Big Ten: Louis Nzegwu

Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.


Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).

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.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

De'Anthony ThomasKelvin Kuo/US PresswireDe'Anthony Thomas ripped off two huge runs against a Wisconsin defense that gave up 621 yards.
PASADENA, Calif. -- The simple storyline coming out of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO will likely be that Wisconsin simply wasn't fast enough to beat Oregon.

Plenty of evidence would support that conclusion. Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl has a team averaged as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards as Badgers defenders often hopelessly chased from behind.

Wisconsin players bristled at the notion that they couldn't run with Oregon, and not surprisingly. They've heard the too-slow critique for years and have won enough games to disprove much of it. They preferred to blame Monday's defensive performance on things like "gap accountability," missed assignments and just plain brain cramps.

"I think we lost our mind on some plays," defensive end Louis Nzegwu said.

Fans and media are often guilty of not thinking clearly when trying to explain a team's losses. Wisconsin has now dropped two straight Rose Bowls by the thinnest of margins, and there will be those who try to diagnose why the program "can't win the big one." It's the same stuff Oregon heard until late Monday evening. Never mind that the Ducks lost close games in their last two BCS losses, or that the Badgers might be celebrating a second straight Rose win if just a couple of plays had gone differently.

Yet if there's anything the past two Rose Bowls have taught us -- and especially this one -- it's that Wisconsin needs more difference-makers on defense.

That doesn't necessarily mean more speed, though that wouldn't hurt. Even though De'Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James spent a lot of time gliding down the field alone or with a friendly escort, the Badgers didn't come away thinking they couldn't keep up with the Ducks.

"I thought they were fast, but I thought we matched them pretty well," safety Aaron Henry said. "Whenever we did what we were supposed to do, we got off the field. When we allowed them to run through holes without being touched, they took advantage of it."

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used the month of preparation to simulate Oregon's accelerated pace as much as possible. The defense faced two scout team offenses at once during practice and went through extra conditioning work to get ready for the up tempo.

It turned out that didn't play much of a factor. The Ducks often didn't go at warp speed with their snaps. They just scored really quickly. Two examples were particularly galling for Wisconsin.

The Badgers had pinned the ball with a punt on the Oregon 9-yard-line late in the first quarter, only to have Thomas rip off a Rose-record 91-yard touchdown. On the first series after halftime when adjustments should have been fine tuned, the Ducks scored in just 33 seconds on a 64-yard Thomas run.

"With a month to prepare, we shouldn't have had problems like that," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Their mixing up of formations and things they do get you off of your keys. But there's really no excuse for it."

Oregon averaged 8.6 yards per rush -- another Rose record -- and quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 268 yards, his third-highest total of the season. Wisconsin only sacked him twice and did not stop much of anything outside of the Ducks' screen game.

"What hurt us was the play-action pass," Nzegwu said. "We respected their run, and when some of our D-ends hit the edge we couldn't tell whether it was a run or pass. We kept on following the running back, and that kind of hurt our pass rush."

What also hurts is a lack of defenders who can blow up plays on their own. Nzegwu returned a fumble Taylor caused by a hit on Thomas, and Henry came up with an interception. But there were too few other impact plays. Oregon has lost under coach Chip Kelly when it has faced teams with standout defensive line and other disruptive presences, like Nick Fairley of Auburn or Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. The Badgers have many good defensive players -- Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland were All-Big Ten selections -- but not enough stars or blue-chip NFL prospects.

The program has shown it can produce those types of players. Defensive end J.J. Watt won the Lott Trophy last year and just wrapped up a strong rookie regular season for the Houston Texans. Even with Watt last year, though, Wisconsin struggled to contain TCU's skill players in a 21-19 Rose Bowl loss.

Wisconsin is known for offensive studs like quarterback Russell Wilson and Montee Ball and those NFL offensive linemen; Bielema's next challenge is to attract and develop similarly elite talent on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin may have to rely more on its defense next year without Wilson, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and most likely Ball.

It's true that Oregon will make a lot of teams look slow when its offense is clicking. But it's also true that teams don't win many BCS games by giving up 621 yards and 45 points.

"We didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scores, and nobody can win doing that," Bielema said.

The Badgers were just a couple plays short of winning every game they played this season, so a major overhaul is not in order. A few more defensive difference-makers, however, could have changed those outcomes.

Halftime: Oregon 28, Wisconsin 28

January, 2, 2012
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Quick halftime analysis from Rose Bowl Stadium, where we're tied at 28 after a fast and furious first 30 minutes:

Turning point: With the score tied at 21, Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor came free on a blitz and buckled the arm of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. Teammate Louis Nzegwu was in the right place to scoop it up, and he rumbled 33 yards for the defensive score. In a game in which the offenses are dominating, any defensive reversal like that looms large.

Stat of the half: Oregon has 28 points on 29 plays, averaging 11.8 yards per play. Wisconsin is averaging an even 7 yards per play. The two teams have combined for 636 total yards.

What Wisconsin needs to do: Keep hanging around. The Badgers are moving the ball nearly at will, but it's going to be tough to keep up with Oregon if the Ducks keep scoring at this pace. If Wisconsin can keep it close in the second half, they can put pressure on the Ducks' offense and hope for another mistake like the Thomas fumble. The Badgers have been very good in the third quarter all season, and also have made excellent second-half adjustments.

What Oregon needs to do: Take away something defensively. Montee Ball has more than 100 yards, and Russell Wilson is carving up the defense on play-action rollouts. That balance is what makes the Badgers so difficult to stop, but Oregon needs to make at least one of those facets more difficult, as it did with a fourth-down sack of Wilson in the second quarter.

Record performances: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas ran 91 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter. That was the longest touchdown run in Rose Bowl history. Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders' FBS scoring record with his 39th touchdown on the season with a 3-yard plunge into the end zone in the second quarter. The two teams combined for a Rose Bowl record 56 points in the first half, 11 more than the previous high.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 24, 2011
I am the one who knocks!
  • Will Dan Persa be ready for the opener? Pat Fitzgerald now says Kain Colter is all but pulled even with Persa at quarterback.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 22, 2011
My kickball season started yesterday. Not quite as exciting as the opening kick next Thursday.
  • Here are five developments from Purdue's training camp, including the quarterback situation.
It's time to wrap up the defensive line rankings with a closer look at the ends.

Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.

This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireJohn Simon has played all over the defensive line for Ohio State.
1. John Simon, Ohio State, junior: This selection might surprise some because Simon has spent much of his time at defensive tackle. He'll likely play both line spots for Ohio State this fall, but expect the junior to have a breakout season in 2011. Simon is among the strongest players in the league and provides explosiveness up front for the Buckeyes.

2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.

3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.

4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.

5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.

6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.

7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.

8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.

9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.

10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.

Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.

Wisconsin spring wrap

May, 4, 2011

2010 overall record: 11-2

2010 conference record: 7-1 (T-1st)

Returning starters

Offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB James White, RB Montee Ball, C Peter Konz, RG Ricky Wagner, WR Nick Toon, DT Patrick Butrym, LB Mike Taylor, CB Antonio Fenelus, FS Aaron Henry

Key losses

QB Scott Tolzien, LT Gabe Carimi, LG John Moffitt, RB John Clay, TE Lance Kendricks, DE J.J. Watt, LB Blake Sorensen, S Jay Valai

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: James White* (1,052 yards)

Passing: Scott Tolzien (2,459 yards)

Receiving: Lance Kendricks (663 yards)

Tackles: Blake Sorensen (66)

Sacks: J.J. Watt (7)

Interceptions: Antonio Fenelus* (4)

Spring answers

1. Defensive leadership: Wisconsin hasn't lowered expectations on the defensive side despite the loss of All-American J.J. Watt, and one area the team addressed this spring was leadership. Defensive tackle Patrick Butrym and safety Aaron Henry answered the call and will share the duties in the fall. Butrym, who leads a deep group of defensive tackles, feels it's his time to lead as a senior, while the naturally vocal Henry has settled into the safety spot after switching from corner.

2. Men on the run: The run game once again will drive Wisconsin's offense, and backs Montee Ball and James White both elevated their play this spring. Both backs changed their bodies during the winter and showed no signs of letting up during practice. White hasn't been fazed by the accolades he received as a freshman, and Ball looks to pick up where he left off after racking up 777 rush yards in Wisconsin's final five games last fall.

3. Insurance at linebacker: The Badgers expect Chris Borland to return at top form after missing most of last season with shoulder problems, but they have some insurance at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter stood out this spring, practicing alongside projected starters Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton and holding his own. Trotter likely earned himself a chunk of playing time this fall even with Borland and Ethan Armstrong back in the mix.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: There's little doubt Jon Budmayr will start the season for Wisconsin, but the team wants to see more out of the redshirt sophomore after an inconsistent spring. All of Wisconsin's quarterbacks struggled in the spring game, but Budmayr's problems stood out because he'll soon be taking snaps when it counts. To be fair, Wisconsin was thin at receiver this spring, so Budmayr should have a better chance to build confidence in fall camp. It didn't help when Curt Phillips was ruled out for the season after another knee setback.

2. Nick Toon: The senior wide receiver missed spring ball following foot surgery, but he'll be in the spotlight when the team resumes practice in August. Toon had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010, but he's undoubtedly the team's top option at receiver. Although Wisconsin should once again be strong at the tight end spot, it could really use a star receiver for its new starting quarterback. Toon should be that guy.

3. Defensive playmaking: Watt helped the defense in so many ways last season, and his presence will be missed. The coaches like their top three defensive ends -- Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly, who came on strong this spring -- but they're looking for playmakers throughout the defense. Borland certainly can be one when he's healthy, and cornerback Devin Smith made big plays at times this spring. Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but its playmaking ability stood out. Who will step up this fall?
Last week, I took a look at the Big Ten's top candidates to record 1,000 rushing yards or more in 2011. The spotlight now turns to defense and the league's strongest position group in recent years.

The sack-masters.

I thought about setting the bar at 10 sacks or more, but eight seems more appropriate. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan was the only Big Ten player to rack up eight or more sacks in 2010, finishing with 12.5. Five players eclipsed eight sacks in 2009: Kerrigan, Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield, Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, Michigan DE Brandon Graham and Michigan State LB Greg Jones.

Let's look at the likeliest candidates to reach eight sacks or more this fall.

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Dave WeaverBig Ten offenses will need to account for Nebraska's Jared Crick this season.
1. Nebraska DT Jared Crick: Crick enters the season as the Big Ten's most decorated defensive lineman and a strong candidate for preseason defensive player of the year. He already has reached eight sacks in a season, recording 9.5 in 2010 to go along with 17 tackles for loss, which are just incredible totals for an interior lineman. Although Crick likely will face plenty of double-teams this fall, he should get to the quarterback enough.

2. Northwestern DE Vince Browne: Browne has put up numbers throughout his career, tying for second in the Big Ten in sacks with seven last fall. The senior can rack up stats in bunches, especially in nonconference play. If he can become just as effective against Big Ten squads, he should have a very strong season and contend for all-conference honors.

3. Purdue DT Kawann Short: Overshadowed by Kerrigan last season, Short quietly put together an extremely impressive season for an interior lineman, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Although Kerrigan's presence clearly helped Short make plays in 2010, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior has made strides and should once again wreak havoc.

4. Ohio State DEs Nathan Williams or John Simon: Williams recorded 4.5 sacks in 2010 and gives Ohio State a speed-rusher on the edge. I expect him to take a big step forward this fall. The same goes for Simon, who can play both line spots but likely will spend more time on the outside. Ohio State has extremely high hopes for the brutally strong Simon, and he could become a star this fall. While I'd be surprised if both players reach eight sacks, one seems likely to do so.

5. Iowa DT Mike Daniels: Daniels put up some nice numbers last season -- 11 tackles for loss, four sacks -- and should be more productive as he takes the lead with the Hawkeyes' defensive line this fall. After starting eight games in 2010, Daniels will see an increased role as Iowa tries to replace standout linemen Karl Klug, Clayborn and Christian Ballard.

6. Nebraska LB Lavonte David: Don't count out Big Ten linebackers from recording eight sacks or more, and Nebraska's David certainly seems capable of reaching the milestone. David had six sacks, 15 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries in 2010. Nebraska isn't afraid to blitz him, and he'll do some damage in opposing backfields this fall.

7. A Michigan defensive lineman: The switch to the 4-3 and Greg Mattison's arrival as coordinator should spark Michigan's pass rush this fall. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and tackle Mike Martin are two players I could see reaching eight sacks this fall. Van Bergen will have to double his total and Martin must make an even bigger jump, but both men should benefit from the offseason changes.

Also keep an eye on these potential Big Ten sack-masters:

  • Indiana DE Darius Johnson
  • Michigan State DEs William Gholston and Tyler Hoover
  • Penn State DT Devon Still
  • Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy
  • Wisconsin DE Louis Nzegwu
  • Nebraska DE Cameron Meredith

We'll continue the series Tuesday with a look at the Big Ten's 3,000-yard passers in 2011.

Spring game recap: Wisconsin

April, 25, 2011
Wisconsin wrapped up spring practice Saturday with it spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. Coach Bret Bielema shook things up this year and had the first-team offense compete against the starting defense. The defense ended up dominating, holding the offense out of the end zone, and posted a 29-27 victory in a scrimmage that used a modified scoring system.

Let's take a closer look:

Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.

Quotable: "We were without four, possibly five, offensive starters, so the continuity of that group was thrown off a little bit. I really like the offensive line depth we've been able to develop. On the back end, the defensive side, I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there." -- coach Bret Bielema

  • It was a rough day for Wisconsin's quarterback position both on and off the field. The Badgers' top three signal-callers -- junior Jon Budmayr, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave -- combined to complete just 22 of 61 pass attempts (36.1 percent) for 241 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense failed to reach the end zone and managed only one scoring drive, resulting in a field goal. Budmayr, the front-runner to be the starter this season, completed 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. "The three guys that got the majority of the reps today aren't anywhere where we need them to be for us to be a competitive team in the fall," Bielema said. "They need to continue to move forward." Bielema revealed after the game that quarterback Curt Phillips, a potential challenger to Budmayr, will miss the 2011 season following his third knee surgery.
  • Although the offense played without several starters, the top defense turned in an encouraging performance. The pass rush was solid as ends David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both recorded two tackles for loss and a sack. "Our D-line, we're winning," Gilbert said. "As long as we're winning, that’s what matters." Linebacker Marcus Trotter finished an impressive spring with five tackles and a forced fumble, and starting cornerback Devin Smith had an interception and four tackles.
  • The run game averaged only 2.6 yards per attempt, although Wisconsin's top two backs had their moments. James White led the way with 47 rush yards on eight carries, including gains of 22 yards and 17 yards. Montee Ball finished with 33 rush yards on eight carries, while third-stringer Zach Brown also had 33 rush yards. "Today probably wasn’t the best performance but we'll be even better come fall," White said. "We have a lot of confidence as an offense. We have a few people banged up and that can mess with things but we're still getting better."
  • Kicker Philip Welch had a mixed performance in the game. He went 8-for-8 during two separate kicking segments on attempts between 27-61 yards, hitting from 58 and 61 yards out. But during the team portion of the game, Welch missed attempts from 38, 49 and 52 yards. "He's got to be able to handle the pressure, he's got to be consistent with where we're at," Bielema said.

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

Three things to watch

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

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

3. Leadership: No Big Ten team lost more stars than Wisconsin, which said goodbye to four All-Americans in addition to team leaders like Tolzien, linebacker Culmer St. Jean and safety Jay Valai. Fans at the spring game should watch for who is taking charge on both sides of the ball. Is Budmayr taking command of the offense? Who has stepped up along the offensive line, which loses Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy? Free safety Aaron Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym seem like natural leaders on defense, but who will help them? Saturday's game should provide some clues.
MADISON, Wis. -- A layer of snow or freezing rain or something yucky covered the Camp Randall Stadium field on Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, Wisconsin held its practice inside the McClain Center, and I was there for most of it.

Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
  • I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
  • Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
  • Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
  • Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
  • The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
  • For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.

Notes from Badger Country ...

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

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

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

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

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