Big Ten: Theiren Cockran

Life as a marked man can take a toll on personal numbers, but Theiren Cockran has no problem with the new math that came with becoming a target for offensive linemen.

The Minnesota defensive end watched his sacks total drop. He wasn’t around the ball as often to chip in as many tackles for loss last season following his breakout campaign as a sophomore. And in the process, the preseason hype and the awards spotlight dwindled as well.

But measuring his impact isn’t really possible with individual statistics, and with more on-field attention directed at Cockran, the Gophers around him more than picked up the slack on a unit that collectively was significantly improved. And if it takes some sort of statistical sacrifice to keep Minnesota in the picture as a Big Ten contender again this season, that equation works just fine for the rising senior heading into his final spring practice at Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaTheiren Cockran's statistics as a junior weren't as good as his sophomore season, but Minnesota's coaches know he was just as effective at disrupting opposing offenses.
“When teams key on you a little bit, when they notice you have had a little success or something like that, they start to focus on you more,” Cockran said. “So, if you look at the stats, it might take away from them a bit. But the other part is that if you’re getting double-teamed, somebody is getting open.

“Some things changed, but there was nothing bad about it. I feel like it was a great year.”

Cockran won’t get much argument from the Gophers, who had plenty to feel good about collectively as they hung around in the West Division race until the final week of the regular season. More specifically, the defensive line took a noticeable step forward getting after opposing quarterbacks, even if it wasn’t Cockran supplying the final blow as often as he did in 2013.

After bursting on the scene with a team-leading 7.5 sacks as a sophomore, Cockran had just four last season and also had just seven tackles for loss as a junior.

But while he occupied blockers, the rest of the unit was taking advantage and improving its sack total by nine from the previous season. When he forced some quicker throws that weren’t reflected on his stats sheet, a talented secondary was pouncing on mistakes and nabbing 15 interceptions. At the same time, Cockran was establishing himself as a leader in the trenches, a role that is more important than ever with the Gophers replacing two starters up front this spring as they gear up for another run at a division title this fall.

“With the numbers he had from his sophomore year, you would definitely have to pay attention to him and what he’s doing,” Gophers defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. “That’s where we have to continue developing other guys around him as well, and that way they just can’t focus on him. If they do, then you have success with the guy on the other side or the guys up the middle as well.

“He really played well. The stats, you know how it is, you can swing those any way you want. It’s almost like a complex problem where everything has to time out just right for you to get the sack. I think if you look at the amount of times he got pressure on the quarterback, I think those would match up.”

Turning a few more of those close calls into sacks for Cockran, though, would surely provide a boost for the Gophers moving forward.

Some of the factors might be out of his hands, as he has no control over blocking schemes, three-step drops or anything else designed to limit his ability to slow down an offense. But Cockran has a lengthy list of things he can do himself right now, working on everything from his reaction time to fine-tuning his steps on the way to the quarterback during spring practice so he can disrupt those plans in the fall.

“I really try not to focus on my individual performance; I focus on what’s important for the team, what’s good for the defensive line,” Cockran said. “We made improvements as a defensive line, and that’s the most I could ask for.

“Now, knowing that this is the last year, I just want to leave on that good note.”

There’s already evidence that it won’t take huge individual numbers to deliver one.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Defensive line is up now. For others in the series, click here:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Shilique Calhoun's return guarantees the Spartan Dawgs will retain their bite up front. Starting defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also will be back, and Malik McDowell could be ready to take a leap forward after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Michigan State does have to replace four-year starter Marcus Rush, but it has Demetrius Cooper groomed to take on a much larger role. This is a deep and talented bunch anchored by a potential NFL first-rounder in Calhoun.

Next up: Ohio State

You could consider the Spartans and Buckeyes Nos. 1 and 1A here. Ohio State still has reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa at defensive end, along with Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle. But the Buckeyes did lose All-America defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive end Steve Miller, and they weren't very deep at the position last season. Incoming true freshmen Dre'Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell could be asked to contribute right away at end, and the hope is someone from a group of redshirt sophomores -- Donovan Munger, Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle -- can move in next to Washington.

Sleepers: Michigan and Minnesota

The Wolverines replace both of their starting defensive ends from last season in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, though Clark was dismissed from the team before the season ended. Michigan should be in very good shape at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, and it could be Taco Charlton's time to shine at defensive end. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had players on the front four gain weight this offseason in anticipation of possibly some more 3-4 looks this fall.

Minnesota lost two starters in tackle Cam Botticelli and Michael Amaefula, but remember the line dealt with some early injuries last season and still excelled. Defensive end Theiren Cockran returns, along with promising rising sophomore Steven Richardson at tackle, while Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith are back from their injuries. The Gophers like their depth here, too.

Problem for contenders: Nebraska and Wisconsin

These may not be problems as much as question marks, but both the Huskers and Badgers need some new players to step up this spring.

Nebraska looks all set in the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, but Randy Gregory's departure leaves a huge hole at defensive end. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish return starting experience there, but they won't remind anyone of Gregory nor scare many opposing offensive tackles the same way he did.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, must replace two members of its three-man starting front in departing seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg gained a lot of experience, but the Badgers will probably need a young guy like Alec James to improve this spring to solidify the entire unit.

Welcome to the new normal at Nebraska

November, 22, 2014
11/22/14
7:30
PM ET
video

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska lost 28-24 to Minnesota on Saturday, blowing a two-touchdown lead in the Golden Gophers’ first win at Memorial Stadium in eight tries since 1960 and their first win on the road over a ranked team in 21 attempts, dating to 2000.

For Minnesota, it marked a major hurdle cleared and set it up to play in a Big Ten West title game next week in Madison, Wisconsin. Heady stuff for Jerry Kill’s team.

And for Nebraska? It changed nothing.

A victory on Senior Day would have felt nice and looked good. It would have made for a more enjoyable Nebraska Thanksgiving before the regular season ends Friday at Iowa.

Nothing changed here, though. This is the new normal at Nebraska, and even the coach won't argue.

“We don’t play very smart,” Bo Pelini said after the game in matter-of-fact fashion.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsWith Saturday's loss, winning critical games in November continued to be an issue for Bo Pelini.
He criticized the Huskers’ defensive execution and lamented fumbles after the catch by freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El in the closing seconds of the second and fourth quarters, both within grasp of the end zone.

“We had some good things happen,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Amstrong Jr. said. “We had some bad things happen. Bad things happened at the wrong time.”

This is what you get now with Pelini’s program. There’s no way around it.

As Nebraska stands one defeat from a seventh straight four-loss season -- it merits mention alongside the streak of six consecutive nine-win seasons -- fans and school administration must ask these questions:

Are the Huskers in a good spot? And are they moving in the right direction?

Nebraska has lost three of its past four November home games. Pelini is 10-6 in the money-making month since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, including a 4-0 finish in 2012 before they fell off a cliff on Dec. 1. Remember that 70-31 Big Ten title game whooping by Wisconsin?

I don’t pretend to know what athletic director Shawn Eichorst thinks about this cycle of painful late-season weekends. Many people failed last year to forecast his moves.

When Eichorst, in August, last discussed football in public, he said Pelini’s program was “stable.”

The possibility exists that nothing has changed in Eichorst’s evaluation.

The Huskers lost by five touchdowns a week ago at Wisconsin, their 10th loss by 20 points or more since 2008. Minnesota didn’t break any all-time records in Lincoln, but the Gophers rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns.

And even if Minnesota hadn’t exposed the Huskers on defense again or if Pierson-El hadn’t lost those fumbles, it wouldn’t have provided any answers about Nebraska’s direction.

Last week was about answering those questions. Not Saturday.

Pelini said he saw signs in practice for weeks of the defensive meltdowns that occurred the past two weeks. Before November, the breakdowns in execution had not hurt the Huskers badly.

“Last two weeks, they hurt us,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nebraska drilled repeatedly in practice on Minnesota’s zone-heavy rushing attack. The Gophers did not hurt Nebraska with new tricks.

“They were things that we covered, went over, executed, and then [when] we got into the game, it was like we never saw them before,” Pelini said. “It’s a bad recipe.”

According to safety Nate Gerry, the Huskers did not realize Minnesota would rely so much on QB Mitch Leidner in the run game. He carried 22 times for 111 yards.

All of it speaks to a disconnect. Either the Huskers aren’t coaching it right or they’ve got the wrong players in place. Regardless, Pelini is tasked to find the fix.

Will he? Can he?

Nebraska lost starting center Mark Pelini and star receiver Kenny Bell to injury on the first offensive series. For Minnesota, standout tailback David Cobb went down in the second half.

The Gophers simply responded better, getting tough play from backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood.

Williams burned Nebraska with a 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, bouncing to the outside on fourth-and-1 as the Huskers sold out to the inside. It was a gutsy call by Kill.

Minutes later as Nebraska led by three points, Pelini told offensive coordinator Tim Beck to look for a big play on second-and-1. A wasted down, Pelini said. Theiren Cockran sacked Armstrong to kill the drive.

“You know what, you live and learn,” Pelini said. “That call isn’t why we lost the game. Trust me on that.”

Trust in Pelini is waning, a reality unchanged by the result on Saturday.

No, this game didn’t change anything for Nebraska, which is perhaps more disturbing than the alternative.
At his core, Brady Hoke is a defensive line coach. Looks like one. Talks like one. Acts like one.

Ask him about defensive line play, or watch him work with the defensive tackles at Michigan, as I have, and you can feel the enthusiasm he has for the job. He's in his happy place, his comfort zone.

At times during Hoke's Michigan tenure, particularly in recent weeks, he has looked a lot less comfortable being the CEO of a big-deal program. We knew Monday's news conference would be a difficult one for Hoke, as the Shane Morris incident in Saturday's loss to Minnesota had gained national traction, not just in the sports media but on "Good Morning America" and "Today."

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsThe pressure is mounting on Michigan coach Brady Hoke after getting routed at home by Minnesota.
So the D-line coach played defense, responding to criticism that the sophomore QB should have been removed from the game immediately after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit from Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Hoke did not see the hit, but after reviewing it, he believes it to be targeting and submitted the play to the Big Ten for review.

Hoke said he would never compromise a player's health, especially when the player had potential head trauma. He said Michigan's medical staff is the only group that determines whether a player can re-enter a game, as Morris did. He said that Morris was not concussed, and the only health issue that hampered the quarterback was a high ankle sprain.

"There should be some criticism when we talk about the performance, and that's me and coaching and I understand that," Hoke said. "But when your integrity and character is attacked, I think that is really unwarranted."

Hoke's character shouldn't be attacked here. Anyone who knows the coach -- inside or outside Schembechler Hall -- will vouch for him. He loves his players. He loves Michigan. None of that should be in doubt.

But his performance, not only with wins and losses but with an ability to oversee a high-profile program and all that comes with it, including handling a crisis, should be scrutinized. Several folks around the college football world I corresponded with Monday said the same thing about Hoke: good coach, great guy, tough guy, but the Michigan job might be too big for him.

Every FBS head coach must project an image of complete control, but it's even more important to do so at programs like Michigan that are constantly under the microscope. It takes a certain personality, usually a flashy one and an unflappable one, to handle the toughest of situations. Hoke doesn't exactly fit the profile.

It's fine that Hoke was watching the ball during the play in question, but someone on Michigan's sideline should have seen the hit and Morris' subsequent stumble. Even if it was just the ankle giving out, someone needed to intervene and ensure Morris didn't take the next snap.

Hoke said those people are there and would step in if they saw a problem.

"I would assume yes," he said, "because they do every other time."

Well, this time they didn't. That's a problem.

That brings us to the headset question. You knew it was coming on Monday.

Unlike most head coaches, Hoke doesn't wear a headset for the majority of games. He's often mocked for it, as some say he's not fully plugged in. Hoke thinks it's just the opposite; he can teach more and be more engaged without a headset.

But he was asked Monday if he would wear a headset in the future to be more clued-in about potential injuries.

"No, thank you," he said, clearly annoyed.

Whether the headset matters or not, the image does. So does the image of Morris stumbling into offensive lineman Ben Braden after taking a blow to the head. And so does the image of Hoke going on the defensive with the media.

All these images form a bigger picture and a question: Should Hoke be the face of Michigan football?

If things don't improve quickly, it's hard to see him moving forward as CEO.

This happens in college football. Some coaches are better-suited to different roles. Charlie Weis, twice fired as a head coach at major programs, surely will have opportunities as an offensive playcaller. If Will Muschamp doesn't make it at Florida, he'll likely have his pick of defensive coordinator jobs.

It could be the same thing with Hoke.

There were a million things he'd rather be doing Monday than responding to reporters' questions under the glare of the national spotlight.

Like coaching defensive linemen.

Big Ten morning links

August, 19, 2014
8/19/14
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: Minnesota

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
2:00
PM ET
Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They illustrate potential highs and lows and give us an opportunity, before the seriousness of the season arrives, to have a little fun.

Up, the next Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Best case

Before all the lollipops and rose petals, a question: Minnesota fans, would you take another 8-5 season, guaranteed no better or worse, if it were offered today?

Yes? I thought so.

With a backloaded schedule, quarterback questions and not much in the way of all-conference-caliber talent, the Gophers ought to jump at the opportunity to repeat the magic of 2013. Let’s face it, last season played out very much in best-case fashion.

Fast forward to Nov. 29. It’s been a fun fall for the Gophers as quarterback Mitch Leidner has come of age in Matt Limegrover’s offense. Running back David Cobb improved on his 1,200-yard junior season to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors. The Gophers got a great season from defensive end Theiren Cockran.

Still, there is unfinished business at hand. Wisconsin has won 10 straight in this series. Little reason exists to believe, after losses to Ohio State and Nebraska -- the Gophers’ first two-game skid of the season -- that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is coming back to the Twin Cities.

But coach Gary Andersen’s club, eliminated from contention for the West title a week earlier in a loss at Iowa, wallowed in its sorrows and ate a bit too much turkey before the visit from Leidner and Co.

The sophomore quarterback turns Camp Randall into his personal playground, throwing for 200 yards in the first half -- highlighted by a 93-yard catch and run from big tight end Maxx Williams to give the Gophers a 21-7 lead. They hold on to win 24-21 as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon loses his second late fumble in as many weeks, sealing the win for Minnesota.

The Gophers carry Jerry Kill out of the stadium on their shoulders after a second straight eight-win regular season that began with a 4-0 nonconference run, featuring a 6-4 victory at TCU on Sept. 13 that does little for Big Ten credibility. Sure, a win’s a win, but this game was so ugly that Kill and old buddy Gary Patterson agreed during the post-game handshake to cancel the Horned Frogs' return trip to Minneapolis in 2015.

Minnesota can’t pull off its fourth win against Michigan since 1977, but the Gophers rebound behind Cobb and an improving defensive line to win three of the next four.

The Big Ten rewards Kill with an Outback Bowl appearance, Minnesota’s first postseason trip to Florida since the 2000 MicronPC.com Bowl (that game -- and sponsor -- existed) to face fellow upstart Ole Miss.

Low and behold, Minnesota gets its ninth victory on New Year’s Day. Guess the Gopher fans should think twice about that eight-win guarantee after all.

Worst case

Murphy’s Law at work here, starting on Sept. 6 as the Gophers lose at home to Conference USA’s Middle Tennessee when Leidner throws four interceptions. A week later, Minnesota is reeling as it heads to TCU, and its collective mood only gets worse after a 24-0 beatdown by the Frogs exposes the lack of playmakers on this offense.

Minnesota opens Big Ten play with losses to Michigan and Northwestern before staging a temporary resurgence on homecoming against Purdue. But Cobb and senior guard Zac Epping, the Gophers’ best lineman, are injured on different parts of the same play in a bit of a microcosm of the season.

Both players sit as Minnesota loses at Illinois, ending a four-game winning streak by the Gophers in Champaign. Iowa beats Minnesota at home in a two-hour, 25-minute pillow fight amid freezing rain as neither team completes a pass after halftime. The Hawkeyes, in fact, do not attempt a pass in the second half.

On the eve of a visit from Ohio State, Minnesota fans rally in support in support of Richard Pitino’s basketball team as the coach defeats his father, Rick Pitino, and Louisville in the Armed Forces Class in Puerto Rico. So starved for a celebration, Minnesota students party right through Saturday, largely missing Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller's 500 yards of total offense in a 52-3 OSU victory.

Trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin do not go much better. If you’re counting, that’s a 3-9 season, same as 2010 and 2011, yet this time around, it feels much worse.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:

Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford returns after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 TDs in 2013.
Take 1: Mitch Sherman

The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.

Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.

But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.

There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.

Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.

Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.

[+] EnlargeGregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikIt took Randy Gregory one season to show NFL scouts he could be a first-round pick.
Take 2: Brian Bennett

The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.

NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

2013 overall record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Theiren Cockran, DE; Mitch Leidner, QB; Josh Campion OT.

Key losses: Phillip Nelson, QB; Ra'Shede Hageman, DT; Brock Vereen, CB; Ed Olson, LT; Aaron Hill, LB.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDavid Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns last season, returns to lead an improved Gophers' offense out of the backfield.
Instant impact newcomer: Melvin Holland Jr. wasn't technically the highest-rated recruit in Minnesota's 2014 signing class, but the four-star receiver looks like a smart bet to make his mark the quickest for the program this fall. The Gophers are still trying to build their passing attack and add weapons around Leidner, and Holland has already made a strong impression on teammates and coaches with his quick adjustment to the college game and a 6-foot-3 frame that could make him an intriguing target.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Mitch Leidner, So., 6-4, 237; RB: David Cobb, Sr., 5-11, 229; WR: Donovahn Jones, So., 6-3, 200 ; WR: Drew Wolitarsky, So., 6-3, 226; WR: KJ Maye, Jr., 5-10, 195; TE: Maxx Williams, So., 6-4, 250; LT: Ben Lauer, So., 6-7, 315; LG: Zac Epping, Sr., 6-2, 318; C: Tommy Olson, Sr., 6-4, 306; RG: Foster Bush, Jr., 6-5, 304; RT: Josh Campion, Jr., 6-5, 317.

Defense: DE: Theiren Cockran, Jr., 6-6, 255, ; DT: Scott Ekpe, Jr., 6-4, 293; DT: Cameron Botticelli, Sr., 6-5, 281, ; DE: Michael Amaefula, Sr., 6-2, 249 ; LB: De'Vondre Campbell, Jr., 6-5, 226; LB: Damien Wilson, Sr., 6-2, 249; LB: Jack Lynn, So., 6-3, 238; CB: Derrick Wells, Sr., 6-0, 201; CB: Eric Murray, Jr., 6-0, 195; S: Cedric Thompson, Sr., 6-0, 208; S: Damarius Travis, Jr., 6-2, 211.

Specialists: K: Ryan Santoso, Fr., 6-6, 245; P: Peter Mortell, Jr., 6-2, 192.

Biggest question mark: The offense is his alone to run, and, fair or not, how successful this season turns out for the Gophers will be tied to the development of their sophomore quarterback. Minnesota didn't ask Leidner to do all that much as a passer when he was on the field last season, but he was generally efficient and avoided many major mistakes while throwing just one interception in 78 attempts. That workload figures to increase dramatically, and the Gophers are going to need him to keep defenses honest by bumping up his completion percentage from 55 and stretching the field with some deep shots to prevent opponents from loading up the box to stop Cobb and the rushing attack.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at home against Iowa. If the Gophers are going to go from preseason dark horse to actual contender in the West division, taking care of the Hawkeyes entering the stretch run in November will be absolutely critical. Minnesota has to play all three of its divisional foes, which are currently tabbed as the favorites in the West in the final month of the season, but it gets Iowa at home only before playing Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. If the Gophers can't defend TCF Bank Stadium against the Hawkeyes, the brutal back-to-back trips to take on the Huskers and Badgers might not mean much for them in the standings.

Upset special: Sept. 13 at TCU. The Horned Frogs have no shortage of defensive talent and will be much more comfortable in the September conditions in Texas. But Minnesota's rushing attack combined with a TCU offense undergoing a bit of transition could allow the Gophers to shorten the game and keep the score down, which might allow them to sneak out with a nonconference victory that would be meaningful for both them and the rest of the Big Ten.

Key stat: Only eight teams in the nation threw for fewer yards per game than Minnesota did a year ago, when the Gophers averaged 148.1 per game through the air. They averaged just more than 10 completions per game, dragging down an offense that collectively finished No. 11 in the Big Ten and put a ton of pressure on the defense on a weekly basis.

What they're wearing: The Gophers haven't gone overboard with multiple sets of uniforms since the redesign in 2012, but they have on occasion switched up their helmets. The school reached a new deal over the summer that will keep the team in Nike gear, and the lucrative contract will if nothing else allow the Gophers to still have plenty of options presented to them when they want to switch up the style.

Team's top Twitter follows: The face of the program has an account, and Leidner (@MitchLeidner7) has recently been helpful in providing some behind-the-scenes looks at the team as it goes through training camp. Thompson (@cedjunior2) is a humorous follow and could become a friend if you have a drill he can borrow. Cockran (@TCockran55) is worth an add as well, although it might be best to wait since he vowed not to use any social media until the end of August. The team account (@GopherFootball) does a fantastic job providing video and audio updates.

They said it: "I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year. We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?" -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill.

Stats & Information projection: 5.48 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 6.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. The Gophers were one of the most surprising teams in the league a year ago thanks in large part to a defense that was capable of handling such a heavy load all season long. And while there are seven starters back for that unit, and the offense should take a step forward with eight first-team returners back this fall, the schedule might hide the improvements Minnesota figures to make this season. The Gophers are going to be a tough out for every opponent, but getting back to another bowl game should be considered a success against this slate.

Roundtable: B1G Top 25 players list

August, 1, 2014
8/01/14
10:30
AM ET


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.
As the 2014 season creeps closer, we're breaking down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. All five Big Ten reporters voted, ranking players based on both past performance and future potential at the college level.

Unlike in past years, we'll be releasing these in groups of five, not individually. So, without further ado, the first five names in the countdown ...

25. Blake Countess, CB, Michigan: Countess kicks off our top 25 but easily could move up the list if he builds on a good sophomore season. He led the Big Ten with six interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and earned first-team all-conference honors from the media. If he continues his playmaking ways, he should contend for the Big Ten's Tatum–Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.

24. Andre Monroe, DE, Maryland: The Terrapins need a solid defensive front to compete in their new league, and Monroe plays a big role following a breakout 2013 season. He led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17), as he rebounded extremely well from a knee injury that cost him the 2012 season. A shorter, stouter defensive end at 5-foot-11 and 282 pounds, Monroe is a great fit in Maryland's 3-4 defense.

23. Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana: Tre Roberson's transfer earlier this summer clears the way for Sudfeld to take total control on offense. Sudfeld has 28 touchdown passes in his first two seasons despite sharing time and could put up huge numbers in Kevin Wilson's quarterback-friendly offense. He has a mostly new-look receiving corps but plays behind one of the league's best offensive lines.

22. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: We had some debate about Gardner, who, like his team, had both brilliant and bad moments throughout the 2013 season. He's still the Big Ten's leading returning passer (2,960 yards) and accounted for 32 touchdowns (21 pass, 11 rush) last season. If he clicks with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and gets help from a besieged line, he could finish a truly unique career on a high note.

21. Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota: Overshadowed by linemate Ra'Shede Hageman in 2013, Cockran's big season (7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles) went largely unnoticed outside Minneapolis. He figures to get much more attention this season and has worked hard to put himself among the Big Ten's top pass-rushers. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds and athletic, Cockran could be a nightmare for offensive tackles.

Coming Tuesday: Nos. 20-16 ...

Preseason position preview: DL

July, 16, 2014
7/16/14
10:30
AM ET
You want to win in the Big Ten? Then you'd better have a strong defensive line.

Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.

Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:

Best of the best: Ohio State

I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.

Next up: Michigan State

Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Another sign of the impending season arrived today with the start of the preseason award watch lists. These largely meaningless lists began with two of the biggies, the Maxwell (nation's top player) and Bednarik (nation's top defender), both of which included groups of Big Ten players. With 76 names on the Bednarik list and 74 on the Maxwell list, some are wondering if anyone didn't make the rundowns. But believe it or not, there are some possible snubs.

Today's Take Two topic: Which Big Ten players could have been included on the Maxwell and Bednarik watch lists?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

Let's begin with the Maxwell. Most of the reasonable Big Ten options are covered here (and some less than reasonable ones), but Indiana running back Tevin Coleman deserves some love. Coleman might have to lap the field to actually win the Maxwell, but you can't tell me there are 70 better offensive players than the Hoosiers junior. He's not Melvin Gordon, but his statistics in only nine games -- 7.3 yards-per-carry average, three rushes of 60 yards or more, five rushes of 50 yards or more, 141.7 all-purpose yards per game -- are reminiscent of the Badgers star. Coleman will get more touches this season as Stephen Houston departs, and he plays behind one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines.

Indiana ultimately needs to upgrade its defense to gain national hype for its team and its individual stars. But if Coleman builds on 2013, he'll be noticed. He scored at least once in every game he played last season and contributes in a variety of ways.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Mike Hull is underappreciated nationally.
The Big Ten's Bednarik contention is heavy with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan players. Although I still need to see more from Michigan's Frank Clark, I have no major issues with these inclusions. But I'm going to stump for Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton and Penn State linebacker Mike Hull. Wisconsin recorded only nine interceptions last season, but four came from Shelton, who entered the starting lineup as a true freshman and led the team in both picks and passes defended (11). The Badgers lose three NFL draft picks on defense but retain a potential big-time playmaker in Shelton.

Penn State linebackers seldom struggle to gain the spotlight, but Hull, a fifth-year senior, has gone under the radar a bit, in part because of injury. He's one of the league's most experienced defenders and has been labeled the quarterback of the defense by new coordinator Bob Shoop. New coach James Franklin came away impressed with Hull this spring. A breakout season could be on tap, and if so, Hull will be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors and potentially more.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

First off, let's put the word "snub" in quotes. We must acknowledge that these preseason watch lists are outdated and silly, and they really mean nothing when it comes to the final awards. And it has been the case in the past that the reason a notable player didn't "make" the list was because his school simply forgot to nominate him.

But it's early July, and we need something to talk about, right? I thought the Maxwell list did a pretty good job including the biggest offensive stars in the Big Ten. I agree with Adam that Coleman has a chance to put up some major numbers, along with quarterback Nate Sudfeld and receiver Shane Wynn. But Indiana has to get itself on the national radar before its players reap the rewards.

What about Iowa's Brandon Scherff? We already know he's "a freak," and he's a likely first-round pick and a possible All-American next year. Offensive linemen never win and rarely even get mentioned for these awards, and that's a shame.

The Bednarik list is exhaustive. As much as I like players such as Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond and Penn State's Jordan Lucas, I can't envision any scenario in which they actually win this award. But if there were players missing from this list for the Big Ten, I think it's a pair of defensive ends: Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Monroe had 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in the ACC last year, and it wouldn't require much improvement for him to be among the national leaders in those categories this season. Similarly, Cockran is a gifted athlete who had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2013.

Both are dark horse candidates for Big Ten defensive player of the year, which should qualify them for the Bednarik watch list. Not that anyone should lose much sleep over it.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Earlier this month, we took a look at potential double-digit sack artists in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would lead the league in that category.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory was the only player to reach 10 sacks in the Big Ten last year -- or for the last two seasons, for that matter. Yet several talented defensive ends and pass rushers can be found around the league. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in sacks in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Gregory is an obvious answer here. You could also easily pick defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun from Michigan State, Maryland's Andre Monroe or Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. All would be excellent choices.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa has the talent and the drive to be the Big Ten's best pass-rusher as a sophomore.
But I'm going with the guy who might have the highest ceiling of all. That's Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. He had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman, which is a pretty remarkable achievement. Bosa was good all year, but he really impressed me in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson when he basically played on one leg because of an ankle injury. He is a freakish athlete with a nonstop motor and a desire to be the best. Those qualities virtually assure we're looking at a future superstar.

I believe the Buckeyes will have one of the best defensive lines in the country this year, especially when Noah Spence returns from his suspension after two games. That will prevent offensive lines from keying on Bosa too much, while I think Gregory could be seeing a lot more attention. I predict JBBigBear, as Bosa calls himself on Twitter, takes it to the next level as a sophomore and leads the Big Ten with 11.5 sacks.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Really good call on Bosa. I strongly considered selecting him myself, especially because of Ohio State's depth along the defensive line. But I think the sacks will be distributed a little more evenly for the Buckeyes, as Spence, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington all can get into the backfield. Calhoun also could top the Big Ten sacks chart, especially with underrated veteran Marcus Rush and promising redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper to distract offensive linemen. Minnesota's Cockran will be overlooked in this conversation, but he's bulking up and absolutely could build on his big sophomore season.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory made an instant impact with Nebraska in 2013.
Ultimately, I'm going with the best player, the guy with the highest ceiling: Nebraska's Gregory. Sure, he's the only truly scary player on the Huskers defense and undoubtedly will see more double-teams that he did in his first FBS season. But I think back to Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and how I thought he would be marginalized in 2010 after the departure of O'Brien Schofield (12 sacks in 2009). Watt simply went out and dominated, racking up seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss, earning All-America honors and becoming a first-round draft pick.

Gregory is the best pure pass rusher in the league. (Bosa is close, and Calhoun affects the game in other ways.) Gregory should be even better in his second season as a Husker. Sure, more teams will know about him and gear their protections toward him. Won't matter. Gregory will top the Big Ten sacks chart again before becoming a top-10, possibly a top-5, draft pick.
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
Stats don't always tell the full story for a defensive player, but one number usually correlates to a tremendous season: 10 sacks.

Only one player in the Big Ten in the past two years has gotten to 10 sacks in a season, and only 20 players in the FBS did it last year. But there are some talented pass rushers in the league in 2014, so several could threaten to break double digits.

SportsNation

Which of these players will have the most sacks in 2014?

  •  
    41%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    3%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,026)

We gave you our top candidates earlier this week, and now we want your take. Which of these players is most likely to reach 10 sacks and lead the Big Ten in that category in 2014?
  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska: The league's reigning sack master registered 10.5 last year in his first season of Division I competition. He could do even more damage this year while cementing himself as a top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Bosa had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman and looks to be on his way as one of the dominant pass rushers in the Big Ten. He gets the Buckeye nod over teammate Noah Spence, who will miss the first two games of the season because of a suspension. The two of them together could be devastating.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland: Here's a name to remember, Big Ten fans. The Terps senior had 9.5 sacks last year and will be a lot for his new league's offensive lines to handle in 2014.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: The defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year had 7.5 sacks last year and should be even more of a focal point for the Spartans defense this year after the graduation of several senior stars. How much higher can he go?
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota: Cockran was leading the league in sacks around midseason and finished with 7.5. He's fast, long and rangy and should spend a lot more time in opposing backfields this fall.

Who will be this year's sack master? Vote now in our poll.

SPONSORED HEADLINES