PM ET
What's rattling around in your noggins this week?

Adam from Columbus writes: I (an OSU fan) was chatting with a few Northwestern friends earlier and we were wondering if it's in the Wildcats' best interest to lose to Ohio State on Saturday? I know this sounds crazy but hear me out! In making these arguments I'm assuming: 1) even with a loss to Northwestern, Ohio State will win the Leaders; 2) Even with a victory on Saturday, Northwestern will most likely have to run the table or only suffer a sole loss to the right team to take the Legends; 3) in all likelihood Northwestern does not have a shot of making the national championship; 4) Two-loss Northwestern with both losses to future National Title contender OSU would still get Northwesten a Rose Bowl invite.

So the way I look at it is this: Northwestern's best hope for the season is to go to the Rose Bowl and the only way that will realistically happen is if OSU goes to the national championship. If OSU losses on Saturday, their hopes at a national title are essentially gone. ... Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Well, that's one way of looking at it. We've talked in the past about how teams that don't win the division may have a better shot at an at-large BCS bid than those who lose in the conference title game, a la Michigan in 2011. Still, I don't think it's in Northwestern's "best interest" to lose. For one, this is an incredible opportunity for exposure for the school, with "GameDay" in town and a primetime audience. A victory would register as one of the best in school history and would enhance the prestige of Pat Fitzgerald's program, which can't be overlooked.

And if the Wildcats win, they could creep toward the Top 10. Even with another loss somewhere along the way, they might still put themselves in position for an at-large bid, though the school is not as attractive to bowl partners as those with larger alumni bases. There's also no guarantee Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, even at 13-0. So the scenario you present might provide a little hope should Northwestern lose on Saturday, but it's not exactly something for which they should be aiming.

Jacob L. from Iowa City writes: How do you feel about Iowa's chances to go 9-3 or 10-2 to finish out the season? Michigan hasn't looked too good, leaving Wisconsin (which we should definitely win), Northwestern, and Ohio State as the toughest teams left on our schedule. Although Nebraska is usually good, I have to give them lack of credit this year for giving up 537 yards to Wyoming.

Brian Bennett: Iowa is definitely beating Wisconsin, eh? Not so sure about that, as I suspect the Badgers might be the Big Ten's second best team. The Hawkeyes' remaining schedule is difficult, but the only game I see on there as a definite loss is at Ohio State. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin all come to Iowa City, and as you said Nebraska has issues defensively (although that's more against spread and passing teams than versus pro-style, power offenses like Iowa's). I like the way the Hawkeyes are playing, and they are gaining confidence for sure. But they have also yet to get into the meat of their schedule. I'm thinking more like 8-4 if things continue to go well, but we shall see. Big one this weekend, obviously.

Seth from Chicago writes: I was hoping to get your opinion on this week's polls. Wisconsin drops out after their second close loss, but they're not your normal 2-loss team (refs blew a call and then a 7 pt. loss to #4 OSU). Meanwhile, there are four 1-loss SEC teams in the top 13. With the exception of UGA, the only games that A&M, LSU, and USC have played against tough competition, they've lost. How can teams like OSU and Michigan drop for winning (and Wisconsin drop out after a close loss and getting hosed) while these SEC teams only drop 3-4 spots after a loss and stay so highly ranked? No wonder there are 18 SEC teams in the Top 10 to finish every season.

Brian Bennett: Seth, it all comes down -- once again -- to conference perception. I know you guys get tired of hearing about it, and we get tired of writing about it sometimes. But this is why that stuff matters. The SEC gets the benefit of the doubt in these cases, and in many ways deservedly so. The Big Ten suffers from its lack of marquee wins out of conference, and while a rising tide lifts all boats (SEC), a lowering tide also sinks ships (Big Ten). I ranked Wisconsin No. 20 this week, but people who don't follow the league closely probably just see a two-loss Big Ten team and assume it is struggling. The only way to change it is by going out and beating teams from the SEC and other power leagues.

Rob from New York writes: Brian, after yet another close loss, I'm starting to wonder if the Badgers are cursed. Is this some karmic revenge by an angry God or is there some greater reason Wisconsin keeps losing close games like this?

Brian Bennett: We already have the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God (AIRBHG). Is there also a Wisconsin Close Loss Inflicting God (WCLIG) as well? Something weird seems to be going on. One tip for the Badgers: don't let receivers get free in the end zone late in halves.

Bill from Genoa, Ohio, writes: Brian, love the blog. I however take issue with the article you wrote on the Ohio State win over Wisconsin. At one point in the article you say that critics may not look so kindly on a narrow seven-point win over Wisconsin, but then the critics would be underrating the Badgers (not in so many words). Then, at the end of the article you basically say that not winning big could cost Ohio State in the long run. I'm sorry but I thought Wisconsin's coaching staff did an excellent job of adjusting their game plan in the middle of the first half. They knew they couldn't run so they took to the air. The disappointing thing was how bad Bradley Roby looked 90% of the night. Wisconsin is a GOOD football team, and so long as Ohio State beats the good football teams, I could care less by how much, they should be fine. Ohio State's issue will be playing down to their competition, i.e., Purdue last year, and not beating those teams by as much as critics think they should.

Brian Bennett: Bill, you weren't involved in that phony "Newsroom" Genoa scandal, were you? Look, you and I both know Wisconsin is really good. But as we just discussed a few lines above, most of America apparently doesn't. If Ohio State wants to finish in the top two of the BCS standings, it probably is going to have to win the PR campaign against teams from other leagues. You just know there will be critics dying to knock the Big Ten champ down (especially if the SEC champ has one loss). That's where this stuff comes into play. When voters and pundits start comparing schedules, they'll see a seven-point win at home. Ohio State was up 17 at the end of the third quarter and got conservative at the end. Which is all well and good, and Wisconsin made things tough. But if you think style points don't matter, you haven't paid attention to the BCS era.

Jeff from Minneapolis writes: With what looks like an 0-8 conference season or at best 1-7, Minnesota continues to be a doormat in the Big Ten and has been for 5 decades. Would Northern Illinois or even NDSU be suitable replacements? Indiana has a proud basketball program in the Big Ten so even though they struggle at FB, they are top notch in the other major sport.

Brian Bennett: Wow, that's some doom and gloom up in the Twin Cities. Has winter already hit there? The loss to Iowa was very disappointing in how it played out, but that was one game. Don't give up on Jerry Kill yet.

Drew from Swansea, Ill., writes: Have to say that I respectfully disagree about there being nothing for Illini fans to be pumped about in regards to future schedules. We can be excited for wins! For the longest time with Ron Guenther making the schedule, we had one of, if not, the toughest non-conference schedules and where did that get us? I feel the Big Ten schedule is hard enough already, so there's no need to top the schedule off with even more difficult games, at least for a program like Illinois. I'd rather see Illinois beat nobodies, than lose to somebodies, but that's just me.

Brian Bennett: I see where you're coming from, Drew. There's not a lot of incentive for Illinois to play an extremely challenging nonconference schedule, especially when the Big Ten goes to nine conference games, because the program isn't exactly aspiring to national titles. I think every team ought to play at least one decent opponent from a power league or its equivalent, and adding North Carolina is OK but not exciting. Still, I see little need for the Illini to play FCS teams in 2015 and 2016, and the 2017 schedule (Ball State, at South Florida, Western Kentucky) looks deplorable. If you're fine paying regular prices to see those types of teams, so be it. But it does send a message that the Illini aren't interested in a whole lot more than making bowl games.

Jake J. from Terre Haute, Ind., writes: In your list of potential award winners, you omit Jonathan Brown of Illinois from the possible defensive player of the year awards despite his leading all Big 10 defenders with 11.8 tackles per game. Why is he not listed as a contender?

Brian Bennett: Two Illinois questions in one mailbag! Last year, I was struggling to find any. Progress. Anyway, Brown is a really good player, but tackling numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Iowa's Anthony Hitchens led the league in tackles last year and wasn't voted to either the first - or second-team All-Big Ten. Brown is definitely on the radar, but with only 2.5 tackles for loss so far and no takeaways, he hasn't made enough high-impact plays yet to be strongly considered for defensive player of the year.

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