Big Ten: Kevin Zeitler

The Big Ten endured arguably the worst NFL draft in its history last month, and its struggles to produce high first-round talent are well documented.

The league hasn't had a top-10 pick since Michigan's Jake Long and Ohio State's Vernon Gholston went No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the 2008 draft. The Big Ten narrowly avoided being shut out of the first round for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger when Wisconsin's Travis Frederick went at No. 31 in April's draft.

Is the troubling trend for the Big Ten more of a coaching/development issue or a recruiting issue? The declining number of first-round picks might have more to do with the Big Ten footprint than the Big Ten Conference.

As's Chris Vannini points out, certain states in the Big Ten footprint, namely Ohio, have seen a drop in producing first-round picks in recent years. Vannini looked at where first-round picks from the past eight drafts played their high school ball.

Not surprisingly, Texas (17) and Florida (12) produced the most first-round picks between 2010-13, followed by Georgia (10) and California (8). Florida, Texas and California also were among the top producers in the previous four drafts (2006-09).

Pennsylvania is the top producer in the Big Ten footprint with five first-round picks since 2010. Michigan (4) and Wisconsin (4) are next, along with future Big Ten state New Jersey (4).

Where's Ohio? Way down the list with just two first-round picks since 2010. It comes as a surprise as Ohio is celebrated for its high school football and serves as the starting point in recruiting for many Big Ten programs.

Ohio produced nine first-round draft picks between 2006-09. New Jersey also saw its total drop from 10 (between 2006-09) to four (between 2010-13).

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin both produced three more first-round picks in the past four drafts than the previous four. All four Wisconsin products -- J.J. Watt, Gabe Carimi, Kevin Zeitler and Frederick -- played for the Wisconsin Badgers during their run of Rose Bowls. Michigan saw a slight increase in recent years, Illinois held steady and Indiana dropped from four (2006-09) to two (2010-13). Minnesota had one first-round pick in 2012 after none from 2006-09, while Nebraska and Iowa aren't on the board for either span.

What about the Big Ten's other new territory, the Washington D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia region? Maryland's total dropped from four (2006-09) to three (2010-13), Virginia's went from seven (2006-09) to three (2010-13) and Washington D.C. failed to produce a first-round pick from 2010-13 after having two between 2006-09.

What does this mean for the Big Ten? First-round draft picks are only one way to gauge the strength of a league or a region, but the numbers reinforce that much of the nation's elite talent grows up far from Big Ten campuses. Big Ten schools have to spread their wings in recruiting and invest more time and resources in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia. Many programs already do this, but there's a greater sense of urgency.

The Ohio total is a bit alarming, but I'd be surprised if the state produces so few first-round picks in the next four years. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Wisconsin total under a new Badgers coaching staff.

I still like the Big Ten's new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, from a recruiting standpoint, but the declining totals of first-round draft picks from both areas are a bit unsettling as the two programs prepare to move to the Big Ten in 2014.

Big Ten mailblog

July, 17, 2012
Catching up on the mail ...

Alex from Denver writes: I hear Stephen A. Smith discuss the necessity of giving Penn State the death penalty. Who does that truly punish? If you ask me it punishes the fans, players (both football and other sports who rely on football revenue), students and current coaching staff. None of who had anything to do with the cover up. No good comes of that. My suggestion would be to allow the season to be played, but all football revenue must be donated to charity, or perhaps all revenue generated from the football team goes to charity. Let the football program and university make the millions that they will, but punish the terrible actions by helping people who need help.

Adam Rittenberg: Alex, you make some good points. Suspending Penn State's football program also would be a major economic blow to the region, which profits greatly from the interest in the Lions program. There's a reason why I don't stay in State College for game weekends -- $600 hotel rooms. On a smaller scale, all the vendors and others who rely on Penn State football would be out of luck, which would be a shame as they had nothing to do with the scandal. The reason to punish, in the eyes of many, is to show that a big-time football program isn't above accountability and can face severe penalties. But you bring up a good case why Penn State should be spared, and how it can help by donating a large portion of its revenue to charities or organization that help abused children.

Eric from Lansing, Mich., writes: For the sake of curiosity, if Penn State gets... lets say a 5 year "Death Penalty," how do you see that affecting the rest of the Big Ten? How would scheduling be worked out? Would the divisions be realigned? And would the Big Ten consider giving Penn State the boot and try to fill the void with a new school? Or would we just be subjected to 1 more terrible, non-conference "filler" game for the next 5 years?

Adam Rittenberg: Eric, I don't think a five-year ban is at all realistic, but even a one-year ban would significantly impact Big Ten scheduling. There would have to be some rules in place for the Leaders Division with only five teams -- if the league stuck with division play at all. We could also see some serious scrambling to fill Penn State's spot on the schedule. It'll be chaotic, to say the least. Unless the Big Ten were to dismiss Penn State from the league, I don't foresee the divisions being realigned. And while the Big Ten could impose its own penalties, I don't sense much momentum for such a dramatic step as to remove Penn State from the conference. There's a lot of disappointment among the Big Ten's brass, especially toward a guy like Graham Spanier, who they respected and trusted and has betrayed them with his actions. But giving Penn State the boot? I really don't see it happening.

TN Spartan writes: I was a BIG-PAC12 proponent for scheduling, but understand they could not work it out for 2017-going forward. Do you think they would ever consider just working out a 2-yr deal in the future, where perhaps schedules could be worked out to accommodate another quality opponent? They could then step back and analyze how well it worked, TV revenue vs. 9th conference game, etc.? I think this would be a good step to take, rather than abandon altogether.

Adam Rittenberg: TN, while anything is possible, the two leagues tried to work out several alternatives to keep the alliance intact. The one that made the most sense to me called for six interleague games every season, so each team would only have to participate every other year. But even this didn't sit well with at least four Pac-12 schools that didn't want to be told how to schedule. I can tell you the Big Ten will not entertain future partnerships unless everyone is on board. It didn't want to pit all 12 of its teams against only seven or eight willing Pac-12 foes. So while a shorter agreement in terms of timespan could help, the Big Ten will be careful to go down this road again as this turned out to be rather embarrassing for both leagues.

Dan from St. Louis writes: Adam, I was not happy to see Michigan Stadium at number 6 in your B10 stadium rankings before I took the time to deduce which ones were ahead of it. But Kinnick Stadium at number 5 just adds insult to injury. I was at the Michigan/ND game under the lights last year and I was also at the Michigan/Iowa game in Iowa City, and are you kidding me? Both were good games and I'll admit that the night game at the Big House was by far the best atmosphere I've ever seen there, but you sound like a real estate agent trying to sell a tiny house that has some deferred maintenance when you say that the intimacy its best quality.

Adam Rittenberg: Dan, you bring up some good points here, but again, this is a subjective stadium ranking. I've never hidden the fact I prefer stadiums like Kinnick and Camp Randall over some of the Big Ten's larger facilities. The Michigan-Notre Dame night game in Ann Arbor was electric, and I look forward to more like it at the Big House, which is a better place to see a game now than before the renovation. I still think Michigan Stadium is overrated because of its size, and I think there are better venues to see a game in the Big Ten. Does that mean I hate Michigan or Michigan Stadium? Hardly. I never pass up a chance to cover a game there or visit Ann Arbor, which is second to Madison among my favorite college towns in the league. Again, these rankings are our personal preferences. I don't expect you to agree with them or like them. But it's one element in a blog that has a ton of other content. If you don't like the rankings, there's still plenty to read.

Les from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: Re: "Penn State Begins Healing Process;" Adam, this is the kind of piece that focuses attention on the wrong thing, and ignores what's really important. Who really needs healing? The Penn State students and alums? Gee, how about the boys who were victimized? "Hitler dead, war over, citizens living near Dachau begin healing process." Totally inappropriate to focus on those who ignored wrongdoing, and on those who bought into the idol worship, instead of the real healing that's needed.

Adam Rittenberg: Les, who exactly in that piece ignored the wrongdoing? The Penn State players I talked to, or the fans/alums? Are you suggesting they covered up Jerry Sandusky's crimes, too? You completely missed the point of the story. It showed that Penn State isn't just a place where a terrible thing happened, but a place where many good things happen and there are many good people. They're incredibly damaged by what has happened there, and there are many Penn State alums like Amy Kappeler, who expressed her extreme disappointment in the school for the cover-up but still has love for her university. It's not as if everyone affiliated with Penn State hasn't taken stock in what has happened.

It's OK to be outraged, and there are more than enough stories being written at ESPN and other places that express the outrage. My assignment was to survey the scene in State College, the different emotions and images taking place there. I came away thinking Penn State remains a good place with a lot of good people, but it's also a place where a terrible, unforgivable thing took place.

Steve from Madison, Wis., writes: Adam, hypothetically if Russell Wilson were back in a Badger uniform this year, would you put money on the Badgers at least getting to (if not winning) the national title game??

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I'd put money on Wisconsin repeating as Big Ten champions, but it's tough to say Wilson would automatically put the Badgers in the national title game. The defense still has some issues -- weak pass rush, secondary depth -- and the offensive line once again has to replace some studs (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler). Wilson certainly would make Wisconsin more of a complete team and add the passing element to an offense that we know will run the ball effectively. That said, Wisconsin still faces several road tests, visiting Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue, as well as a potentially tricky Week 2 trip to Oregon State. While I'm still dumbfounded how Wisconsin managed to lose three games last season, I don't know if I see the Badgers running the table, either, which is what it would take for them to reach the national title game this season.

Alex G. from Fairfield, Iowa, writes: Am I missing something? What is all the hype about Michigan State this year? I've been on BHGP (fantastic Iowa blog) and everybody seems to be more worried about Michigan State than anybody else this year! They lost their starting quarterback, their top 3 receivers, and some key rushers who accounted for almost half their yards! Why is everyone worried about them?

Adam Rittenberg: Defense, defense, defense. That's the reason, Alex. While you're right about all the holes Michigan State must fill on offense, it has a defense that can carry the team a very long way this fall. The Spartans were a top 10 unit last season that has a chance to be as good or even better this season. They return quite possibly the Big Ten's best secondary, led by cornerback Johnny Adams, a standout linebacker tandem in Max Bulllough and Denicos Allen, and a talented front four led by end William Gholston. They also retained coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who recently talked to me about the benefits of sticking to a scheme over the years. Michigan State also should be a much stronger running team this fall as feature back Le'Veon Bell returns along with most of the offenisve line. Will Michigan State need to win some games 17-13? No doubt. But they have the type of defense to go a very long way.

Kelley from Los Angeles writes: I, along with many other Penn Staters, have stood by my school and my coach since all of this came to a head in November. And while the Freeh report undoubtedly shows some severe failings on the part of JoePa and some of the administration, it doesn't change how I feel about my school, and it doesn't change the vast amount of good that JoePa did for Penn State. Living in Los Angeles I have seen the commentary in the LA Times and other local news outlets, as well as here on the blog and other national sites when I take my study breaks, and frankly, all of these people calling for the tearing down of Joe's statue make me angry. I'm not denying he screwed up big time, even he admitted it, but what is so wrong, is these people who don't know Penn State, who haven't been there, and whose only knowledge about the school has come in the past few months, all of them telling me what OUR school should do, when none of them have any idea about what their "suggestions" would actually mean to the school. If you want to get JoePa off campus to punish him, it will take more than taking down his statue by the stadium. It would mean taking his name of the library he donated millions to and raised millions more for, and likewise with the spiritual center. It would mean taking away funding that he helped to raise not just from the athletic department, but from every college and major that the school offers. It would mean trying to erase the memories of hundreds of thousands of students and alumni because in some way, shape, or form, we were all touched and aided by JoePa. Taking down Joe's statue doesn't fix anything. The NCAA imposing the "death penalty" doesn't fix anything. You know what it does? It hurts a community that is already suffering more than anyone not in it could understand. It tells us that our pain isn't enough. It tells us that we aren't doing enough to try to fix the problem and make amends even as every person connected is fired and we are raising money and donating time and effort to children's abuse causes. It tells us that human goodness isn't to be relied upon when all anyone seems to want to do is punish a plethora of individuals who had no idea, and could have no idea, that any of this had ever happened, just because a small group of people made some epic mistakes.Our community is strong, and so is our University, and we will come through this, but everyone needs to let the courts handle our punishment, and stop trying us in the courts of public opinion. We will be paying for the sins of these individuals for decades to come, but stop trying to make us take down the one symbol we have left to remind us of how great we once were, and what we can strive to be again.

Adam Rittenberg: Kelley, thanks for sharing your perspective. Always enjoy your thoughts on Penn State. I think you're right about this being an intensely Penn State issue. I encountered that last week when I talked to people in State College about the scandal, the statue, Paterno, etc. People who attended Penn State or grew up in the region have a different perspective because it hits so close to home. The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' David Jones wrote a good column about this today, in which he stated, "A lot of people are yelling a lot of declarations about the statue who have no emotional investment in the school; they just want to be noticed. I think the opinions of all interested Penn State alums and students should be the driving force in what happens to the statue, not national windbags trying to get ratings and Twitter followers." While I realize some of the windbags Jones refers to might be ESPN colleagues of mine, I understand his point. The only issue I'd debate with you is your line about the "one symbol we have left to remind us of how great we once were." Really? The Paterno statue is all you've got at Penn State? It's a great school, and there are other things that should remind you of the good things that happen there. Seems like you're selling your school a bit short there.

Scott from Traverse City, Mich., writes: Adam,I have always been impressed with your ability to answer questions during the chats. Do you have all of the necessary information at your fingertips or do you have a special set-up (i.e., multiple laptops set to the most informative webpages for the the most difficult questions or quick stat checks)? Do you have to spend time memorizing the names of various starters throughout the league or does the information just come over time?Just wondering as an increasingly passionate sports nerd.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, when you cover Big Ten football year-round like we do, you commit most of this stuff to memory. If I received a chat question about a random walk-on or a third-stringer, I probably would need to look him up. But I don't get asked about those guys much. The biggest benefit of this job is you truly become an expert on the subject matter because we write about it constantly and in such quantity. I've always said that individual fan bases are the true experts and usually know their teams better than we do. What Brian and I provide, as year-round Big Ten bloggers, is a knowledge of the entire league that few have. It's just the nature of what we do.

Wisconsin spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
2011 record: 11-3

2011 conference record: 6-2 (Big Ten champions)

Returning starters:

Offense: 5; Defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners:

RB Montee Ball, LT Ricky Wagner, OL Travis Frederick, WR Jared Abbrederis, RB James White, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie

Key losses:

QB Russell Wilson, OG Kevin Zeitler, C Peter Konz, WR Nick Toon, DT Patrick Butrym, S Aaron Henry, CB Antonio Fenelus

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Montee Ball* (1,923 yards)

Passing: Russell Wilson (3,175 yards)

Receiving: Jared Abbrederis* (933 yards)

Tackles: Mike Taylor* (150)

Sacks: Beau Allen* (4)

Interceptions: Shelton Johnson*, Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus (4)

Spring answers

1. Keep on running: The Badgers are enjoying the luxury of returning last year's Heisman finalist and record-breaking running back Montee Ball, who somehow managed to look a step faster this spring. They also still have the very capable James White, who produced 713 rushing yards a year ago. And while both sat out the spring game -- Ball as a precaution, White with a minor injury -- redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon stepped in and showed he could be the next star tailback in Madison. The Badgers can always run the ball, and this year could be a special season for the ground game.

2. Secondary matters: All-conference performers Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus are gone from the secondary, but Wisconsin was feeling good about its defensive backs this spring. Head coach Bret Bielema said Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson could be the best safety duo he's had during his tenure. Devin Smith is coming back from a foot injury and should fare well as a fifth-year senior starting cornerback. With fifth-year senior Marcus Cromartie also returning at corner, this is an experienced group that is looking to atone for a couple of late breakdowns last season.

3. Strong in the middle: Despite a few snapping problems in a late spring scrimmage, Travis Frederick looked good in replacing star center Peter Konz this spring. Ryan Groy appears ready to become an all-conference type player at left guard. Across from them lies the strength of the defensive line, with Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and the developing Warren Herring looming as potentially disruptive defensive tackles. If football is won in the middle of the trenches, then Wisconsin is well set up to defend its Big Ten title.

Fall questions

1. O'Brien to the rescue: The Badgers' passing game had its share of struggles this spring, with only Joe Brennan and walk-on redshirt freshman Joel Stave healthy at quarterback. Stave moved ahead of Brennan by the end of spring, but neither showed great consistency. Of course, Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien is on the way, hoping to replicate the success of Russell Wilson. That's far from guaranteed, though, and O'Brien will have to play more like he did as a freshman for the Terps than as a sophomore to make Wisconsin's passing game a true threat.

2. Who else at receiver? Abbrederis missed the spring with a foot injury, giving the coaching staff a long look at the possible contenders to complement him in the receiving corps. It was a very young and inexperienced group that had its ups and downs. Players like Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond have good size and ability but need to learn how to compete every down. Isaiah Williams showed some potential late in the spring. Having good tight ends and excellent pass-catchers out of the backfield should help, but the receiving group remains very much a work in progress.

3. Living on the edge: Wisconsin's defensive line was stout in the middle this spring but lacked a dynamic pass rusher on the edge. The coaching staff hopes that junior David Gilbert can fill that role, but he was out all spring with a foot injury that cut his 2011 season short. If Gilbert isn't all the way healthy or falls short of expectations, there aren't a lot of other candidates. The Badgers' defense is going to be solid with an experienced secondary and two stars at linebacker in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, but it only reaches the elite level if someone can consistently get to the quarterback.
On the first day of the NFL draft, the Big Ten was like one of those players sitting in the green room waiting and waiting for his name to get called as everyone starts to feel really uncomfortable.

The first Big Ten player to go off the board was Iowa's Riley Reiff, who had been projected as high as the Top 10 or 15 in mock drafts just a few weeks ago. He went 23rd. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it matches the lowest-ever top pick from the league; Minnesota offensive lineman John Williams went No. 23 in 1968.

But after the long wait, the Big Ten had four of the final 10 picks of the first round, including a surprise second selection for Illinois. Let's review:

No. 23: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa to Detroit Lions

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “"Words can't describe how happy I am right now," Reiff said. "I'm super excited to be a Lion. I really can't put into words what I'm actually feeling, but I'm excited. The Lion are a great team, and there will be great seasons ahead."

My take: Reiff slipped pretty far from his original projection, but he was still the second offensive lineman drafted, as expected. And he ended up in a good situation, with a young team that appears to be on the rise. Detroit has five starters on the line, so he can learn for a year before potentially taking over for Jeff Backus.

No. 26: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois to Houston

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “When my name was called my emotions just flooded,” Mercilus said. “I was getting a little nervous, because I thought I might go a little higher, so I was really happy when I got the call. I can’t wait to go to work with the Houston Texans. From day one I want to go prove to them that they spent their money well on me.”

My take: Mercilus is another guy who could have gone higher, but ends up on a potential playoff team. With Mario Williams gone, he has a chance to step in right away and start at defensive end. If he plays with the same high motor and intensity he did last season with the Illini, he should be an effective pass-rusher, though he'll need to bulk up a little.

No. 27: Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin to Cincinnati

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I had a good senior year," Zeitler said. "I tried to put everything I had on the field. Once the draft process started, I just tried to prove to coaches, off the field I take it just as seriously as on the field. I try to improve every day, any way I can. I guess it stuck."

My take: The first-round selection capped a meteoric rise for Zeitler, who was an honorable mention Big Ten performer as a junior. He blossomed into an All-American as a senior, and he rocketed up draft boards late in the process. He might not excite Bengals fans, but he's one of the safest picks of the first round, and has a clear path to starting as a rookie.

No. 30: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois, to San Francisco

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I was kind of caught off guard,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a blessing that I was taken in the first round by a great organization. I think it’s a perfect match. I can’t wait to go out to San Francisco, work with a great coach in Coach Harbaugh, and go to work with some talented players. It’s a great position to be in, and a great organization.

My take: This was the stunner of the first round, from a Big Ten perspective. Jenkins wasn't being projected as a first-rounder by anybody that I saw. But we witnessed Jenkins' explosive ability during the first half of last season, when he was one of the most productive receivers in the nation before Illinois' offense dropped off a cliff. As we saw in last year's playoffs, the 49ers desperately need help at receiver, so the pick makes sense. What doesn't make much sense: the Illini had two first-round picks (at least) on their roster last season, and lost their final six regular-season games.

So that was that for the first round and the Big Ten. Some very good players from the league are left on the board, including Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Penn State's Devon Still, Nebraska's Lavonte David, and on and on and on.
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.
MADISON, Wis. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."
The 2012 NFL draft is right around the corner, and a group of Big Ten defenders will be in the spotlight next week in New York.

The Big Ten boasts a group of defenders who could be selected anywhere in the first three rounds. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have produced their latest mock drafts, which show some disagreement about the Big Ten's top defensive players.

In McShay's newest top 32 prospects Insider, he has Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy at No. 22, a jump of 10 spots from his previous ranking. But Worthy is the lone Big Ten defender in McShay's rundown (offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Adams are Nos. 18 and 32, respectively).

Kiper's latest Big Board Insider has Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus at No. 18 and Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David at No. 24. Worthy doesn't appear in Kiper's top 25, and Kiper pegs him as an early-second-round selection. Kiper lists Reiff and Wisconsin offensive linemen Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler as first-round picks (outside the top 25).

While projections of the late-first round typically vary a lot, it's interesting to see McShay so high on Worthy but not so high on Mercilus and David, while Kiper favors the latter two. Other potentially high draft picks such as Penn State DT Devon Still, Michigan DT Mike Martin, Nebraska DL Jared Crick and Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard don't appear on either list.

Kiper also projects the first three rounds for both the AFC and NFC teams, based on what the teams need the most and which players they value more than others. Some notable Big Ten mentions include Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins (third round, Philadelphia), Devon Still (third round, Chicago), Iowa WR Marvin McNutt (third round, Minnesota), Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins (second round, New York Jets), Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler (first round, San Francisco) and Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin (third round, Seattle).
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has produced another set of top 5 lists , which examine the top prospects at each position as April gets closer. The scouting combine is all wrapped up, and pro day fever is upon us as players rise and fall on the draft boards.

Let's see where Big Ten players rank in Kiper’s rundowns.

No. 1 fullback: Bradie Ewing, Wisconsin
No. 5 tight end: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State
No. 2 offensive tackle: Riley Reiff, Iowa
No. 5 offensive tackle: Mike Adams, Ohio State
No. 4 guard: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
No. 1 center: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
No. 3 center: David Molk, Michigan
No. 5 center: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
No. 3 defensive end: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
No. 5 defensive tackle: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
No. 2 outside linebacker: Lavonte David, Nebraska
No. 2 kicker: Philip Welch, Wisconsin
No. 4 kicker: Derek Dimke, Illinois
No. 5 punter: Eric Guthrie, Iowa

Thoughts: Center was undoubtedly the Big Ten’s strongest position in 2011, so it's not surprising to see three players in the top 5. Brewster’s stock seemed to drop a bit during the season and in the pre-draft events, while Molk improved his position and Konz appears to have made the right choice in bypassing his senior season. Linthicum and Adams are two players who helped their cause in pre-draft events, and David also has put himself in a good position. David's Nebraska teammate, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, has seen his stock drop after being pegged as a likely first-round pick several months ago.

I'm surprised not to see Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins and Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still on the list (although Still is pictured in the story). Cousins appeared to show well at the combine and should find himself in that next mix of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. It wouldn't surprise me to see Cousins drafted ahead of Brock Osweiler and potentially Brandon Weeden. Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, hasn't received as much hype as I thought as a potential first-round pick.

I might favor Dimke over Welch after the way Dimke ended his career, but Kiper has been high on Welch for some time.

It'll be interesting to see how these lists change after all the pro days are complete.
Every year, it seems like a Wisconsin offensive lineman emerges to become an All-American.

Two years ago, John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi earned All-America honors. Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler did the same in 2011. If it happens again this year, a guy who knows as much about computers as he does football seems like the smart bet.

[+] EnlargeTravis Frederick
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJunior Travis Frederick will be counted on to hold up the Badgers' offensive line in 2012.
Junior Travis Frederick started at left guard for the Badgers last year before Konz got hurt against Minnesota. Midway through the Illinois game the next week, Frederick slid over to take Konz's spot at center after Ryan Groy had some snapping problems. Frederick stayed there for the win over Penn State and the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State, and Wisconsin didn't miss a beat without Konz, whom many project as a first-round NFL pick next month.

Frederick could assume Konz's former role on a full-time basis this season. That's mostly where he's been working out during winter conditioning drills, though he'll likely also see time at guard when Wisconsin opens spring practice next week. Wherever he ends up, Frederick knows the bar has been set awfully high by previous stars on the Thick Red Line.

"All we can do is hope to carry on what they left behind," Frederick said. "Obviously that's a goal of mine, to be able to play at a high level and get that sort of recognition, because that means you're helping your team. Whether or not I get that individual recognition, I'm going to do what I can to help the team, be it at center or guard or wherever it is."

Frederick believes one reason for the robust tradition at Wisconsin is that offensive linemen have always been able to look up to strong leaders. When he was a freshman, he followed the work habits of Moffitt and guard Bill Nagy. Konz and Zeitler helped set the standard last season. This year's O-line group is young, with Ricky Wagner and Robert Burge the only seniors. And since Wagner, the lone upperclassman with any starting experience, is a quiet guy by nature, Frederick has worked this winter on his leadership skills.

"Ryan Groy and I are trying to take over and be a little more vocal," he said. "We're just helping the group along with the transition we've been faced with."

Replacing three starters — all-conference tackle Josh Oglesby also graduated — isn't the only transition the Badgers' big uglies face. For the first time in their careers, they will have a new position coach in Mike Markuson after Bob Bostad left to join Paul Chryst's staff at Pittsburgh. There's also a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, and the players are eager to see what changes are in store for them.

"It's been kind of odd for all of us because we haven't really had a playbook yet," Frederick said. "Some of the stuff is just starting to trickle down and some of it is just starting to get set in stone. So for us, it's kind of a waiting game of, when will we get this new stuff so we can try to learn it?"

But head coach Bret Bielema has promised the offense won't look much different, and why would it? Wisconsin has had one of the most successful and consistent offensive attacks in the country, led by its powerful line and running game. While quarterback remains an uncertainty heading into spring and possibly summer, Montee Ball is back for his senior season after leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns.

"That meant a lot to us that he came back," Frederick said. "It told us he trusted the offensive line to help him continue to get good numbers."

Frederick has earned the trust of the coaching staff over his career. He was the first true freshman offensive lineman ever to start an opener for Wisconsin when he lined up at center against Northern Illinois in 2009. He took a redshirt year in 2010 when the Badgers were stuffed with talent on the line and came back last year to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors.

The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder is one of the strongest players in the program, having reportedly squatted 730 pounds with a 500-pound bench press last year. He may also be one of the team's smartest player, challenging himself with a double major in computer engineering and computer science. You might expect to find a man his size at the buffet line, but he spends much of his time away from football in the computer lab.

"I always wondered how computers worked," he said. "To think that everything in a computer comes down to electrons and electricity flowing through wires is really kind of amazing to me. To figure out how it works and understand it down to a semiconductor transistor level is really very interesting."

Frederick's recent class projects have included writing programs for operating systems and designing an integer divider coprocessor.

"It's been a lot of fun," he said.

We'll have to take his word on that. But the idea that Travis Frederick can become the next star on the Wisconsin offensive line certainly does compute.
We've had 2012 mock NFL drafts seemingly since this draft class was in elementary school. But all the projections and prognosticating lacked one essential ingredient: the testing process.

That happened this past week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, so now evaluators have a better sense of who are the legitimate prospects and who might be questionable.

ESPN's own draft expert, Mel Kiper Jr., offered his risers and fallers after the combine dust settled, and they included a few notable Big Ten names. Among those Kiper said helped themselves in Indy were:
Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: "Not great in any one area, but solid across all of them, and Cousins has intangibles that evaluators love. I can see him safely into the second round now, where before a third-round grade was a better bet. A good week for him."

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: "Really encouraging for David's stock that he got his weight to 233 and still showed off plenty of athleticism, including a 4.56. He could be a solid second-rounder now and is a tackling machine."

Not everyone had the best showings in the combine. Here are the Big Ten products Kiper says he has questions about after the combine:
Ohio State RB Dan Herron: "I like Herron, but thought he needed to make a splash here given the missed time in 2011. That didn't happen, confirming a late-round grade."

Penn State DT Devon Still: "He derives a lot of value from being able to jump into a 3-4 or 4-3, but still has been sliding on my board. He needs to show more explosiveness, because he's not a great penetrator."

Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard: "Solid everywhere, but not great in any one area, Dennard is a good prospect who didn't test great, limiting the chances he goes in Round 1."

Kiper adjusted his new Big Board based on the combine performances, and now only two Big Ten players appear in his list of top 25 prospects, and they're both offensive linemen: Iowa's Riley Reiff (No. 8) and Wisconsin's Peter Konz (25).

Kiper also has his new list of top 5s by position , and there has been some serious movement in his tiers. Still, the Penn State All-American and Big Ten defensive player of the year, now does not even rank in Kiper's list of the top 5 defensive tackles. Michigan State's Jerel Worthy is No. 5.

Offensive line appears to be the strength for the Big Ten in this draft. Kiper lists Reiff as the No. 2 offensive tackle, with Ohio State's Mike Adams No. 4. The Big Ten owns the center list, with Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Mike Brewster ranking 1-2-3, respectively. (Molk moved ahead of Brewster with his combine showing, which comes as no surprise to Molk.) Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler is rated as the No. 3 guard.

Elsewhere, Kiper has Wisconsin's Bradie Ewing as the No. 1 fullback, Michigan State's Brian Linthicum as the No. 5 tight end and Nebraska's David as the No. 2 outside linebacker. Dennard did not crack the list at corner, and Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is nowhere to be found on the defensive ends chart. Kiper says Michigan State's Cousins is the No. 6 quarterback in this draft.

Colleague Todd McShay has five Big Ten players in his new top 32 list : Reiff (10th), Adams (23rd), Worthy (25th), Konz (27th) and Still (28th).

Don't worry, though. We still have pro days, private workouts and nearly two full months of evaluations before the draft begins.

B1G post-weekend combine update

February, 27, 2012
Spring practice is just around the corner, but there was plenty of action on the field at the NFL combine this weekend in Indianapolis.

While the evaluations continue today and Tuesday, several position groups have completed their testing. Let's take a look at the top performances from Big Ten players. Some standouts in the workouts: Michigan WR Junior Hemingway, Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin, Iowa G Adam Gettis and Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson.

Before looking at position groups, we'll examine the top overall performers to date.


40-yard dash
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for fourth (4.39 seconds)
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for 13th (4.45 seconds)
Bench press
  • Michigan C David Molk ranked second with 41 repetitions of 225 pounds
  • Michigan DT Mike Martin tied for third with 36 repetitions
Vertical jump
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for fifth at 39.5 inches
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for ninth at 38.5 inches
Broad jump
  • Michigan WR Junior Hemingway tied for 10th at 10 feet, 4 inches
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for 10th at 10 feet, 4 inches
3-cone drill
  • Michigan's Hemingway ranked second at 6.59 seconds
  • Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore tied for fourth at 6.73 seconds
20-yard shuttle
  • Michigan's Hemingway ranked second at 3.98 seconds
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore tied for fourth at 4.03 seconds
  • Ohio State RB Dan Herron ranked sixth at 4.04 seconds
  • Iowa WR Marvin McNutt ranked ninth at 4.07 seconds
  • Wisconsin's Wilson ranked 10th at 4.09 seconds
60-yard shuttle
  • Michigan's Hemingway tied for third at 11.16 seconds
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for third at 11.16 seconds
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore tied for 14th at 11.47 seconds

Now onto the position groups ...

  • Wisconsin's Wilson ranked second in 40-yard dash (4.55 seconds); sixth in vertical jump (34 inches); fourth in broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches); fifth in 3-cone drill (6.97 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.09 seconds)
  • Michigan State's Kirk Cousins ranked 12th in 40-yard dash (4.93 seconds); 14th in vertical jump (28.5 inches); tied for ninth in broad jump (9 feet, 1 inch); seventh in 3-cone drill (7.05 seconds); 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.5 seconds)
Running back
  • Michigan State's Edwin Baker tied for 10th in 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds); tied for 12th in bench press (20 reps of 225 pounds); tied for 12th in vertical jump (35 inches); and tied for 14th in 20-yard shuttle (4.31 seconds).
  • Ohio State's Dan Herron ranked seventh in bench press (22 reps of 225 pounds); tied for 12th in vertical jump (35 inches); tied for 12th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches); sixth in 3-cone drill (6.97 seconds); second in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); and fifth in 60-yard shuttle (11.6 seconds).
  • Wisconsin FB Bradie Ewing tied for fifth in vertical jump (36.5 inches); tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet); tied for 14th in 3-cone drill (7.14 seconds); tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.16 seconds); and seventh in 60-yard shuttle (11.81 seconds).
Wide receiver
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds); tied for seventh in vertical jump (38.5 inches); and tied for eighth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches).
  • Michigan State's Martin ranked 11th in 40-yard dash (4.45 seconds); tied for fourth in vertical jump (39.5 inches); tied for 14th in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches); tied for eighth in 3-cone drill (6.85 seconds); tied for 10th in 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds); and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (11.16 seconds).
  • Michigan's Hemingway tied for third in bench press (21 reps at 225 pounds); tied for eighth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches); ranked first in 3-cone drill (6.59 seconds); tied for first in 20-yard shuttle (3.98 seconds); and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (11.16 seconds).
  • Wisconsin's Nick Toon ranked 12th in bench press (18 reps at 225 pounds) and ranked 12th in vertical jump (37.5 inches).
  • Iowa's Marvin McNutt tied for 13th in vertical jump (37 inches); ranked fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); and ranked 12th in 60-yard shuttle (11.62 seconds).
  • Ohio State's DeVier Posey tied for 10th in broad jump (10 feet, 3 inches) and tied for 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).
Tight end
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore ranked fifth in 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds); tied for fifth in bench press (21 reps at 225 pounds); fifth in vertical jump (35.5 seconds); seventh in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches); first in 3-cone drill (6.73 seconds); first in 20-yard shuttle (4.03 seconds); and third in 60-yard shuttle (11.47 seconds).
Defensive line (workouts take place Monday)
  • Michigan's Martin tied for second in bench press (36 reps of 225 pounds)
Offensive line
  • Iowa G Adam Gettis ranked third in 40-yard dash (5 seconds); tied for third in vertical jump (31.5 inches); second in broad jump (9 feet, 4 inches); tied for ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.65 seconds)
  • Iowa T Riley Reiff tied for eighth in 40-yard dash (5.23 seconds);
  • Illinois T Jeff Allen ranked 15th in 40-yard dash (5.28 seconds); tied for 14th in broad jump (8 feet, 6 inches)
  • Michigan's Molk ranked first in bench press (41 reps at 225 pounds);
  • Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler tied for third in bench press (32 reps at 225 pounds); tied for 14th in vertical jump (29 inches); eighth in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds)
  • Penn State G Johnnie Troutman tied for eighth in bench press (31 reps at 225 pounds)
  • Ohio State C Mike Brewster tied for 13th in bench press (29 reps at 225 pounds); ranked 15th in 3-cone drill (7.73 seconds); tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.6 seconds)

Big Ten mailblog

February, 21, 2012
Let's do this.

Glenn from Seattle writes: Adam, I think you're still missing Travis from Omaha's point when he says "the ONLY reason divisional competition matters is for the tiebreaker itself." Nebraska's loss total this year is what mattered, not the fact that they were divisional games. The losses to Michigan and Northwestern might as well have been to Ohio State and Purdue. Divisional games are just games — they only mean something more when the tiebreaker comes into play. For divisional games to truly matter you would have to ignore cross-division games when determining division champions unless you needed a tiebreaker. THEN count the cross division games to break the tie. The Big Ten and Nebraska's former Big XII don't really have division champions — they have conference top seeds where one is required to be from each division. It's a subtle but important distinction. Or to put it another way: conference championships typically don't count non-conference games except in the event of a tie, so why should division championships count non-division games?

Adam Rittenberg: Glenn, you bring up some good points here. I guess my view is that the tiebreaker often will matter, and therefore the division games often will mean more. Look at the Big Ten standings between 1998-2010: there was a tie for first place seven times. In 2010, the tie was broken by the final BCS standings because Michigan State and Ohio State didn't play. We were left with co-champions, which no one liked, especially me, and a questionable system of breaking ties. The beauty of divisions is that teams are guaranteed to play the other five squads, which in many cases will break any ties through head-to-head results rather than a questionable rankings system like the BCS standings. Also, a division loss equals a win for another team you're directly competing against to get to Indianapolis. A cross-division loss hurts you, but it only indirectly helps your division competitors rather than directly helping them.

Judy Tibesar from St. Paul, Minn., writes: My son's name is TIM TIBESAR not Tisebar.

Adam Rittenberg: Sorry, Mrs. Tibesar!!! We'll get it right in the future. Hoping to talk with Tim for a Q&A soon.

Evan from Arusha, Tanzania, writes: Hey Adam, how much of a difference, recruiting wise, do you think it made not having O'Brien joining PSU after the Super Bowl? It has been pretty obvious that Michigan and OSU have really utilized their time with these juniors, which PSU and O'Brien's staff may not have been able to use.

Adam Rittenberg: Evan, Bill O'Brien made a point to try and be in State College for recruiting events while he was still with the Patriots. He also attended the junior day event this past weekend. Would it have helped to have him fully focused on Penn State the day he was hired? Sure. Would it have made a dramatic difference? Probably not. It's vital for O'Brien to establish himself with recruits and high school coaches during the coming months. While the 2013 class is important, I'm thinking the next two classes (2014, 2015) are when O'Brien and Penn State need to make a big splash. Retaining top recruiter Larry Johnson was an excellent move, but Penn State might have some recruiting speed bumps during the initial transition.

Ryan from Omaha writes: I don't really understand why so many people don't believe in Taylor Martinez. If you look at his stats he completed 162 of his 288 passing attempts for 2,089 yards for 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He completed 56.2% of his passes. In 1995 Tommie Frazier completed 92 of his 163 passing attempts for 1,362 yards for 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. He complets 56.4% of his passes. In two seasons at Nebraska Martinez has thrown 3,720 yards and Frazier threw 3,521 yards in four seasons at Nebraska. Will you please tell me why most people say he can't throw or lead Nebraska's offense.

Adam Rittenberg: Ryan, it's nice to see there's one Taylor Martinez fan in the great state of Nebraska. One difference is that Frazier operated in a true option offense, while the Huskers rely on Martinez to throw the ball more in the current system. Martinez attempted 125 more passes in 2011 than Frazier did in 1995. Also, Frazier had a quarterback rating of 156.14, which ranked second in the Big Eight in 1995, while Martinez's rating of 126.52 ranked ninth in the Big Ten. Frazier had four more touchdown passes and four fewer interceptions than Martinez. That's a big difference. Like many teams, Nebraska lives and dies by turnover margin, which hasn't been great in recent years.

It doesn't really hold water to compare Martinez in 2011 with Frazier in 1995, but I also think Martinez did some good things in the offense last season that tend to get overlooked. His critics point to his decision-making, which needs to improve, and his throwing motion, which looks worse than it actually is. But Martinez gets a raw deal at times, and he's still got some time to make strides. He had some really nice performances and showed some resilience against Ohio State a week after struggling mightily at Wisconsin.

Eli from New York writes: 10.6 Million. Nothing on the first page of your site. I bet you Sandusky's trial will be on the front page for a week.

Adam Rittenberg: Eli, I acknowledged Penn State's tremendous work at THON this year in today's lunch links. It's a wonderful event that gave Penn Staters a chance to celebrate, take pride in their school and generate a lot of money for a great cause. But you're not going to see stories about student fundraisers in the news rail of a national sports Web site. Penn State is one of many schools to hold similar events, and they're all terrific, but they're not going to appear on the front of the site. The Sandusky scandal is a major national news story. It generated national attention and still does. We know Penn State fans want it to go away, but it's not going away. We can debate the coverage of the scandal, but the attention on the case, and its connection to sports, is why you'll see it appear on the news rail.

Ben from New Berlin, Wis., writes: Adam, just asking for some clarification on your rankings on the Top 25 players. Are you ranking them based on their values (similar to MVP voting) or based on how good they are at their positions. I see guys like Konz and Zeitler go 17 and 20 but are both All-Americans and I know there weren't 20 All-Americans in the Big10. Are your ranking more based off of valuable positions? Should we expect the Top 10 to be QBs and RBs? Just curious, what sort of ranking would Joe Thomas and Jake Long get on your list?

Adam Rittenberg: Ben, good question. We're ranking them based on their value to the team and their impact on their team's season in 2011. There are certain positions we value over others, and while I can assure you the top 10 won't only be QBs and RBs, it won't be all offensive linemen, either. Without speaking for Brian, I tend to value offensive tackles above centers and centers above guards. You would have to be a pretty special guard to crack my top 15, but I'd definitely include a tackle in my top three. I had Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi at No. 6 in the 2010 rankings. Both Thomas and Long undoubtedly would be in my top 5 if I was blogging back in 2006 and 2007.

Stephen from Pennsylvania writes: Do you have Northwestern having a good year next year? I believe they are the underdog in the Big Ten, but I want to hear someone else's opinion. At best, I think they could get nine wins, what do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, I think Northwestern faces some big hurdles in 2012. The biggest issue is a defense that hasn't been right for the better part of the past two seasons. Northwestern simply doesn't have enough playmakers on the defensive side and has one unit (secondary) that consistently ranks near the bottom of the league. The key to the season will be the younger defenders who saw significant action in 2011. Will they step up and make more plays, or will Northwestern continue to have breakdowns? The Wildcats also play three nonconference games against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences, and while it's not murderer's row -- Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College -- it'll be tough to go undefeated. While there are some question marks on offense, Northwestern has a track record of finding productive players. Nine wins definitely seems like a stretch. If Northwestern wins seven or eight, it would be a big success.

Jeb from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Can we get something straight. I get so sick of hearing that if Wisconsin would have made 2 plays last year they could have went undefeated. This is true for the Ohio State game, but it is not for the MSU game. We were tied when the Hail Mary happened and would have went to overtime if it had fallen incomplete, at which point it was probably 50/50 who would have won. So please stop propagating the myth that Wisconsin was 2 plays away from going undefeated last year, they had a lot more work to do if they were going to win the MSU regular season game.

Adam Rittenberg: Jeb, that's a fair point. Wisconsin would have had to make several plays in overtime to outlast the Spartans. It seemed like the Badgers had the momentum, though, after erasing their fourth-quarter deficit to tie up the game. Wisconsin also ranked second nationally in red zone offense, which is basically what overtime in college football boils down to. The Badgers scored 64 touchdowns on 75 trips inside the red zone and failed to score only four times. They led the nation in points scored in the red zone (468) and ranked second in trips to the red zone. Michigan State ranked 45th nationally in red zone offense with 34 touchdowns in 56 trips. On the flip side, Michigan State was much better in red zone defense (22nd nationally) than Wisconsin (77th). It would have been interesting to see how overtime would have turned out. But thanks to Michigan State's heroics, it doesn't matter.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...


Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
The Big Ten top 25 player rankings roll forward on this Valentine's Day as we reach No. 20. We remind you once again that these postseason rankings are based on 2011 performance only and not any other factors like future potential.

Now let's spotlight a guy whom we didn't expect to see on this list in the preseason ...

No. 20: Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin, Sr., 6-4, 315

Preseason rankings: Not ranked

2011 numbers: Started at right guard in all 14 games for the Badgers. He was part of an offensive line that paved the way for the nation's No. 11 rushing offense, as Wisconsin averaged 235.6 yards per game on the ground.

Why he's here: Wisconsin's All-America tradition on the offensive line continued in 2011, thanks in part to the terrific improvement that Zeitler made from the previous season.

An honorable mention All-Big Ten performer in 2010, Zeitler took his game to the next level as a senior. He provided an excellent escort for Montee Ball, either by locking up a defender on the line of scrimmage or pulling to create space on the left side. Zeitler was named an AFCS first-team All-American and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. He should also continue the Badgers' NFL offensive line tradition, as he is expected to be selected in the April draft. Offensive guards are often anonymous and don't make a lot of appearances on lists such as these. But Zeitler's 2011 season deserves special recognition.


No. 21: Marcus Coker, RB, Iowa
No. 22
: Silas Redd, RB, Penn State
No. 23
: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
No. 24
: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
No. 25
: Fitz Toussaint, RB, Michigan

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

February, 9, 2012
E. Gordon Gee says if you're not sending questions into this mailbag, you need to get a life.

Let's answer some emails:

Ben from Connecticut writes: If the Big Ten's playoff proposal is adopted, do you see activist voters determining homefield advantage in the 2 v 3 matchup? Given what happened between Alabama/Ok. State, Florida/Michigan, and Texas/Cal, I'd be a lot more comfortable if a body more accountable than the BCS were in charge of seeding. I don't want a bunch of voters bumping Florida up a notch so they don't have to travel to Madison in December.

Brian Bennett: Ben, I think the poll jockeying would likely involve who's No. 4 vs. No. 5 instead of the home sites. For example, had that system been in place this year, I believe voters would have moved Oregon, which finished No. 5, ahead of Stanford for the No. 4 spot since the Ducks beat Stanford and won the Pac-12 title. But I totally agree that a better system than the current BCS model is needed to determine the matchups, because using the coaches' poll is just inviting massive conflicts of interest into the process.

Chuck D. from Mt Morris, Mich., writes: I thought it was interesting that after the Big Ten announced that they were looking into a playoff, Mike Silve seems to be backing off now. Everyone always comments that the SEC and Big 12 were interested in the playoff four years ago, but is the SEC having a change of heart with their run of BCS championships, especially this past championship game? And (possibly) giving up their home field advantage, at least in the semi-final games?

Brian Bennett: Who could blame Mike Slive? The current system has allowed his league to win six straight national titles, including this year's when two SEC teams were in the championship game. Slive should be the only guy fighting a change to the BCS system.

Topher from Denver writes: It seems that everyone has gotten so caught up with the reshuffling at Iowa that everyone has forgotten to ask a very important question. Who will be the QB coach? Ken O'Keefe has done a great job, and we have been blessed to have some great QBs. But if any of the internal candidates get the OC position it would make more sense for them to stay with their current position coaching duties rather than trying to take over QBs. So who would be the top candidate to take over QBs?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question. Kirk Ferentz addressed this a little bit on Wednesday but didn't say a whole lot. If current receivers coach Erik Campbell is promoted, then it makes sense for him to keep working with receivers as well. Then I think you could see Iowa bring in somebody from the outside to coach the quarterbacks. Or Ferentz could hire an outside person for the coordinator spot who has experience with the quarterbacks, though promoting from within seems to be his preferred method right now. Those who criticized O'Keefe should recognize what a good job he did developing quarterbacks.

Tim from Niamey, Niger, writes: I usually write Adam, but since he doesn't answer me, I thought I would give you a shot:) I have been reading alot of different articles on the fact that the Buckeyes and Wolverines are back in a big way. After a 6-7 season, even with the hiring of Meyer, isn't that putting the cart before the horse? I mean, don't the Bucks have to go win some big games before they can be declared back? After a mediocre season at best, I am waiting for all this hype to be turned into some wins.

Brian Bennett: Adam ignores all emails from Niger. It's shameful, really. Anyway, this may shock you, but we in the media have a tendency to jump the gun a little bit on stories (no, really). So I see where you're coming from. At the same time, though, Urban Meyer is a proven winner, and it's hard to deny the talent he's bringing in. Ohio State had a rough 2011 but wasn't that far away from winning most of its games, and that was with a rookie head coach, a freshman quarterback, several suspensions and all kinds of off-the-field distractions. Yes, the Buckeyes still have to prove it on the field, but there's every reason to believe that will happen, and quickly.

John from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Adam keeps saying that Nebraska needs to get more recruits from B1G country. The way I see it is that Pelini and Co. need to go after the best recruits out there, not dependent on their location. If there is a good player somewhere in B1G country and there was a slightly better player from Texas/Cali/Florida why not go after the better player? It's not like we can't get the player from outside of the B1G (Neb has recruiting ties all over). The only way I really see MORE benefit from getting players in B1G conference territory would be keeping that player away from a conference rival and having to play against him.

Brian Bennett: Well, sure, Nebraska should get the possible player, but I don't think it's that simple. The Huskers used to be able to recruit Texas so well in part because they played games in Texas and had a presence there. Leaving the Big 12 will likely hurt that. Fact is, a lot of recruits want to play either close to home or at a school that will play games in their home areas. That means a more Midwestern focus in recruiting efforts for Nebraska, which isn't blessed with a natural talent base in its own backyard.

Greyson F. from Lansing, Mich., writes: How often do you sing "I am evil Homer" when you see the statue on your desk?

Brian Bennett: About the same number of times I sing the "Itchy & Scratchy" theme song. "They fight, they bite ..."

Diamond G. from Detroit writes: What match up would you like to see in the first year of the B1G Ten vs Pac 12? for me I would like to see Stanford at Wisconsin, Ohio at Oregon, USC at MSU, Arizona at Michigan, Nebraska at Arizona State, and Cali at Iowa are my top choices, what you thing would be a out come if that played?

Brian Bennett: I had some fun with potential matchups back in December, Diamond. You can see those here. The series won't start until 2017, so predicting outcomes is impossible.

Kevin from Mt. Prospect, Ill. writes: No Kain Colter in the top 25? Huge part of the wildcats success this year especially against Nebraska and his multiple uses at QB, running back and WR.

Brian Bennett: Devising a 25-player list in a 12-team league is really hard and means that many great players will be left off. Colter did some really nice work in filling in for Dan Persa, and he might have been the most versatile player in the league. But he also had several games late in the season where he wasn't a big factor once Persa came back. Ultimately, he just missed the cut.

Patrick from Chicago writes: Brian, I enjoyed the NFL combine list. To me it's the perfect bookend to recruiting rankings. That, or graduation rates...but college football isn't about educating students. Wisconsin has 8 going, 7 from various recruiting classes + Russell Wilson. How many of those were 4-star recruits?

Brian Bennett: Using's recruiting rankings, only offensive tackle Josh Oglesby was a four-star prospect out of Wisconsin's eight combine invitees. He was an ESPNU150 prospect rated No. 28 overall in his class. Center Peter Konz was a three-star prospect. The rest -- fullback Bradie Ewing, cornerback Antonio Fenelus, punter Brad Nortman, receiver Nick Toon and offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, did not get ranked by as recruits. Toon was a four-star prospect according to Rivals, which also rated Zeitler and Nortman as three-star prospects. Ewing, Fenelus and even Wilson to some extent would all have to be considered surprises to the recruiting folks.

Tim from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Random thought while watching the Super Bowl: Jason Pierre-Paul was committed to Nebraska before he switched to South Florida...I'm drooling a little thinking about him and Ndamukong Suh destroying quarterbacks.

Brian Bennett: That would have been almost unfair. I covered JPP in his one year at South Florida and knew he had beast written all over him. He developed late because he didn't play the game early on, but what a force he is now.

Keenan from Maine writes: Because I'm bored and I don't care what my hair looks like as long as it's short enough to not pay attention to, I got a haircut to emulate Bielema. It didn't turn out perfect, I over exaggerated the peak so I look more like Tintin. I'm now curious what Bielema tells his barber how to cut his hair. A friend mentioned he was getting a haircut I suggested getting it cut like Hoke, his favorite teams coach, he said only crazy people get their hair cut like coaches or cartoon characters. Now i'm curious how each B1G coach gets their hair cut and maybe what the most common hairstyles are across the board in college.I know....I need a better hobby.

Brian Bennett: E. Gordon Gee agrees, Kevin.