Big Ten: Mike Taylor

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
5:00
PM ET
Answering some of your emails before it gets all drafty in here:

Dash from Tucumcari, N.M., writes: "It's out of my control, but I wasn't happy with it," Steven Bench said. "I'm a competitor, so I'm not going to agree with that decision. But, at the same time, it's his decision and it's out of my control. I feel that it kind of left me no choice. I don't want to back anyone up. I want to play. I came here to play football." Comment: What? You can't have it both ways. If you are a "competitor," than being number two in a close race should tell you that you can win the job in fall camp and/or be the guy ready to step in and take it should something happen to the guy above you. I am a college football fan, not a Penn State fan and I say to him: Good riddance. Penn State fans should be rejoicing to hear that a non-competitive athlete who therefore, is likely to crumble when everything isn't perfect, has opted to transfer. That's my two cents from the peanut gallery...

Brian Bennett: Dash, I agree that Bench's transfer was jarring, and it's odd to see a guy who was supposedly so close in the competition transfer before duking it out in fall camp. However, we don't know exactly what coach Bill O'Brien told Bench about his status. According to this report, Bench was told he would not receive any more first-team reps in practice, which suggests that he might have fallen behind both Tyler Ferguson and incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg. Remember that Bench is a only sophomore, and he can transfer and be eligible right away at another school. Going somewhere else, probably a program smaller to Penn State, and being able to potentially start for three years as opposed to being the No. 3 quarterback does make sense for him. You've got to respect O'Brien's honesty if he indeed told Bench exactly where he stood, but that honesty cost the Lions some depth at quarterback.




Dan from East Lansing writes: The one thing I don't understand with aligning MSU in the East and IU in the west is that the majority of MSU's alumni outside of MI is located in Chicago and the majority of the IU alumni are in DC outside of IN. IU actually played a home game vs PSU in DC b/c of this. Common sense tells me switch these 2 teams and it makes the divisions more fair and it gives each alumni base more chances to see their team. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Hey, I'm with you, as I've been arguing that Michigan State should have gone to the West for competitive balance reasons. But I think the Michigan-Michigan State factor was much bigger for the league than alumni bases or evening out the competition. It seems clear that the Big Ten wanted to keep those schools in the same division to avoid needing a permanent crossover to preserve that rivalry. I'm also interested in seeing how the division alignment affects recruiting, because it's no secret that there are more prospects in the eastern part of the league than in the West. That's good news for Michigan State, but how about for a team like Purdue, which will be playing the majority of its games in the Central Time Zone? That's something to monitor.




Hayden B. from Lavista, Neb.: Hey Brian, I've been thinking about underrated B1G players in this draft more and more as the draft gets closer. Who do you think are some B1G players that could be grabbed in the last round that are not expected to be drafted or expected to drop to the last round? I see a couple players like Eric Martin (a remarkable hitter), Kyler Reed (A speedy, great handed TE), Micah Hyde (possibly the most underrated DB in this draft), or any other low rated B1G players. Who do you see dropping or sneaking into the draft?

Brian Bennett: Well, it sure looks like just about all Big Ten players are lowly rated coming into the draft. If we're talking about guys not getting much buzz right now, I'd start with Rex Burkhead, who in our latest ESPN.com mock draft was not even projected to be selected. That's just silly. I also think Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is a good enough athlete to make an impact, possibly at tight end. Some other names I'd include are Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch and Hyde. This could be one of the worst drafts in history for the Big Ten in terms of number of selections and high-round picks. But what's more important is how many guys get to the league and actually do something there.




Joe from Dayton, Ohio, writes: Will Riley Bullough start at RB for the Spartans this year?

Brian Bennett: Bullough's story -- going from linebacker to running back late in spring practice, and suddenly becoming the top option -- is really interesting. It also says a lot about the state of Michigan State's running backs. Mark Dantonio has said all along that three freshmen coming in -- Delton Williams, R.J. Shelton and Gerald Holmes -- would all be given long looks this summer. My bet is that one of them ends up leading the team in rushing. If nothing else, Bullough has shown he can play the position and add a strong power element to the backfield. If none of the freshmen are ready early, Bullough could wind up starting, though I see him more as a complementary player.




Mark F. from Surprise, Ariz., writes: Brian, how do you see Iowa's new offense this year? I'm hyped up on it for few reasons. One, Vandenberg wont be missed. Ruduck or Sokol can fill his shoes and can't be anymore ineffective in the passing game. Two, Weisman and Bullock are gonna be on the field at the same time. With Bullock spending time in the y-back position and Weisman's abilities, do you see that opening up the entire passing game? And last, with an experienced and healthy offensive line back, does that increase every other aspect? I think with Weisman, Bullock, and a healthy offensive line, the receivers and quarterback will be much more productive. With that and Iowa's experienced defense, I think Iowa wins 9 games.

Brian Bennett: Mark, it's good to hear from a Hawkeyes fan who's bullish on the 2013 team, because I haven't heard from many of those this offseason. In talking with Greg Davis yesterday, it was clear that he's really excited about two things: the offensive line, which will be deep and experienced, and the running game. As he mentioned, having Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman healthy and together (knock on wood) allows for so many different looks in the running game, and when you combine that with some no-huddle, Iowa should be able to get some favorable matchups, like Bullock in the slot facing a linebacker. The goal is to run the ball so well that it opens up things in the play-action pass game.

My biggest concern, other than the inexperience at quarterback, is the playmaking ability at receiver. Iowa's wideouts did not show an ability to get separation or make plays after the catch last year, so I wonder whether they'll be good enough to actually implement a more vertical passing game, even off play-action. Still, I do think the Hawkeyes' offense has to get better than what we saw toward the end of last year, when the offensive line was in rough shape because of injuries. I'm not so optimistic to predict nine wins, especially with a pretty tough schedule that includes Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover opponents.




Shocked from Rochester, Minn., writes: Wisconsin has won the last three conference championships (granted there's an asterisk on 1), look to have another talented team in 2013, and have continued to play at a high level after enduring major coaching changes, so what gives with the contender/pretender voting? As I'm writing this, 53% of about 1,000 people have voted WI to be a pretender (a percentage that's sure to be higher after disregarding Badgers fans' votes). Is it the perception that WI can't compete with OSU in their division, are there a lot of haters voting, any other ideas?

Brian Bennett: At last check, Wisconsin finished the polling as a pretender. That is surprising, for the reasons you mentioned. The Ohio State obstacle is a legitimate concern, as is the coaching transition. But if I had to guess, I'd say the voting mostly reflects the fact that a lot of other teams' fans just don't like Wisconsin. It happens when you win a lot.




Ryan from Johnstown, Ohio, writes: Brian, does college football really need three SEC vs Big Ten bowl games in the state of Florida? Personally, I'd like to see some more variety. I say that between the Capital One Bowl, Gator Bowl, Outback Bowl, and Russell Athletic Bowl they change the tie ins to create the following match ups: SEC vs Big Ten, SEC vs ACC, ACC vs Big TenS, EC vs Big 12. And then have the Big 12 give the Big 10 the Holiday Bowl (against the Pac 12) in exchange for letting them into Florida during bowl season.

Brian Bennett: The three SEC matchups in Florida are a bit much, but I still like those better than having two games in Texas. Personally, I always like it when the Big Ten goes against the SEC. Anyway, the entire bowl structure is about to undergo an overhaul. Conference commissioners have discussed adding more flexibility to the system, where there can be more choice in deciding the best matchups and more variety in the destinations and opponents. Ideally, the Big Ten would have access to several bowls in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California and at least one on the East Coast. Then it could mix and match to find the best slots and avoid situations like Iowa and Nebraska going to the same bowl two straight years. Let's hope.




James from Michigan writes: With Michigan going only 8-5 last season I have heard a lot of Wolverine fans using the talent level as a scapegoat. Normally as a State fan I assume Michigan fans are just looking for excuses, however after looking at Michigan's 2013 NFL draft prospects I really only see Denard [Robinson] getting selected. Furthermore, I don't see anyone outside of Taylor Lewan getting drafted in 2014. Is there actually some truth to the "cupboard is bare" plea? Particularly on defense?

Brian Bennett: While Michigan's 8-5 record last year had a lot to do with the schedule, top-level talent has certainly been an issue of late. The Wolverines will now have gone three straight years without producing a first-round draft pick, and this could be one the program's most fallow drafts ever. Michigan State has had much more NFL talent, especially on defense, the past couple years. You have to go back to the failed Rich Rodriguez tenure as an explanation. Not only did Rodriguez recruit a different type of player for his spread offense, but there was the typical attrition you see in major coaching changes. As Kyle Meinke points out in this piece, 35 out of 73 players from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes did not finish their careers at Michigan. The good news is that the Wolverines under Brady Hoke are bringing in some elite talent on the recruiting trail, and while you can never guarantee that a great high school player will make it to the NFL, it sure increases the odds. And Hoke is recruiting players for a pro-style system. At the very least, Lewan will break the first-round drought next April.
The spectacle known as the NFL draft kicks off tonight in New York with the first round. As Brian pointed out late last week, the Big Ten is in danger of going without a first-round selection for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
5:00
PM ET
It's Thursday, so it's time for another mailbag. Remember to keep those questions coming during the offseason.

A.J. from Madison writes: Over/under on Badgers' defense giving up more points than last year? I have NO idea what to expect from them as it appears the scheme is completely different.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure that's technically an over/under, but you're right in that Wisconsin is going through a scheme change, with some 3-4 looks being added by Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. The good news for the Badgers is that almost all of the two deep in the front seven is back, save departed senior linebacker Mike Taylor and injured defensive end David Gilbert. The defense should once again be very good up front. More concerning is the secondary, which lost three senior starters.

I think Wisconsin's defense should once again be one of the best in the league, but remember that last year's unit allowed only 19.8 points per game. With some potentially explosive offenses such as Arizona State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Indiana on the schedule, a repeat of that would have to be considered very good work.




Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes:Since the current coaching staffs for Minnesota and Indiana came on at the same time, have you been comparing them to see how they are developing? Minnesota was ahead based on record and getting to a bowl game. Is Indiana catching up due to better recruiting or is it too early to tell?

Brian Bennett: It's not a strict one-to-one comparison, since Indiana's Kevin Wilson replaced his offensive coordinator after the first year and saw co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler leave after last season. Minnesota is going into its third season with the exact same staff under Jerry Kill. Indiana was 5-7 the year before Wilson arrived, while the Gophers were 3-9 in 2010. Wilson played tons of freshmen and bottomed out at 1-11 his first season, while Kill seemed to have more talented veterans to work with the past two years (MarQueis Gray, Ra'Shede Hageman, Michael Carter, etc). In talking to some Minnesota coaches and players this spring, they seem confident that things are about to take off in the third year under Kill as they are finally starting to build some depth, and going to a bowl game did a lot for that program. Indiana remains a step behind because it will have to navigate a tough schedule just to have a chance at a bowl this year, but the Hoosiers are heading in the right direction.




Jay from Prince William County writes: DaQuan Jones is without a doubt the top returning interior D-linemen in the Big Ten. Unlike Hill, who I correctly predicted would be an upgrade over Still after he slid over from nose guard (Jones was an upgrade over Hill at guard) Jones won't have great numbers. It isn't the nature of the position in Penn State's defense, but he will be the best tackle in the league this year. He was the second or third best last year behind Jordan Hill and maybe Hankins. Together with Deion Barnes, the league's top end, Mike Hull, the league's top linebacker, Adrian Amos, the league's top D-back, and plenty of high quality supporting players, Penn State will again have one of the league's top two defenses. They will of course have the league's top linebacking corps for the tenth straight year. That much goes without question.

Brian Bennett: So let me guess: You're a Nittany Lions fan, eh? It's sometimes hard to judge a defensive tackle's impact on stats alone, and Jones is definitely a space-eater at 330 pounds. Then again, in his own words Jones said he hasn't made enough big plays his first three years, and he hasn't been a real game-changer. I wouldn't have ranked him that high last year, as I thought Hankins, Hill, Kawann Short and Hageman were all better and plenty of other tackles in the league were just as good. But the Big Ten was hit pretty hard by graduation and the NFL draft at the position. I'd probably rank Hageman No. 1 among returnees at tackle, but I'm not sure who I'd put at No. 2 at this point. If Jones can make the senior-year leap that other Penn State interior linemen have made recently, he could build a case.




Matt from Ann Arbor writes:Looking at the spring games that have already taken place, which position group for a team has raised its stock the most? Which has dropped the most? Why?

Brian Bennett: I'll expand that to include the entirety of spring practice for teams who have finished, because spring games themselves are often terribly overrated. I'd say Ohio State's defensive line definitely qualifies as a stock you want to buy. Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence looked great all spring and then combined for seven sacks in the spring game, lessening the worry about the Buckeyes losing all four starters from last year's D-line. I also think the arrow is pointing up for Nebraska's quarterbacks (backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg both looked good) and Indiana's receivers (even deeper than last year). Picking a group whose stock has dropped is tougher. But I was hoping to see a bit more out of Nebraska's defensive line, which had been billed as more athletic but didn't really make a lot of plays in the spring game. The Huskers did have to go against a great offensive line, though, and will get reinforcements this summer. Michigan's linebacking corps has to go down a notch just because of the loss of Jake Ryan, although a good spring by Cam Gordon and the emergence of James Ross III should help keep the dropoff from being too severe.




Do you believe in T-magic from Omaha, Neb., writes: I'm not sure why Devin Gardneris getting the hype he is. After watching him for several weeks after a better but still not talented QB "Shoelace" Robinson (obviously just a freak athlete) got hurt, all Gardner did was a less talented version of Robinson chuck the ball up and pray someone comes down under it. I don't think Gardner would even be third-string playing for the Big Red and that is sad. ... All Michigan does is try and recycle the same game hoping they get a lucky catch when it matters. Michigan 8-4 (at best) Nebraska 12-0 (showdown with 12-0 tOSUu in the title game) Where does this guy's hype come from? Do tell.

Brian Bennett: That's some world-class trolling right there, my friend. Take a bow. After taking over the Michigan starting job in the Nov. 3 game against Minnesota, Gardner threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns while running for seven more scores in five games. Extrapolate that out to a 13-game season, and he would have passed for more than 3,100 yards and totaled 46 touchdowns. No one is saying he will put up those kinds of numbers over a full season, but the fact that he produced those stats after playing mostly receiver for more than half the year and doing so in an offense tailored around Robinson's running ability tells you all you need to know about Gardner's talent and potential.
Chris Borland's new title (inside linebacker) might not carry as much flair as his old one (middle linebacker), but his role remains just as important for Wisconsin's defense.

Perhaps even more so.

Wisconsin's transition from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with multiple looks under its new coaching staff places a premium on up-the-middle play. The nose tackle spot carries extreme importance because of the two gaps it must cover. The safety positions also are critical -- a big reason why the new coaches have moved players from other positions to address a lack of safety depth.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireChris Borland and the Badgers defense are transitioning this spring from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with multiple looks.
But the defense run by head coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda hinges heavily on interior midsection, Borland's new home.

"It's important in any defense to be stout up the middle, but especially in this defense because the philosophy is to force the offense to go sideways," Borland told ESPN.com. "If you're getting pushed around at nose tackle, or overrunning and misreading things [at linebacker], there'll be a seam up the middle. So you need to take on blocks up front and then still correct it in the second level."

Borland will be instrumental in a scheme Aranda describes as "inside-out." The 5-foot-11, 248-pound fifth-year senior will enter the 2013 season as the Big Ten's most decorated and productive defender. His career numbers not only underscore his yield but his versatility: 308 tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 16 passes defended.

A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Borland won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009 and will be on the radar for multiple national awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski) this fall.

"He is a big, big part of our success as we're moving forward," Andersen said.

Borland began his career as an outside linebacker before moving to the middle in 2011, when he recorded 143 tackles, including 19 for loss and five forced fumbles. An extremely effective blitzer, Borland has had to work on being a bit more patient in the new scheme, where he has to cover multiple gaps and can't flow downhill as quickly as he did in the 4-3.

While Borland has to ensure the middle doesn't open up to the opposing offense, his natural ball-hawking skills have shown up early in spring practice.

"The times that we do see lead plays or iso plays, there's a violent ending to all that when Chris is in there," said Aranda, who coaches the Badger linebackers. "He's got a great feel for being inside the core and being the running back per se, finding the daylight that the running back finds. And then when he's in space, he's able to drop his hips and match running backs and tight ends in terms of explosiveness and burst."

Andersen and Aranda knew plenty about Borland when they arrived at Wisconsin. Even before spring practice started, Borland caught Andersen's eye when the team had a dodgeball event as part of its offseason competition.

"I don’t know if a ball came within three yards of hitting the kid in 20 minutes," Andersen said with a laugh.

Borland filed paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board in December but did so feeling 70 percent certain he would return for his senior season. He received a late-round grade from the board and decided to stay and play for the new staff.

After forming arguably the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Mike Taylor the past few seasons, Borland is working this spring alongside young and/or less proven players (returning starter Ethan Armstrong is sidelined following shoulder surgery). Derek Landisch, a reserve linebacker the past two years, is among those who have caught Borland's eye.

"I can tell those guys are eager, they want to know how to have success," Borland said.

There's no one better to show them than No. 44. Simply getting others lined up correctly is "very important to him," Andersen said.

"He's a dynamic guy, very explosive player, has got a ton of pop in his hips," Aranda said. "Every day, we look at who is productive, and Chris has led in however many days.

"I don't know if there's one day he hasn't."

Big Ten lunch links

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
12:00
PM ET
Brian will be live-blogging from Nebraska's spring practice today, starting at 1 p.m. ET and finishing around 5 p.m. ET. Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez will be taking your questions at 2 p.m. ET, and Brian will be chatting about Big Red and the entire Big Ten at 3 p.m. ET. Be sure to check it out!

Onto the links ...

Wisconsin has some big shoes to fill this spring after productive linebacker Mike Taylor and versatile offensive lineman Travis Frederick.

B1G combine results: LB and DL

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
10:00
AM ET
We've already told you how the Big Ten players from the offensive position groups fared at the NFL combine. On Monday, defensive linemen and linebackers had their day in the spotlight. (Defensive backs will wrap up the combine today).

Here is how Big Ten products fared in those two position groups during their job auditions in Indianapolis:

Defensive line
  • Illinois' Akeem Spence remains third among all combine performers with his 37 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
  • Former Illini teammate Michael Buchanan was ninth among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash at 4.78 seconds. Buchanan also tied for 11th in vertical jump at 33 inches.
  • Ohio State's Nathan Williams ran a 4.88 in the 40. Michigan State's William Gholston posted a 4.96, while Illinois' Spence was at 5.15 and Penn State's Jordan Hill had a 5.23. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins ran a 5.31.
  • Williams ranked sixth in vertical leap at 35 inches.
  • Hill did 28 reps on the bench press, while Williams finished 24, Gholston 23 and Buchanan 22. Gholston, who left Michigan State after his junior year, did not test among the leaders in any category.
  • Purdue's Kawann Short (hamstring) and Ohio State's John Simon (shoulder) did not work out.
Linebackers
  • Penn State's Michael Mauti only did the bench press because of his knee injury, but he impressed there with 28 reps at 225 pounds. That was good for third among all linebackers. Ohio State's Etienne Sabino was next best among Big Ten linebackers with 24. Penn State's Gerald Hodges did 22.
  • Sabino also ran the best 40-yard dash time of any Big Ten linebacker, posting a 4.75 time that was tied for 14th in his position group. Hodges was right behind him at 4.78, and both were faster than Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (4.82).
  • Hodges was also seventh in the long jump at 119 inches.
  • Wisconsin's Mike Taylor (sports hernia) did not work out.

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
1:00
PM ET
It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.

You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:

1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.

2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.

6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.

7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.

9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.

11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.
The Big Ten postseason player rankings march on with a familiar name. Linebacker has been a theme so far in the rundown, and our next man up has been one of the Big Ten's best 'backers for quite some time. As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance from the 2012 season.

Wisconsin's do-it-all defender checks in at ...

No. 13: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, junior, 5-foot-11, 242 pounds

Preseason rank: No. 8

2012 numbers: Recorded 104 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks; forced and recovered three fumbles; recorded six pass breakups and a quarterback hurry

Why he's here: It's hard not to respect the way Borland plays the game. Described by some as a throwback, he would have been a star in any era, primarily because he does so many different things to help his team.

Borland once again proved to be the biggest difference-maker on Wisconsin's defense, forcing or recovering a fumble in five different games, including the Badgers' romp against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. He's one of only three players in team history to record three forced fumbles in a season, and he has done so twice (2009, 2012). A first-team All-Big Ten selection from the coaches, Borland has recorded 13 forced fumbles in his career.

Despite knee issues and a hamstring injury that forced him to miss two games, Borland eclipsed 100 tackles for the second straight year and, along with fellow linebacker Mike Taylor, triggered a Badgers defense that finished 15th nationally in yards allowed, 17th in points allowed and 24th against the run. Borland had at least seven tackles in 11 of the 12 games he played, including 13 in the Big Ten championship. There's no doubt No. 44 is the cornerstone for Wisconsin's defense entering the 2013 season, and new coach Gary Andersen and the staff can't wait to work with Borland.

The countdown

No. 25: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No. 24: Michael Carter, CB, Minnesota
No. 23: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 22: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 21: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
No. 20: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 19: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 18: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
No. 17: Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
No. 16: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 15: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 14: Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State

Big Ten players on NFL combine list

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
9:40
AM ET
The official list of players invited to the NFL combine is out.

These are the guys the pro scouts most want to see, and they'll be poked, prodded and interviewed in Indianapolis from Feb. 23-26. Here are the 32 players from the Big Ten who've been invited (Note: Position listed is the one each player will be working out as):

Johnny Adams, DB, Michigan State
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
Zach Boren, RB, Ohio State
Michael Buchanan, DL, Illinois
Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
Reid Fragel, OL, Ohio State
Travis Frederick, OL, Wisconsin
William Gholston, DL, Michigan State
MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota
Johnathan Hankins, DL, Ohio State
Terry Hawthorne, DB, Illinois
Jordan Hill, DL, Penn State
Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
Micah Hyde, DB, Iowa
Josh Johnson, DB, Purdue
Brett Maher, PK, Nebraska
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State
Denard Robinson, WR, Michigan
Etienne Sabino, LB, Ohio State
Kawann Short, DL, Purdue
John Simon, DL, Ohio State
Dion Sims, TE, Michigan State
Akeem Spence, DL, Illinois
Daimion Stafford, DB, Nebraska
Matt Stankiewitch, OL, Penn State
Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State
Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
Hugh Thornton, OL, Illinois
James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa
Ricky Wagner, OL, Wisconsin
Nathan Williams, DL, Ohio State

Finally, here is the schedule of workouts, which will be broadcast on NFL Network:

Feb. 23: Tight ends, offensive linemen, special teams
Feb. 24: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
Feb. 25: Defensive linemen, linebackers
Feb. 26: Defensive backs
The Big Ten postseason player rankings march on with a familiar name. As a reminder, these rankings are based entirely on performance during the 2012 season. Both members of Wisconsin's "Home Improvement" tandem made our list, and first on the list is ...

No. 18: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin, senior, 6-foot-2, 224 pounds

Preseason rank: No. 22

2012 stats: Led Wisconsin in both total tackles (123) and tackles for loss (15); recorded three sacks, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery; started all 14 games

Why he's here: Taylor has been one of the most durable and consistently productive linebackers in the country the past three seasons. He started his final 40 games, and in his final two years for the Badgers he recorded 273 tackles, including 24 tackles for loss and nine sacks. While some college players are never the same after suffering major knee injuries early in their careers, as Taylor did in 2009, he had no reoccurrences and finished strong.

His tackles numbers and turnover numbers went down from 2011, but Taylor recorded more sacks, more tackles for loss and more solo tackles, and continued to be a factor in coverage. Taylor recorded 10 tackles or more in five of Wisconsin’s first eight games, and had a sack and a fumble recovery in the Big Ten championship against Nebraska. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in both tackles and tackles for loss.

Taylor earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and helped Wisconsin rank 15th nationally in total defense. He continued to form one of the nation’s top linebacker tandems with Chris Borland, and both shared Defensive MVP honors from the team. Although other Badgers defenders have had bigger individual seasons than Taylor, his consistency won’t soon be forgotten in Madison.

The countdown

No. 25: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No. 24: Michael Carter, CB, Minnesota
No. 23: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 22: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 21: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
No. 20: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 19: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Wisconsin keys for the Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
10:50
AM ET
Three keys for Wisconsin in today's Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio:

1. Open it up: Wisconsin is Wisconsin, so of course the Badgers are going to do everything they can to run the ball. But even their offensive line is going to have trouble simply lining up and ramming the ball down Stanford's throat. The Cardinal are one of the most physical, fundamentally sound teams in the country and had the third-best run defense in the FBS. Wisconsin does not want to get into third-and-long situations in this game, because that's when Stanford -- which led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss -- can really wreak havoc. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada drew up a dynamic, diverse game plan for the Big Ten championship game and will need to do so again to keep the Cardinal guessing. Is there anything left in the playbook after that Nebraska game? "There's always more left," Canada said last week. "We can draw up plays for days and days." It's quite likely that quarterback Curt Phillips will have to make more plays and probably will have to throw more than the eight pass attempts he had against the Huskers. And Joel Stave, now healthy, could factor in as well. Wisconsin's bread and butter remains the running game, with Montee Ball, James White and X factor Melvin Gordon. But the Badgers will likely need more than that to solve the Stanford defense.

2. Stop Stepfan: Stanford's offense is more than just running back Stepfan Taylor. The emergence of Kevin Hogan at quarterback late in the season made the Cardinal more multidimensional, and you have to always watch out for their tight ends, especially Zach Ertz. But Taylor is still the engine that drives the offense, and Wisconsin would much rather see Hogan throw the ball around than deal with Stanford's powerful running game all day. The good news: The Badgers were very good against the run this year as well, ranking 22nd in the nation in stopping the rush. They are stout in the middle of the defensive line, though star linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland will have their hands full with those tight ends. Wisconsin also does a good job of making opponents earn every yard down the field; in Big Ten play, opponents had only four total plays of 30 or more yards versus Chris Ash's defense. In Stanford's two losses, Taylor averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, more than a yard below his average. If the Badgers can make him work that hard for yards today, they will have a great chance.

3. Finish: Wisconsin knows all about coming up a play short in the Rose Bowl. A failed two-point conversion made the difference in a 21-19 loss to TCU two years ago, while last year's 45-38 setback against Oregon ended with Russell Wilson begging for another second on the Ducks' 25. But the Badgers don't even have to remember that far back to know close-game heartache. Of course, they lost four games by exactly three points, five by a total of 19 points and three in overtime. They probably would have lost every meaningful close game had Utah State made an easy field goal. It's highly unlikely that Wisconsin will blow out Stanford like it did against Nebraska, so any victory will probably have to include finishing off a close game for the first time since September. It doesn't help that the team's kicking game has been pretty bad; the Badgers were a Big Ten-worst 10-of-18 on field goals this year, and Kyle French missed key tries in the overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State to end the regular season. But here is why Wisconsin fans have hope that a close game might finally go their way in Pasadena: Barry Alvarez will be making the late-game decisions.

Season report card: Wisconsin

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
3:00
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Our series of grades for each Big Ten's regular season comes to a close with a look at the Wisconsin Badgers.

Offense: B-minus

If you just look at the final numbers, you'd say Wisconsin had a typical year on offense. The Badgers scored 30.8 points per game and finished 12th in the nation in rushing yards per game, at 237.8. In reality, the offense struggled early on as the line and running game weren't in sync. The promotion of Bart Miller to offensive-line coach improved things, but Wisconsin piled up stats against teams like Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue. The Badgers scored only 13 points against Michigan State, 14 against Ohio State and 21 at Penn State, all losses. The passing game was a mess at times as the team went through three starting quarterbacks. Danny O'Brien didn't live up to billing. Joel Stave showed promising signs before getting hurt. Curt Phillips finished the season but wasn't asked to do a whole lot with his arm. Finding a reliable receiver other than Jared Abbrederis proved problematic. Still, Wisconsin erupted for 70 points in the Big Ten championship game, and Montee Ball had another outstanding season after a slow start.

Defense: A

This was maybe the most underrated defense in the Big Ten, if not the country. Only one team, Nebraska, scored more than 26 points against Wisconsin. The Badgers finished 13th nationally in total defense and tied for 19th in scoring, allowing just over 19 points per game. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor were their normal brilliant selves, while the defensive line gummed up opposing teams' running attacks and the secondary shored up some of the problems it exhibited a year ago. While still overshadowed by the offense, Chris Ash's defense played great all year long.

Special teams: C-minus

The good: Wisconsin led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (though it only had a league-low 20 attempts), ranked fifth in punting and punt returns and third in kickoff coverage. The bad: The Badgers made just 10 of 18 field goals, an atrocious percentage that certainly cost them in their many close losses.

Overall: B

Ordinarily, a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth would automatically result in an A grade. But this was anything but an ordinary year. Wisconsin only got to Indianapolis because of the probation at Ohio State and Penn State; a third-place Leaders Division finish and 7-5 regular-season record fell well below expectations in Madison. The Badgers weren't able to protect Camp Randall Stadium in home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and would have lost to Utah State if not for a missed chip-shot field goal by the Aggies. The Badgers were in every game and lost their five by a total of 19 points. Ultimately, the Big Ten championship game performance redeemed much of the year, and a victory in the Rose Bowl would elevate this grade. But a loss in Pasadena would mean an 8-6 final record and mark Wisconsin as one of the least accomplished Rose Bowl teams in history.

Previous report cards:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Nebraska

Minnesota

Northwestern
Penn State
Purdue

B1G bowl primer: Rose Bowl

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
3:00
PM ET
Our snapshots of each bowl game featuring a Big Ten team continues.

ROSE BOWL GAME PRESENTED BY VIZIO

Wisconsin (8-5) vs. Stanford (11-2)

Where: Rose Bowl; Pasadena, Calif.

When: Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT)

TV: ESPN

About Wisconsin: The Badgers' road to the Rose Bowl has been anything but smooth. They had a shaky start that led to a change at both offensive line coach (Mike Markuson to Bart Miller) and starting quarterback (Danny O'Brien to Joel Stave). They had another quarterback change midway through Big Ten play (Stave to Curt Phillips), lost five games by a total of 19 points (three in overtime) and endured the loss of head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas three days after a dominant performance in the Big Ten championship. This team isn't as strong as the previous two Badgers squads that played in Pasadena, but its resilience has been impressive. Hall of Famer Barry Alvarez will lead the Badgers after being asked to coach the team following Bielema's exit. Alvarez led Wisconsin to three Rose Bowl wins in his tenure and was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009. Although the Badger offense has been inconsistent, it put up 70 points in the Big Ten championship and boasts a three-headed rushing attack of Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. An underrated defense kept Wisconsin in every game and ranks in the top 20 in both points allowed and yards allowed.

About Stanford: Arguably no FBS team finished the season playing better than Stanford, which won its final seven games following a controversial overtime loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 13. The Cardinal stunned recent nemesis Oregon in Eugene on Nov. 17 and punched their ticket to Pasadena with back-to-back wins against UCLA. An aggressive and physical defense fueled Stanford in its first season without Andrew Luck, as the unit led the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss, ranked third against the run and ranked 14th in points allowed. First-team All-Pac-12 linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy led the way for the defense, which allowed 17 points or fewer in nine games. The offense endured some predictable ups and downs without Luck, although redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan showed promise down the stretch.

Key players, Wisconsin: Ball didn't quite replicate his historic 2011 season, but he still performed extremely well in Big Ten play and earned the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. The senior finished seventh nationally in rushing average (133.1 ypg) and scored 21 touchdowns, becoming the NCAA's all-time touchdowns king. The speedy White gives Wisconsin another excellent ball-carrying option, and Gordon had a breakout performance in the Big Ten title game (216 yards on nine touches). All-Big Ten linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor combined for 215 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks to trigger the defense.

Key players, Stanford: Thomas and Murphy fuel Stanford's aggressive 3-4 defense, combining for 17.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss. Veteran linemen Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner add to the rush with a combined 27.5 tackles for loss. First-team All-Pac-12 safety Ed Reynolds has six interceptions on the season, while fellow safety Jordan Richards has three picks and 12 pass breakups. Running back Stepfan Taylor earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors after finishing 20th nationally in rushing (110.9 ypg). Senior tight end Zach Ertz, a John Mackey Award finalist, is the team's top receiver with 66 receptions for 837 yards and six touchdowns.

Did you know: Wisconsin is the first five-loss team ever to play in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers are the third Big Ten program to play in three consecutive Rose Bowl games, joining Ohio State (1973-76) and Michigan (1977-79). Alvarez is the only Big Ten coach to win Rose Bowls in consecutive years (1999, 2000). ... Stanford is making a team-record fourth consecutive bowl appearance, reaching a BCS bowl for the third straight year. The Cardinal have recorded 11 wins in three straight seasons for the first time. Wisconsin is making its fifth appearance in a BCS bowl game. Only six teams have made more: Ohio State (9), Oklahoma (8), Florida State (7), Florida (7), USC (7) and Virginia Tech (6). ... Stanford is 5-6-1 in 12 previous appearances in the Rose Bowl Game, including a 17-9 loss to Wisconsin in its last appearance in 2000. ... Alvarez becomes the fourth member of the College Football Hall of Fame to be inducted as an FBS coach and then coach a game after his induction, joining Chris Ault (Nevada), Bobby Bowden (Florida State) and Joe Paterno (Penn State). Alvarez will join Ault as the only Hall of Famers to come out of retirement to coach a game (Bowden and Paterno were inducted as active coaches).

Badgers could go higher with Andersen

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
7:10
PM ET

In the six years before Gary Andersen took over as head coach at Utah State, the Aggies went 15-54. Their last winning season was in 1996.

Andersen went 4-8 each of his first two years in Logan, Utah, but then guided the team to a 7-6 mark that included the program's first bowl appearance in 14 years and a near upset at Auburn. This past season, Utah State went 11-2 and will finish in the Top 25 for the first time since 1972.

So we know this: Andersen can build a winner from scratch. We also know this: He won't have to do that at Wisconsin.

When the Badgers tapped Andersen to succeed Bret Bielema, it was a mutually beneficial decision. Wisconsin gets a coach who was skilled enough to turn a historically dormant program that's the No. 3 school in a sparsely populated state into a winner. Andersen gets the reins to a program that's already set up to win at a high level.

It's rare for a coach not currently on the staff to inherit a Big Ten power that needs no rebuilding or re-branding. Brady Hoke had to undo the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment. Ohio State had plenty of talent when Urban Meyer came on board but had just gone 6-7 and was on probation. You know the deal that awaited Bill O'Brien at Penn State.

Bielema was already on the Badgers' staff when Barry Alvarez handed him the keys after the 2005 season, and Bielema promptly went 12-1 his first year as head coach. Andersen is walking into a similarly advantageous situation, grabbing the wheel of a team that has won three straight Big Ten championships and is on its way to Pasadena, Calif., for a third straight happy new year.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Douglas C. Pizac/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen turned the third highest-profile school in Utah into a Top 25 team.
Remember, Bielema said in the spring that he thought 2013 would be the best team he ever had. Though Wisconsin will lose stars like running back Montee Ball, linebacker Mike Taylor and left tackle Ricky Wagner, this year's team had only a handful of seniors. The quarterback position will be, for once, loaded with depth if Curt Phillips receives a sixth year from the NCAA. James White will be a senior, and Melvin Gordon showed off his superstar ability in a dazzling Big Ten title-game performance.

So Andersen shouldn't have too much trouble maintaining the Badgers' recent success, even though he'll have to battle the emerging monster that is Meyer's Ohio State. The question Wisconsin fans want to know is if Andersen can take things to an even higher level.

For all his success, Bielema had trouble winning the big game, most notably falling a play short in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Last year's Badgers team set all kinds of offensive records and had no real business losing three times. I wrote after the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon that a lack of an elite defense was holding Wisconsin back. This year's defense has performed exceptionally well, though it hasn't faced too many elite offensive clubs.

No wonder, then, that Alvarez said he wanted to find a defensive-minded coach, and that's exactly what he got in Andersen. Utah State ranks No. 15 nationally in total defense this season and held the Badgers to just one offensive touchdown in the Aggies' 16-14 loss in Madison, Wis., in September. Andersen was also the defensive coordinator on the 2008 Utah team that went undefeated and smoked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He knows what it takes to field a championship-caliber defense.

And no matter what you think about the Big Ten, this is still a defense-first league. You don't win league titles without controlling the trenches and stopping the running game. Ask Nebraska.

Some concerns remain about this hire, including if Andersen will continue the Wisconsin tradition of basing its offense around the power running game. Utah State was more of a spread team this year, though running back Kerwynn Williams rushed for more than 1,500 yards. Andersen would be foolish not to take advantage of the Badgers' built-in recruiting advantage: dairy-fed Midwestern road graders on the offensive line. Paul Chryst and Russell Wilson proved that the Wisconsin offense can add some other razzle-dazzle once that running game is established.

Andersen also has no Midwest ties. But if he could find and convince players to come to Logan, he can certainly bring them to Madison. He has a reputation as a topflight recruiter and could potentially get Wisconsin involved with more blue-chip prospects.

The Big Ten is a step up from the WAC and even the Mountain West Conference, so Andersen still will have to prove himself at this level. But the Badgers are getting a guy who has already shown he can do great things with limited resources. They can't wait to find out what happens when he starts from a position of strength.

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