Big Ten: Ryan Russell

B1G media day preview: Purdue

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
1:30
PM ET
Big Ten media days are officially just one week away. To get you more ready than you ever thought you needed to be, we're looking at three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear.

Next up is Purdue, which is bringing head coach Darrell Hazell, running back Raheem Mostert, linebacker Sean Robinson and defensive end Ryan Russell to Chicago for the festivities.

1. What reasons are there for optimism in Boilermakers country?

There's simply no way around it. The first season under Hazell was an unmitigated disaster, as Purdue went 1-11 and ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every major statistical category on offense and defense. Teams often improve in the second year of a new coach, so there's a place to start. And the Boilers' nonconference schedule is much easier than it was last fall, leading to a possible quick improvement on the wins total by the end of September. Still, there aren't many big names on either side of the ball -- look at that player list again and notice the lack of any all-conference honorees -- and this program has to make huge strides just to be competitive in Big Ten play. It's up to Hazell and the players to create some reasons to get interested again in the Boilers.

2. What's the identity on offense?

Hazell has often talked about wanting to be a power-run based team, but the roster he inherited was built more for a spread attack. That meant the offense often looked lost without any discernible identity last year except for throwing the ball a bunch after falling behind early in games. Danny Etling did some nice things as a true freshman quarterback after taking over midseason for Rob Henry a few games into 2013. Despite a lack of playmakers around him, he put up decent numbers down the stretch -- the only question is whether he's the future at the position, or whether David Blough eventually supersedes him. DeAngelo Yancey also had a nice freshman year at receiver and could be a leader there this year. The backfield should boast plenty of speed with Mostert -- who piled up Big Ten sprint titles during track season -- and Akeem Hunt. Offensive coordinator John Shoop has to find better ways of maximizing the talent on hand and increasing the production of a unit that averaged a sickly 14.9 points per game last season.

3. Who steps forward on defense?

Not to belabor the point, but the defense was just as bad as the offense last year while allowing 38 points per game. It also lost a couple of its best players in interception-hogging cornerback Ricardo Allen and defensive tackle Bruce Gaston. Russell has had all the tools to become a star but has yet to put it all together in his career. Massive defensive tackle Ra'Zahan Howard had an encouraging spring. The Boilers' linebacker corps has been a sore spot for the past several years; Robinson, a former quarterback who converted to defense just last summer, is already one of the best players at his position. Perhaps some newcomers like Gelen Robinson can make an impact. There's little doubt that more playmakers are desperately needed on that side of the ball. Who will they be?
The ball is snapped and Ra'Zahn Howard explodes, big-footing across the line of scrimmage to maul running back Akeem Hunt, jarring the ball free. About an hour later, as Purdue's workout ends with team sprints, a huffing and puffing Howard is the last man to cross the line.

The two moments during one of Purdue's practices in March encapsulated the defensive tackle's prodigious potential and how far he still must go to maintain that level of play.

Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell isn't big on hyperbole. He answers questions directly and succinctly, but the Jim Tressel disciple doesn't heap undue praise upon a player, especially an unproven one. Still, Hazell can’t hide his excitement about the 6-4, 315-pound sophomore this spring.

"The most exciting football player on our team right now," Hazell told ESPN.com. "He's got uncommon quickness. He's got unbelievable power. He can be very disruptive.

"He's really special."

[+] EnlargeRa'Zahn Howard
AP Photo/Scott BoehmRa'Zahn Howard appeared in six games last season.
Whether Howard becomes a special player for Purdue remains to be seen. The Boilers could use one after a 1-11 season where nearly nothing went right on either side of the ball.

For now, he's an interesting player -- from his backstory, to his path to Purdue, to his conditioning challenges as a Boiler, to his versatility, to his confidence.

"When we line up in one-on-one, I don't lose," Howard said. "And as far as the run game as far as my get-off, me being the big, explosive athlete that I am, I am aware of the things I can do.

"I just want to continue to humble myself and get better."

Alrighty then ...

Howard, a New Jersey native from what he calls a rough background, didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. He inherited his size from his father, a 6-foot-8, 330-pound giant who, according to Ra'Zahn, had a scholarship offer to Ohio State before taking "the street route."

Howard played his junior season at Winslow Township High School in southern New Jersey before moving north to Asbury Park, N.J., where he earned all-state honors and led Asbury Park High School to a state championship in 2011. Howard recorded 31 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a senior.

He committed to Towson a few months later, where his cousin, Marcus Valentine, played defensive tackle and served as a co-captain. But in an effort to boost his stock and his grades, Howard attended a prep school, Atlanta Sports Academy in Dawsonville, Ga., where he "just blew up."

Former LSU defensive tackle Brandon Washington coached Howard at Atlanta Sports Academy, telling him he had the ability to take over games.

"I got bigger and stronger, of course, and I just got better offers," Howard said. "I got better as a defensive tackle."

One recruiting service rated Howard as the nation's No. 4 defensive tackle. His suitors included Tennessee, Penn State and Mississippi State.

So why did he pick Purdue? His jersey offers a clue. Howard wears No. 93, the same number as former Purdue's standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

"He's one of the reasons I committed here," Howard said. "I had watched a lot of his film. Originally coming out of prep school, I was going to go to Tennessee, but when I came here and met him, it was like a dream come true."

Despite his late introduction to the sport, Howard is somewhat of a football film junkie. He studies defensive linemen such as Timmy Jernigan, Anthony Johnson and Adrian Clayborn, picking up moves and nuances to evolve his game. In his mind, he's making up for lost time.

At prep school, Howard played the 5-technique, the 4-technique, nose guard and even a bit of defensive end. He spent most of the spring playing nose guard at Purdue.

"Ra'Zahn, he might be the most talented person on the defense," Boilers senior defensive end Ryan Russell said. "I've seen a lot of players come through and I've had great tackles, Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short. I definitely think his talent level is up there with them."

The challenge is keeping that talent on the field. Howard was pushing 350 pounds when he arrived at Purdue. He trimmed down to 315 by spring practice and, according to Hazell, is now south of 310.

Howard recorded four tackles, including a sack, in six games last season. Hazell expects much more from him this fall.

"I saw flashes last year," Hazell said. "You saw the power more so than the quickness. Now you’re seeing the power along with, he ran stride for stride with a back down the line on a toss play. He just put his foot in the ground and redirected."

Asked about his sprint struggles at practice and whether there would be a different result in preseason camp, Howard smiled.

"I'm going to have the same ability, of course, but I'm going to be much faster," he said. "I'm going to be around 303, 305, more cut-up."

With size, speed, power, confidence and, potentially, fitness, Howard could be the man to provide a spark for a Purdue defense that desperately needs one.

"He's a different cat," Hazell said. "He really is."
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Quarterback
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
Welcome to June. The 2014 college football season is just a little bit closer. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/fell through a moon door, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Today, we examine Purdue.

[+] EnlargeRobert Kugler
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesRobert Kugler was Purdue's offensive MVP in 2013.
Robert Kugler, C

OK. We know what you're going to say the second you see the headline of this post. How can anyone be indispensable for a team that went 1-11 last season and was historically bad on both sides of the ball? A fair point, and it's not like Darrell Hazell's team is oozing with irreplaceable superstars in Year 2. Still, losing some players would hurt much more than others. Case in point: Kugler. He may not be one of the more recognizable names in the Big Ten, but he was named Purdue's offensive MVP for the 2013 season. The Boilermakers also lost four seniors off last season's offensive line and are replacing both starting tackles. They will be counting on juco transfers David Hedelin and Corey Clements to contribute right away. Even if that goes smoothly, they will need veteran leadership on the unit, and Kugler is just the man to provide it.

Ryan Russell, DE

The Purdue defense had a serious lack of playmakers last season, and it lost two of its best ones in cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston. So there are major question marks for Greg Hudson's defense at several positions going into 2014. Russell has looked like a star-in-the-making for quite some time, with his ideal blend of size and quickness at the end position. But he hasn't yet put it all together, disappearing for long stretches. Still, the senior is one of the most experienced players in the program, and the potential remains there for a breakout season. Purdue needs him to lead the way for younger players on the line like Ra'Zahn Howard, Evan Panfil, Gelen Robinson and Kentucky transfer Langston Newton.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 12, 2014
May 12
12:00
PM ET
Happy belated Mother's Day to all the moms out there. I got to spend the first part of Sunday with mine before flying home to see my wife on her first Mother's Day. Good times.

To the links ...

Purdue spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
5:30
AM ET
The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April, sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Purdue.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • The quarterback competition continues: Danny Etling, who started eight games as a true freshman last season, apparently enters the summer months with a slight edge over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby. Neither took command of the position in the spring, leaving the door open for early enrollee true freshman David Blough.
  • Ryan Russell is ready for a big senior season: Much has been expected from the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end since he arrived in West Lafayette out of Carrollton, Texas, in 2010. He’s started all but two games over the past three seasons but has yet to play at an elite level. This may be the year after his strong spring.
  • The Boilermakers should run the ball better: That’s not saying much after Purdue ranked as arguably the worst team in the nation last season on the ground, averaging 67.1 yards per game (better than only Washington State) and 2.5 yards per attempt (better than only Florida International). Running backs Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt performed well in the spring.
Three questions for the fall
  • Can Purdue muster some offensive firepower?: No one expects Darrell Hazell’s group to line up and hammer Big Ten foes. Purdue must spread the field and rely on the big-play potential of Mostert, the Big Ten's 60- and 200-meter dash champion, and receiver Danny Anthrop. Perhaps tight end Dolapo Macarthy, named the most improved offensive player of the spring, can help here.
  • How can this team improve defensively?: As poorly as the offense performed last season, the defense wasn’t much better, allowing 38 points and nearly 460 yards per game. Russell offers a start. Fellow end Antoine Miles and tackle Michael Rouse III played well in the spring game, and the secondary shows promise behind cornerback Frankie Williams and big-hitting safety Robert Gregory.
  • Who has the highest ceiling at QB?: There’s an argument to make that it’s the 6-foot-1 Blough, who came to Purdue from the same Texas high school as Russell. Of course, he is the most inexperienced. Etling (2012) and Appleby (2011), like Blough last summer, showed well at the Elite 11 finals, so all three come from a strong pedigree. After throwing for 1,690 yards last fall, Etling will be tough to overcome.
One way too early prediction

Purdue will win a Big Ten game next fall. Yes, that’s bold. In all seriousness, the schedule was brutal last season as Purdue faced six straight foes that won nine or more games, then got Iowa and Penn State as a reprieve. Still, the Boilers were not competitive after a seven-point loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 14. Next year will be different. Remember, Purdue won its final three games in the Big Ten in 2012 before last season. A return to better days are near.

Spring game recap: Purdue

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:00
PM ET
No team in the Big Ten wants the 2014 season to arrive faster than Purdue, which wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the Black & Gold spring game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Gold team scored a late touchdown to record a 12-7 win against the Black squad before an announced crowd of 7,125.

For more coverage, read here and here and here.

[+] EnlargeRyan Russell
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDefensive end Ryan Russell shined in Purdue's spring game.
Star of the game: Defensive end Ryan Russell. Purdue has waited years for Russell to take the next step, and it could finally happen in his last season. He came on strong late in the spring and recorded a game-high 11 tackles, as well as 3.5 sacks (some against non-live quarterbacks) and a forced fumble. "He's going with such a higher motor than I've ever seen him go with," quarterback Danny Etling said Saturday. "He's tough to go against. I feel sorry for the other quarterbacks who have to go against him."

How it went down: Both defenses controlled play for most of the game, generating two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss, seven by the Black squad. Although Purdue's offense looked better at times this spring, there are some unanswered questions entering the summer, namely quarterback.

Etling completed 10 of 17 passes for 96 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions and faced a lot of pressure from Black team defensive linemen. He led the game-winning touchdown drive and appeared to emerge from the spring with a slight edge against Austin Appleby, who struggled, completing seven passes for 21 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Stretching the field proved to be very difficult for both Etling and Abbleby, although freshman David Blough made some plays, including a 41-yard scoring pass to Danny Anthrop.

To be fair, neither Etling nor Appleby played with a full complement of receivers or top linemen.

"The package was very limited with what they called," coach Darrell Hazell said. "I'm sure there was more on the call sheet."

Purdue needs improvement from the quarterbacks this summer, but it can feel better about the potential at running back. Raheem Mostert had an excellent spring and finished with a decent day (44 rush yards on 10 carries). Akeem Hunt ended the spring on a good note with 54 rush yards and 73 receiving yards. Mostert and Hunt form a nice 1-2 punch, and both are threats on returns as well.

The Gold team repeatedly forced three-and-outs and received nice lifts from tackle Michael Rouse III (two tackles for loss, forced fumble), end Antoine Miles and cornerback Anthony Brown. Miles and Brown both had interceptions.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:00
PM ET
I missed all the spring games this weekend because I was busy attending Joffrey's wedding.

Video: Purdue DE Ryan Russell

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
2:30
PM ET

Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell talks with Adam Rittenberg about his spring and maximizing his final season as a Boiler.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There's no sugarcoating 1-11.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsPurdue coach Darrell Hazell hopes his offseason message gets through to his players.
When a team performs as poorly as Purdue did in 2013, honesty isn't the best assessment, but the only assessment. As the Boilers closed the book on the season and looked ahead to winter workouts and a pivotal offseason, coach Darrell Hazell bluntly stated what needed to happen.

"Two strong messages," Hazell told ESPN.com. "The strong have to overtake the weak, and the right have to overtake the wrong. The guys in this program who are doing it the right way have to overtake the guys who are doing it the wrong way.

"We just keep hitting them with that message: the strong overtake the weak, and the right overtake the wrong."

The takeover is happening this spring. Is it hostile? At times.

But Purdue's coaches have seen differences in who is leading, who is working hard, and how much time players are devoting to the game.

"We don't have time for people who aren't going in the direction that we're going," quarterback Austin Appleby said. "The guys that aren't all about it are getting suffocated by us. Our goal is the Rose Bowl. Our goal is the Big Ten championship. In order to do that, everyone's got to buy in."

More players are. When offensive coordinator John Shoop shows up to make his morning coffee, players are in the office watching film. Before leaving at night, he tells players to turn off the lights.

But the cleansing isn't complete.

"It's maybe not all the way weeded out, but it's been identified," senior defensive end Ryan Russell said. "Everyone knows basically if you're not giving it your all and you're not committed, we see you, the seniors see you, and we're not taking that lightly."

Added Appleby: "Those guys eliminate themselves."

Russell admits the older players had to recommit to Hazell and his staff after coming to play for predecessor Danny Hope. The lack of coaching continuity, especially on defense, has burdened players and tested their willingness to trust.

But older players such as center Robert Kugler, linebacker Sean Robinson, tight end Dolapo Macarthy, cornerback Frankie Williams and safety Landon Feichter are leading the takeover, and others are falling in line.

"We're not going to let a weak link hold us down," Appleby said. "We aren't going to have any weak links. We're all going."
Purdue's oldest defenders have endured only one complete coaching change since they arrived on campus. So why does it feel like more?

Former Boilermakers coach Danny Hope made changes to the defensive coordinator position after the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. After Hope's ouster, another new defensive play-caller, Greg Hudson, arrived with Darrell Hazell last season.

The changes don't excuse a defense that last fall finished 111th in points allowed, 104th in yards allowed, 114th against the run, 101st in pass efficiency and 120th in red zone defense. Purdue's offense might have been historically bad, but the defense wasn't far off.

[+] EnlargeRyan Russell
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaIt's now or never for Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell, who has been up and down in his career.
The good news: the Boilers get a chance to push the reset button with the same coordinator and scheme.

"It's the first spring these older guys have gone into where they're speaking the same language," Hudson told ESPN.com. "Now you're able to have football conversations with them. They're starting to retain it."

Hudson sees it in the increased numbers of players at Mollenkopf Center on their own time. He sees it in their willingness to learn and in the questions that they ask.

"It's very, very important that the players build equity in the defense," he said. "The more equity, the more ownership."

Purdue's seniors, in particular, have to take ownership of the defense. Hudson has applied the necessary pressure -- "If they don't play well, we're not going to be very good," he said -- while also making it clear that the coaches will go with younger players if they're deserving. Seniors such as end Ryan Russell, safety Landon Feichter and linebacker Sean Robinson all have plenty of snaps under their belts.

None are guaranteed to start when Purdue kicks off the season Aug. 30 against Western Michigan. Russell looked like Purdue's next elite pass rusher after the 2011 season, but his production the past two years has been spotty.

"It's do or die for him," Hudson said. "He's running out of reps. The ability's there. He's got to be at 100 miles an hour instead of 75. I just told him it's like driving. You need to break the speed limit every time the ball's snapped."

Hudson needs his seniors to elevate their play, but he's also optimistic about several younger players, including ends Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle, both of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. Replogle is working with the first-team defense in spring, while Panfil is backing up Russell.

Last spring, Purdue coaches stressed the need for players to become "Big Ten strong." It didn't show up in the fall, as the Boilers dropped all but one of their Big Ten games by 14 points or more and six league contests by 20 points or more.

Is Purdue any closer?

"We've taken another step," Hudson said. "There's another level out there that we need to get to. There's a fine line between building athletes and building football players. We have to find that fine line. They still have to play the game in this league at a very powerful level. I don't want to recruit a bunch of guys at Gold's Gym, but we've moved forward."

Hudson's two main goals for the spring are comprehension of the scheme and relentless play. The first is helped by greater familiarity for players; the second by constant competition.

"There's not very many guys that can separate themselves from the guy behind them," he said. "Their names are written in pencil."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

Nebraska lineman Long out for season

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
12:48
PM ET
Nebraska senior co-captain and three-year starting right guard Spencer Long is done playing for the season with an injury to his left knee that will require surgery.

Coach Bo Pelini said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference that an evaluation after the Huskers’ 44-7 win on Saturday over Purdue showed less damage than originally feared, but Long, a first-team All-Big Ten pick by ESPN and second-team Associated Press All-American a year ago, will undergo surgery on Thursday.

Long was hurt on a running play during Nebraska’s opening drive against the Boilermakers when he fell over Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell as the Nebraska lineman tried to block on the backside of a rush by Imani Cross. A former walk-on from Omaha, Neb., Long has started 33 games since 2011.

He was the most experienced member of an offensive line that helped the 5-1 Huskers rush for 284.8 yards this season, eighth nationally and second to Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Additionally, Nebraska has allowed three sacks in six games, tied for the fewest nationally with Fresno State, Northern Illinois and Toledo.

Junior Mike Moudy replaced Long against Purdue and will likely move into the starting lineup on Oct. 26 against Minnesota, opposite junior Jake Cotton at left guard. The Huskers are off this week.

Sophomores Givens Price and Ryne Reeves could also receive more playing time as a result of the injury. Newcomer Chongo Kondolo, a junior-college transfer who is on target to redshirt this season, could also factor, Pelini said.

“We’re looking at all our options,” Pelini said.

Taylor Martinez’s status has not changed. He’s still not returned to practice or cleared to return, according to Pelini.

SPONSORED HEADLINES