Big Ten: Steve Longa

Big Ten morning links

December, 8, 2014
Dec 8
9:15
AM ET
Welcome to the postseason -- and a world where the Big Ten can play for a national title again. Some thoughts to start your morning:

1. The Big Ten promised freshness and better matchups with its new bowl lineup, and for the most part, the league delivered.

Minnesota is doing back flips about finally having an attractive bowl destination and its first New Year's Day game since 1962. Wisconsin heads to Tampa for the first time since 2008. Nebraska is going to a familiar spot in the Holiday Bowl, but at least the Huskers aren't traveling to Florida for a fourth straight year (and who could complain about a trip to San Diego?). Iowa will play in Jacksonville for the first time since 1983. Maryland gets a San Francisco treat.

The matchups are appealing as well, not to mention extremely challenging. Add in the major bowls, and Big Ten teams will face Alabama, Baylor, Auburn, USC, Missouri and Stanford, among others. Few if any of these games will be easy, and the Big Ten figures to be an underdog in most of them. That, actually, is not all that new.

2. The College Football Playoff selection committee could have chosen Baylor or TCU over Ohio State and made a perfectly reasonable case for it. The difference between those three teams and their credentials is razor thin.

But all along, we were told that conference championships would matter, and so would strong nonconference schedules. The Big 12 chose to not have a conference title game and further muddled things with its co-champions controversy. Even more damning was Baylor's nonconference schedule (SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo). Though the committee's objective is to select the four best teams and not send messages, choosing a team with Baylor's schedule would have hurt the entire sport. At least Ohio State tried to schedule decent teams, playing Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy. If Baylor's approach had succeeded, you could have looked forward to a lot of canceled high-profile matchups and more patsies.

A month ago, with Mississippi State riding a cupcake schedule toward the top at the time, I questioned whether the Big Ten's strategy of adding tough nonconference teams still made sense. We got our answer on Sunday. And it was an answer that will ultimately be good for all of college football.

3. I was very quick to forgive Cardale Jones for his infamous tweet in 2012 ("Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL we ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS"). He was young and dumb, and I am eternally grateful that social media wasn't around when I was that age.

There have been no indications of any problems with Jones since, and he earned a place in Buckeyes lore on Saturday night by leading Ohio State to its 59-0 win against Wisconsin in his first career start.

Still, the fact that Jones hoisted the Big Ten title game MVP trophy literally just a few blocks away from NCAA headquarters was at least a little ironic, no? I doubt he will be asked to star in one of those "Most of us are going pro in something other than sports" ads any time soon.

More links ...

East Division
West Division

Best Big Ten tweets from game day

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
10:00
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Miss out on all the Twitter fun from game day? Have no fear, your Big Ten crew is here -- for an overview.

And in case you're not following us on Twitter yet (seriously?), check out:@ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Big Ten morning links

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
8:00
AM ET
Apologies to the rest of the league, but there's one story that is going to be dominating the coverage today. And it might for the next couple days after suddenly appearing overnight as word trickled out about Braxton Miller's injured shoulder.

If you missed it, the two-time Tribune Silver Football winner, one of the most decorated individuals in Big Ten history and the key to Ohio State's bid for a conference title and a potential run to the College Football Playoffs, left the second practice of a two-a-day session on Monday with what appears to be a new injury to his already surgically-repaired shoulder. A source confirmed to ESPN.com late on Monday that trainers attended to Miller on the field after a throw that the Buckeyes expected to be a barometer of progress as he regained strength in the muscles around his shoulder.

There's no word yet on the severity, but obviously the workout didn't go as planned. The program hasn't confirmed the injury or released any information about medical tests at this point, but it has a previously-scheduled media availability slated for this morning. Stay tuned for more information as the story continues to develop.

As for the rest of the conference?

Depth chart shuffling
East Division
  • A cross between a "mad scientist" and a movie character, Bob Shoop impressed his boss at Penn State from the moment he met James Franklin.
  • One secret to Steve Longa's success at linebacker for Rutgers? Ritually watching film of Ray Lewis.
  • A string of injuries ended the playing career of lineman Nate Clarke, but he's making a quick transition to coaching as a student assistant for Maryland.
  • Indiana is trying to keep the ball rolling with recruits.
West Division
  • Nebraska held a handful of players out of their most recent scrimmage, but there's no reason to be alarmed as the program tries to stay fresh ahead of what could be a taxing September.
  • Wes Lunt appears to still be in the lead at quarterback for Illinois, but official word is expected on Wednesday after practice.
  • Where can Iowa improve? It could probably start in the red zone.
  • In another look at how Northwestern could handle its nonconference schedule, Kevin Trahan asks if the Wildcats should pursue neutral-site games.
  • Wisconsin might wind up putting freshman quarterback D.J. Gillins on the field this season after another solid outing in Monday's scrimmage.
  • There are plenty of pass-rushers in the well-stocked Big Ten looking to make an impact. Count Minnesota's Theiren Cockran among the defensive ends looking to be "the guy" this season.

Best case/Worst case: Rutgers

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
9:00
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Our series on the best- and worst-case scenario for every Big Ten team in 2014 continues with one of two new league members, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

For Rutgers' fans or anyone new to this preseason blog staple, please know these are not to be viewed as predictions. Do not take them seriously. The scenarios illustrate the potential highs and lows in a season. Still not sure? Read the first installment on Wisconsin. Yes, this is meant to be fun.

Best case

Oh, what a night. Gary Nova throws for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and nose tackle Darius Hamilton sacks Christian Hackenberg on fourth down in the final minute as Rutgers defeats Penn State 24-21 at High Points Solutions Stadium in the Scarlet Knights' Big Ten debut.

Rutgers' first win over the Nittany Lions since 1988 -- in the first game between the traditional rivals since 1995 -- highlights a 6-0 start spurred by a resurgent Nova, a mean core of linebackers and a series of fortunate bounces.

Coach Kyle Flood's upstart bunch escapes a late night in Pullman, Washington, with a wild 38-35 victory in the season opener. After the emotional victory over Penn State, Rutgers starts sluggish at Navy, but running back Paul James churns for two touchdowns, and Tyler Kroft catches a late score from Nova to secure a comeback win.

Michigan, in freefall mode after losses to Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, manages just 11 rushing yards in a 21-3 Rutgers win on Oct. 4 in Piscataway as linebacker Steve Longa collects 20 tackles.

The day after an open date on the first weekend of October, Rutgers climbs to No. 15 in The Associated Press poll. Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen is acclaimed as the best Big Ten hire of the previous offseason, and former OC Ron Prince accepts a demotion to quality control coach with the Detroit Lions following a poor performance by the club's tight ends.

The dream season hits a rough patch in late October. Rutgers loses at Ohio State, the first of three defeats in five games before a post-Thanksgiving road win over new rival Maryland to clinch a third-place finish in the Big Ten East.

Flood is named Big Ten coach of the year. Nova is a second-team pick at quarterback. Longa, Hamilton and Kroft are first-team selections. The Big Ten sends Rutgers across the country to San Diego to face USC as the league rekindles its tie-in with the Holiday Bowl.

Really, though, the season will be remembered for what happened on Sept. 13. The win is viewed as the most important by Rutgers since a 2006 upset of third-ranked Louisville en route to an 11-win season. Three of the Nittany Lions' four ESPN 300 recruiting commitments out of New Jersey attend the PSU game, including quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who flips to the Scarlet Knights after the Michigan victory.

To top it off, Rutgers jumps eight spots to No. 25 on this list.

Worst case

This is ugly. Very ugly. Mike Leach runs up the score in the Aug. 28 opener, calling a flea-flicker with 40 seconds to play in a 55-21 debacle at Seattle's Century Link Field.

Penn State spoils the Scarlet Knights' Big Ten opener with a three-touchdown win before a revved-up group of fans in Piscataway who begin to head for the exits in the third quarter.

Nova goes down with a knee injury in a loss at Navy. Tulane squeaks past the Scarlet Knights. Michigan extends its unbeaten season with a 42-0 victory on Oct. 4 as Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess toy with the defensive scheme of first-year coordinator Joe Rossi.

A poll of Rutgers fans and students during the off week before the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State reveals that a majority believe the school should attempt to petition the AAC for re-entry. Athletic Director Julie Hermann is discovered by the Newark Star-Ledger to have inquired about the possibility, reigniting discussion of this unfortunate situation.

Braxton Miller accounts for five touchdowns in the first half on Oct. 18, the start of a three- week stretch in which Rutgers is outscored 134-16 by the Buckeyes, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Rutgers does not lose in Week 11. Actually, it doesn't play. Hermann bungles an attempt to fire Flood as she is overruled publicly by the school's president.

Losses to Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland make it official: Flood is out after a 1-11 finish in his third year, the worst season at school since 2002. Rutgers does not come closer than seven points from winning a Big Ten game. Purdue feels better about itself.

Roundtable: B1G Top 25 players list

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
10:30
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Earlier today, we wrapped up our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players entering the 2014 season. Not surprisingly, Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller topped the list as he aims for a third consecutive Big Ten offensive player of the year award.

Miller was a fairly easy choice at No. 1, but we debated several other players and where they should end up.

It's roundtable time, and our Big Ten reporter crew is set to break down the Top 25.

Which player did you struggle with the most to rank?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner's inconsistent play forced him down the Big Ten's top 25 players list.
Adam Rittenberg: Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner. He can be really, really good, as we saw last season in games like Notre Dame, Ohio Sate and Indiana. But he also has some moments -- or even entire games -- that leave you scratching your head. He actually didn't appear in my Top 25 because of concerns about his consistency, Michigan's depth at receiver and a struggling offensive line. I can live with him at No. 22 and could certainly see him rise up, but you just don't know what you're going to get week to week.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure I properly ranked (or in some cases didn't rank) the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights. It's tough because we haven't watched them that closely, while we know the ins and outs of players who competed in the Big Ten the past couple of years. I'm sure Stefon Diggs belongs, and Andre Monroe probably does, too. What about Tyler Kroft or Paul James or Darius Hamilton or Steve Longa or Deon Long? We'll know more about these guys' bona fides after they spend a year in the league.

Mitch Sherman: Venric Mark posed some problems for me. Coming back from a broken ankle that ruined his 2013 season, the Northwestern Wildcats running back is something of a forgotten man, especially amid an outstanding group of league backs. But Mark rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2012 and would have likely earned a spot higher than I gave him -- No. 16; 15th in the composite vote -- a year ago.

Which player(s) do you see making the biggest moves up the list for the postseason rankings?

Austin Ward: Now that he's the last one standing with the Indiana Hoosiers, quarterback Nate Sudfeld won't have to worry about sharing snaps or practice reps, and his numbers could skyrocket in that high-octane offense. Fairly or unfairly, though, if the defense doesn't lend a bigger hand to help earn Sudfeld some credit as a winner, he might not be able to climb all that much higher than No. 23.

Rittenberg: Two defensive players suiting up in the Mitten State jump out in Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (No. 20) and Michigan State Spartans cornerback Trae Waynes (No. 19). Ryan showed in 2012 just how good he can be when healthy, recording four forced fumbles and 16 tackles for loss. Coaches around the Big Ten love Waynes, who steps into the top cover corner role with Darqueze Dennard departing. I also love Tevin Coleman's potential and could see the Indiana running back in our postseason top 10.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerNate Sudfeld's stock should rise as he leads Indiana's offense this season.
Bennett: I admittedly like Gardner the most and ranked him higher than everyone else. Yes, he forces things at times. But he's also incredibly tough, and he got zero help from the running game last season. If Doug Nussmeier can improve the ground game and patch together a decent offensive line, Gardner could finish as a top 10 player.

What does the Top 25 say about certain positions in the league?

Sherman: We probably overvalue quarterbacks. It's the most important position in football, yes, but I doubt five actually rate among the league’s top 23 players. Interestingly, with the quarterbacks and five running backs, we've still got just 13 offensive players in the top 25. Clearly, it's a strong year for Big Ten defensive ends. By December, at least one of those pass-rushers will belong among the league’s best four players.

Bennett: Defensive end is stacked. Nebraska Cornhuskers' Randy Gregory, MSU's Shilique Calhoun and Ohio State's Joey Bosa are studs, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Theiren Cockran and Ohio State's Noah Spence are also special. Also, where are all the offensive linemen in a league known for them? Other than Brandon Scherff, star tackles, guards and centers are MIA.

Ward: Playing quarterback might not be all that fun this season. Ohio State's defensive line might be among the best in the nation, but that's not the only team that will be able to generate a ferocious pass rush. There are seven defensive linemen listed in the preseason top 25, and there could easily have been a few more.

Who were the biggest snubs, either in ranking or those who didn't even make the Top 25?

Sherman: I'll go with two guys who didn't make the list -- Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, on track to rewrite the school records at his position, and Rutgers' Longa, who collected 123 tackles as a redshirt freshman last year. If Longa played at an established league school, he would have made the Top 25. I voted Bell at No. 23, by the way, and Longa at No. 24.

Rittenberg: I ranked Illinois running back Josh Ferguson in my list and would have liked to see him in the group. He's incredibly versatile -- 50 receptions last season -- and explosive with the ball in his hands. I really like Waynes and think Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran could have been higher than No. 21.

Ward: Calling Doran Grant a snub might be a stretch coming off a season with three interceptions for Ohio State’s anemic pass defense, but I think the senior’s talent is overlooked and he’s primed for a breakout in the new system co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has installed. Playing more aggressively with bump-and-run coverage suits Grant’s athleticism, and by the end of the year, I expect he'll be recognized among the Big Ten's best.

Bennett: Indiana receiver Shane Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten player last season, and now he's the top option in the Hoosiers' high-octane passing attack. Fellow players pointed to Wynn as one of the league's best playmakers during media days, yet he didn't get his due here.
It's less than a week now until Big Ten media days arrive at the Hilton Chicago, where 14 smiling coaches will appear, and the smell of football will permeate the air. Can you feel the excitement?

To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.

1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?

Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.

2. Who made this schedule, anyway?

After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.

3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?

No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
PM ET
College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
Maryland and Rutgers officially made the leap on Tuesday. In less than two months, they'll be playing football as members of the Big Ten.

We've been talking about this moment since November 2012. Rarely, have the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights been mentioned as contenders in their new league. But change comes fast in college football.

It could happen here, too. On this historic day as the Big Ten goes from 12 to 14, here are six reasons to believe that Maryland and Rutgers, as a pair and individually, can experience success in the Big Ten:
  • The Big Ten just isn't that good. You've heard about this, right? The league last played for a national championship seven years ago and hasn't won a title since January 2003. It has performed poorly of late against the major-conference competition and went 2-5 in bowls last season, though Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl – the Big Ten's second triumph in Pasadena since New Year's Day 2000. How does any of this impact Maryland and Rutgers, expected by many to finish 6-7 in the Big Ten East Division? It means no conference foe is unbeatable. It means there's hope.
  • For a while, at least, they're going to get noticed. Rutgers has long operated in the shadow of pro sports in its region, while Maryland football played second fiddle amid the ACC basketball buzz. The Big Ten figures to change some of that. The Terps have already benefited in recruiting from the move. Rutgers needs to capitalize on the attention to make a dent in a deep pool of New Jersey prep talent. You want excitement? Check out Rutgers' Big Ten opener, Sept. 13, when Penn State visits for the first meeting in the series since 1995. Expect Maryland's first Big Ten home game, three weeks later against Ohio State, to equally move the needle.
  • The Terps are trending up. Coach Randy Edsall took Maryland from a two-win team in 2011 to six in 2012 and seven last year. The Terrapins remained an average program in the ACC, but Edsall and his staff have begun to stack the pieces in place, notably on offense, to make a move in the Big Ten. For quarterback C.J. Brown, the time is now to make a mark in the new league. Brown, from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, is a dual threat who knows the Big Ten style. He works well with coordinator Mike Locksley, an innovative offensive mind. Meanwhile, Maryland's incoming class, bolstered by the impending move, ranked 50th nationally, featuring home grown star Damian Prince at offensive tackle.
  • Deon Long and Stefon Diggs are healthy. Diggs, a junior, and the senior Long form perhaps the best receiving duo in the Big Ten. Both wideouts suffered leg fractures on Oct. 19 in the Terps' 34-10 loss at Wake Forest. Long broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg; Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg, triggering a stretch of four Maryland losses in five games before a regular season-ending win at North Carolina State. Long and Diggs returned for spring practice and appear on track to torment even the best of secondaries in the Big Ten this fall.
  • Gary Nova is back at the helm. This could go either way, depending on whom you ask at Rutgers. But we say it's good for the Scarlet Knights to go through a transformation such as this in with a steady hand at quarterback. Nova has started 28 games and ranks third in school history with 51 touchdown throws. He was benched in favor of Chas Dodd after winning five of 10 starts in 2013, but Nova has won consistently, dating to his unbeaten days as a starter at Don Bosco Prep. To help his cause, Rutgers returns five starters on the offensive line and its top four rushers.
  • There's new energy on the Rutgers defense and strength up the middle. Joe Rossi, the 35-year Rutgers defensive coordinator promoted this offseason from special teams coach, offers a new start for a unit that endured struggles last season. Its strength comes against the run, which figures to suit Rutgers better in the Big Ten than it did in the AAC. And through the core of its defense, tackle Darius Hamilton, middle linebacker Kevin Snyder -- who switched spots with linebacker Steve Longa -- and safety Lorenzo Waters form a backbone of veteran leadership.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
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.

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