Big Ten: Rashad Frazier

Now that spring practice has played out in the Big Ten, we thought we'd try to identify the best overall position group on any team in the league.

Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.

This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Joey Bosa made an instant impact as a freshman and helped transform Ohio State's defensive line into the Big Ten's most formidable unit.
But my vote for the Big Ten's best position group goes to Ohio State's defensive line.

It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.

Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.

The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.

"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."

Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.

"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."

New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.

Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.

"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.

That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.

Big Ten preseason camp roundup

August, 8, 2011
8/08/11
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By the end of the day, all 12 Big Ten preseason camps will be under way. The weekend featured practices, players reporting and several media days around the league, so we wanted to get caught up.

We already hit on some of the bigger items, such as Nebraska quarterback Bubba Starling being held out of practice as his baseball-football decision looms and Michigan redshirting wide receiver Darryl Stonum and suspending two others.

Here are other notable nuggets from around the league:

IOWA
  • Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle met with reporters Friday during media day and for the first time addressed the outbreak of rhabdomyolosis in January that put 13 players in the hospital. You can check out video of Doyle's comments here. He didn't go into too many details, calling the situation a "problem" and saying the program has moved forward. Doyle said the well-being of players remains his top priority and that while the intense workout that led to the rhabdo has been eliminated, Iowa will continue to "train with volume."
  • Iowa expects freshman defensive tackle Darian Cooper to report in the middle of the week after a "complication" prevented him from reporting with his classmates.
  • Offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan isn't practicing because of a sports hernia suffered during spring ball.
ILLINOIS
  • Freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are making things interesting in the running back competition. Jason Ford remains the front-runner, but offensive coordinator Paul Petrino continues to challenge the senior, as he did in the spring after Ford was limited by injuries. "I need to see Jason run downhill, violent, and get up and do it again," Petrino told the Chicago Sun-Times. Both Young and Ferguson have looked impressive early in practice and could push for carries. Competition is good at every position, but specifically at running back, so I definitely see this as a positive development for the Illini.
  • Offensive tackle Corey Lewis won't be ready for the start of the season as he continues to work his way back from knee surgery. Illinois will look to unproven players Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic to emerge during camp.
PURDUE
  • The Boilers got some bad news at a thin position as defensive end Rashad Frazier didn't show up for the team's first practice Saturday. Frazier was expected to compete with Robert Maci and Ryan Russell for playing time. "We'll move on without him," coach Danny Hope said. Purdue has moved defensive tackle Ryan Isaac to the end spot to help with the low numbers there. The good news is veteran end Gerald Gooden has impressed the coaches so far.
WISCONSIN
  • Keep an eye on the competition at right tackle as Josh Oglesby and Rob Havenstein will vie for the starting job. Oglesby, a heralded recruit, has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, undergoing six knee surgeries, according to coach Bret Bielema. Oglesby will be limited in camp, so Havenstein, who practiced with the first-team offense this spring, has a good opportunity.
  • Bielema listed seven starting spots that are up for grabs in camp: quarterback, running back, right tackle, strong safety, one defensive end spot, one defensive tackle spot and strongside linebacker.
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Heralded incoming freshman Lawrence Thomas could play linebacker or defensive end, coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday after the team's first practice. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Thomas will begin practicing at linebacker but could make a move, much like another top recruit, William Gholston, did last year.
  • Wide receiver Keshawn Martin and running back Nick Hill entered camp as Michigan State's top two kick returners. Martin, the league's top punt return man in 2010, will be a busy man on special teams, which is a good thing given how dangerous he can be in that area.
PENN STATE
OHIO STATE
  • Buckeyes players reported during the weekend and will practice for the first time today. All 105 players expected to be part of the preseason camp roster reported, but the group didn't include linebackers Dorian Bell and Jonathan Newsome, and receiver James Louis. Newsome has announced he'll transfer to Ball State and both Bell and Louis could be heading elsewhere as well.
NEBRASKA
  • Two Huskers offensive linemen, senior Marcel Jones and freshman Givens Price, are sitting out with injuries. Jones should be back this month, while Price will miss all of camp. Incoming freshman cornerback Charles Jackson also isn't practicing because he hasn't been cleared academically.

Fresh faces: Purdue

August, 1, 2011
8/01/11
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Our look at three fresh faces to watch for each Big Ten team this season continues with the Purdue Boilermakers. These players are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or upperclassmen ready to move into much bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Akeem Shavers, RB, junior, 5-11, 203

Shavers comes to Purdue from junior college, where he averaged an impressive nine yards per carry in limited work last season. The Boilers get Ralph Bolden back from a torn ACL but need some insurance in the offensive backfield. Shavers is an explosive, physical runner who did some impressive things in spring practice. Along with Reggie Pegram, he adds depth at running back for a team looking for a spark on offense.

DEFENSE: Ryan Russell, DE, redshirt freshman, 6-5, 241

Purdue must replace Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan and Russell is among several defensive ends hoping to fill the massive production void. Russell competed with Robert Maci for the starting job this spring, and while Maci is listed No. 1 on the preseason depth chart, Russell will be part of the rotation. Although both Maci and Gerald Gooden boast game experience, there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Russell and Rashad Frazier.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Cody Webster, P, sophomore, 6-1, 205

Webster isn't necessarily "fresh," as he handled most of the punting duties for Purdue's final 10 games last season, averaging 43.3 yards per punt with 17 attempts of 50 yards or longer. But most of Purdue's key special-teams contributors are holdovers from 2010, which bodes well. Webster and senior Carson Wiggs form arguably the Big Ten's strongest punter-kicker tandem this fall, and Webster will expand his special-teams role by serving as the holder for Wiggs. If Webster builds on his success late last fall, he could be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

More Fresh Faces

Spring game preview: Purdue

April, 8, 2011
4/08/11
3:30
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Big Ten spring games begin Saturday as Purdue wraps up its spring session with the Black and Gold Game.

Purdue’s is the only Big Ten spring game on the docket for this week. Six teams hold their spring games next Saturday, four more follow on April 23 and Michigan State wraps up April 30.

I’ll take a quick look at each Big Ten spring game, starting with Purdue’s:

The vitals: 1 p.m. ET Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, free admission

More details: Family fun fest from 10:30 a.m.-noon, weather permitting. Click here for more information.

Three things to watch

1. Rob Henry: Coach Danny Hope calls the sophomore quarterback the team's most improved player this spring. Henry entered spring ball No. 1 on the depth chart and has done nothing to relinquish the spot. The competition is far from over as Robert Marve should return to full strength for fall camp, but Henry can continue to help his cause with a strong showing in the spring game. Fans also should watch Caleb TerBush, who would have gotten the nod at quarterback before Henry last season had he been academically eligible.

2. The pass rush: Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan is gone and defensive end is one of Purdue's thinnest positions (tight end being the other). Gerald Gooden has been banged up, so the coaches are looking for mostly unproven players to step up. Robert Maci and Ryan Russell worked as the first-team ends at last Friday's scrimmage, and both figure to be in the rotation along with Rashad Frazier. With nine defensive starters back, Purdue could be a solid unit if it figures out the endgame.

3. Need for speed: Hope’s recruiting methods have been a little unconventional, as he and his staff have focused heavily on Florida and found some overlooked prospects. Speed and versatility have been their priorities, and Hope has seen a significant increase in the number of players with top-end speed this spring. How that translates to the spring game on both sides of the ball should be interesting. Receiver Antavian Edison really stood out to me in last week’s scrimmage. He could be used in several roles Saturday.
How do you replace Superman?

"You pray and pray and pray that hopefully he comes back," Purdue defensive coordinator Gary Emanuel said.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kerrigan
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIRyan Kerrigan had 70 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, one safety and two fumbles recovered during his dominant senior season.
Unfortunately for Emanuel and the Boilers, all the prayer in the world won't magically tack on an extra year to Ryan Kerrigan's eligibility. Or make him pass up millions as a likely first-round pick in April's NFL draft.

Kerrigan's college career is over, and Purdue now must figure out how to move on without the unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The Boilers are looking to replace a guy led the nation in tackles for loss (26, 2.17 per game), tied for third in sacks (12.5, 1.04 per game) and tied for second in forced fumbles (5).

"It's hard to replace one of the best players in the history of the school," Emanuel said. "You get the guys out there to do the best they can. You might manufacture it through some different ways."

Purdue will lean on Gerald Gooden more this fall as he returns to a starting role. The 6-3, 235-pound senior contributed 35 tackles, two forced fumbles and four tackles for loss in 2010, but he has struggled to stay healthy at times.

Emanuel also is looking to Robert Maci, who recorded 17 tackles and two sacks as a reserve last fall, as well as young players like redshirt freshman Rashad Frazier.

Although questions swirl at end, the defensive tackles look good.

Kawann Short quietly was one of the Big Ten's most productive defensive tackles in 2010, finishing fourth in the league in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5). Although Kerrigan earned the accolades, Purdue's entire defensive front took a step forward as the Boilers led the Big Ten in both sacks (33) and tackles for loss (91). Bruce Gaston, a true sophomore, adds to the mix at defensive tackle after recording 4.5 tackles for loss last fall.

"We feel we have some depth there," Emanuel said.

The line also could get a lift from a secondary that returns intact. A new-look group in 2010 showed promise as cornerback Ricardo Allen recorded two pick-sixes and Logan Link provided leadership from the safety spot.

Purdue needs a strong group effort to replace Kerrigan, a message Emanuel has stressed this spring.

"Any time you lose a great player, you want everybody else to step up and do more, do their job better," Emanuel said. "That was the challenge they were presented with, and they're really looking forward to stepping up and accepting it.

"Guys want you to forget about Ryan. That's hard to do, but that's the attitude they have and the attitude they should have."
Since his return to Purdue, Danny Hope has made no secret about his intentions to recruit the state of Florida.

It's not surprising, then, that Hope and his staff are crossing paths with their colleagues from Wisconsin, a team that has recruited Florida especially hard for quite some time. If both trends keep up, expect to see more cases like the one involving wide receiver Isaiah Williams from Miami.

Williams committed to Purdue in September but changed his mind on Monday and switched to the Badgers. Scouts Inc.'s JC Shurburtt wrote on his Twitter page that the coaches at the Under Armour combine in Miami were very high on Williams and called him a "big get" for Wisconsin.

Despite Williams' decommitment, Purdue isn't losing any momentum on the recruiting trail. The Boilers on Monday received commitments from two defensive ends, Ohio product Rashad Frazier and Texas product Ryan Russell. Those two commitments come on the heels of another defensive end, heralded prospect Bruce Gaston, pledging the Boilers last week.

By the way, both Gaston and Frazier had been courted by Wisconsin.

This should add a little flavor to the Wisconsin-Purdue matchup on Nov. 6 in West Lafayette.

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