Big Ten: Tommy Schutt
Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.
This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.
It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.
Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.
The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.
"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."
Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.
"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."
New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.
Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.
"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.
That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.
Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.
Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.
Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.
Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.
Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.
Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.
Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.
Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.
Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.
Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.
Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.
Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.
Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.
Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Hours after longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson announced he wouldn't remain in Happy Valley despite Franklin offering him an assistant position, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Johnson was nearing an agreement to join Meyer's staff at Ohio State. The Buckeyes must replace Mike Vrabel, who has taken a post with the Houston Texans under, yep, former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.
The coaching business is a small world, isn't it?
Ohio State hasn't confirmed the move, but the addition of Johnson would add to the next phase of the PSU-OSU rivalry. Like Meyer, Franklin comes to the Big Ten from the SEC and brings a similar type of aggressive recruiting approach. When Franklin talked Saturday about dominating the state of Pennsylvania and the region in recruiting, folks in Columbus took notice.
Now Ohio State is poised to replace an exceptional recruiter in Vrabel with another exceptional recruiter in Johnson, who brought top talent to Penn State throughout his 18 years as an assistant there. Johnson coached high school ball in Maryland and has strong connections to the area, which becomes even more important to the Big Ten with the University of Maryland officially joining the league on July 1.
The recruiting competition between Johnson and Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, for top recruits in and near the Beltway will be fierce. Recruits from other areas like Thomas Holley, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman who committed to Penn State in October, could now be in play for Ohio State.
Johnson could have remained in Happy Valley and has been nothing but positive toward Franklin despite being passed over for the job for the second time in two years. As he told ESPN.com's Josh Moyer on Monday night, "Getting promoted isn't the issue to me. At the end of the day, it's giving Coach Franklin the chance to move forward."
It's also time for Johnson to tackle a new challenge. Ohio State could be shaking up the defensive play-calling duties after the unit's struggles in 2013, and Johnson would be a good candidate to assist Luke Fickell or take over. He turned down a chance to become Illinois' defensive coordinator after the 2008 season, and also said no to an opportunity at Maryland after the 2011 campaign. Joining Ohio State would make less sense if it's strictly a lateral move as a line coach, but if Johnson can move up both in pay and in responsibilities, he's making the right decision. Franklin is expected to bring defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to Penn State.
Penn State certainly will miss Johnson, who had plenty of support from current and former players to become the next Lions coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, needed another strong recruiter after losing both Vrabel and Everett Withers from its defensive staff. It certainly would get one in Johnson.
The Ohio State-Penn State rivalry has been ratcheted up a notch, both on the field and especially on the recruiting trail.
Two days later, Vanderbilt fans are thinking Franklin has a funny way of showing his appreciation.
As Franklin hinted Saturday, he's bringing several Vanderbilt assistants with him to Penn State. Reported additions or possible additions include defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, wide receivers coach/offensive recruiting coordinator Josh Gattis, tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Charles Bankins, strength coach Dwight Galt and football chief of staff Jemal Griffin. Penn State has yet to make any official staff announcements. Shoop is a native of Oakmont, Pa., and has extensive coaching experience in the northeast as well as in Virginia (University of Virginia and William & Mary).
These likely additions aren't a surprise as Franklin said Saturday, "I am fiercely loyal as a person in general, and I'm going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I've worked with in the past."
It's also not surprising that Franklin immediately started contacting Vanderbilt recruits about Penn State. Two of them, tight end Chance Sorrell and defensive end Lloyd Tubman, switched their pledges from Vanderbilt to Penn State on Saturday.
More could be coming, especially if you believe this story in The Tennessean, which outlines what has happened to Vanderbilt's recruiting class since Franklin left. One recruiting analyst tells the newspaper that Vanderbilt is left with only three truly solid verbal commits. Another said, "Normally, you're going to have staffs take some kids. But I don't think I've seen many cases where it seems like the entire class is trying to be taken to the next job."
Penn State fans aren't about to feel sorry for Vanderbilt. They remember what happened to the Lions' 2012 recruiting class during the extremely turbulent weeks following coach Joe Paterno's dismissal. Urban Meyer flipped several Penn State commits to Ohio State, including Noah Spence, Armani Reeves and Tommy Schutt.
PSU has 21 commits for the 2014 class, which is essentially complete. It will be interesting to see how much of a Vanderbilt flavor Franklin's first staff and first class will have at Penn State.
The Buckeyes still haven’t lost since Urban Meyer took over the program last year, and with another perfect half of a season under their belts and no postseason sanctions hanging over their heads, they’ve done everything they can to get in position for a potential spot in the national championship game despite some occasionally difficult circumstances.
Most notably, Meyer had to survive for nearly three games without star quarterback Braxton Miller, though backup Kenny Guiton rewrote the record books to bridge the gap until the reigning Big Ten player of the year returned in time for conference play. The Buckeyes, though, are looking at a longer absence for safety Christian Bryant, with a broken ankle ending his season and shuffling up a secondary that has had some ups and downs even with the senior on the field.
But through it all, the Buckeyes just seem to keep on rolling, and with tough tests against Wisconsin and Northwestern having already been passed, the road looks pretty clear ahead in the buildup to The Game against Michigan at the end of November. With Miller back on the field, Carlos Hyde back in the fold after a three-game suspension and the defensive line potentially getting a boost from the return of tackle Tommy Schutt as early as this week, the Buckeyes might have only scratched the surface through six games.
Offensive MVP: WR Philly Brown. Both quarterbacks have put up gaudy individual numbers while effectively splitting responsibility for the first-half wins, and both Miller and Guiton deserve credit for their respective improvements throwing the football. But the strides the receivers have made since last season have been every bit as critical in the development of the passing attack, and Brown has been the most consistent of them all and been an invaluable asset for either guy taking the snaps. The senior leads the team with 381 yards on 30 catches, and this year he’s also turning those receptions into scores with five touchdowns already to his credit.
Defensive MVP: LB Ryan Shazier. Few players in the country do more defensively to stuff the stat sheet, and the junior continues to produce at an elite level even while taking on more responsibility to become a vocal leader in the absence of Bryant. Shazier might not have many of the kind of highlight-reel plays he made a year ago on film yet this season, but Ohio State isn’t complaining about his 47 tackles (eight for loss), two forced fumbles and a sack.
With any conference there will always be battles on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten. Coaching changes, different philosophies and geographic location all factor in to who battles who.
Here is a look at the top five Big Ten recruiting rivalries.
By the time training camp and the start of the season rolled around, a couple new bodies were added into the rotation, and Ohio State was starting to show signs that what was thought to be a potential problem was about to be solved.
But even with all the information they’ve compiled -- dating to the end of last season and through an impressive start outside of Big Ten play -- all No. 4 Ohio State really has at this point is a hypothesis. The true test is coming Saturday, with No. 23 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing game visiting Ohio Stadium to provide a more concrete answer about just how good the Buckeyes are up front.
“They have not received the challenge yet like this one,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven.
“I know we’ve had conversations about this outfit before, because the run game is real. You can get embarrassed real fast if you're not gap-sound and handling your business.”
The Buckeyes went about their nonconference business with ruthless efficiency and relative ease, relaxing some of the concerns about filling the void left by three graduated seniors and a junior who left early for the NFL draft. But given the level of competition a largely inexperienced unit has faced compared to what it will encounter in the trenches against the Badgers, it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion until after this weekend’s prime-time matchup.
Ohio State hasn’t been at full strength on the line yet either, with Adolphus Washington missing two games due to a groin injury that has kept him from forming what appears to be a terrific tandem with fellow sophomore Noah Spence. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was held out of last week’s blowout over Florida A&M, and Ohio State has yet to get a snap out of Tommy Schutt at the position this season due to a preseason foot injury. Those issues have pressed a true freshman into an expanded role at end, where Joey Bosa has shined, and it also forced Meyer to move offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to defense to provide more depth and talent on the interior alongside veteran Joel Hale.
But even with those limitations, the way the Buckeyes have played might give them a bit of extra credit, considering they still rank No. 9 in the nation against the rush and No. 13 in total defense, which also represents marked improvement from some early struggles a year ago in Meyer’s first season with the program. But those numbers haven’t come against teams that can block as physically or run as dangerously as the Badgers, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack is the measuring stick that counts for a defense looking to live up to the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets.
“I know people are going to say that it's going to come down to making tackles and stopping big plays and things like that,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “But if we do a great job up front, we'll be in good shape. If we don't do a great job up front, we'll have a tough time.
“That doesn't mean the back seven don't have to play well. The linebackers and [secondary] are every bit a part of stopping and fitting that run and being a part of that effort as the front seven. But those guys up front are where the game is won and lost.”
Testing a hypothesis doesn’t get much easier than that.
Did you miss out on the fun? If so, read the full transcript.
To the highlights:
Dan from Florida: Hi Adam, Do you think Wisconsin needs one of its backs to become an elite NFL running back to cement its status as "Running Back U"?
Adam Rittenberg: That's an interesting point, Dan, and one I haven't thought about. Wisconsin seems to have more elite offensive linemen in the NFL than it does running backs. It doesn't change Wisconsin's reputation at the college level as an elite running program, but people do track NFL performance, and Wisconsin's backs haven't exactly been stars at the pro level. It'll be interesting to see if guys like Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White can change things.
Doug G. from San Antonio: Adam-as a big10 homer, please agree that the SEC was not all that mighty in the bowl season. Yes we need to win more games and yes Alabam won...BUT, LSU and Miss St. lost, Michigan and Nebraska had USC and UGA on the ropes, etc. again, I need someone to agree with me. Thanks
Adam Rittenberg: Doug, I agree the SEC didn't have the best bowl season this year. But notice how no one's talking about that? All people care about, perception-wise, is the national title, and the SEC won another one thanks to Alabama. LSU's loss was disappointing, and you didn't even mention the biggest bowl flop from the SEC -- Florida getting crushed by Louisville. As for the Big Ten, it's hard to stump for a league that hangs its hat on close losses. As several Big Ten officials have told me in recent weeks, you ultimately need to start winning more of those games, not just coming close.
Donald from State College: I really like what BOB is doing at Penn State with emphasis on run ons. In some way doesn't it remind you of Belichick's draft strategy? His habit of trading higher draft picks for more multiple lower draft picks has been very effective, and has enabled him to find quite a few diamonds in the rough. Of course it's not exactly the same and BOB is doing it as a necessity, but do you think it could prove to be an effective method of recruiting that might be worth continuing even after the sanctions are over?
Adam Rittenberg: Donald, some really interesting points here. As you point out, the key difference is that O'Brien is emphasizing the "run-on" program by necessity, while Belichick's strategy is more of a choice. But there are some similarities there. Penn State ultimately will need many of these run-ons to have success in order to combat potential depth issues because of the scholarship reductions. We'll have to see how these guys pan out, but I like the way O'Brien has emphasized the program. Penn State certainly could become a destination-type program for these players, depending on how things go in the next few years.
Chris from New Haven, Conn.: Adam with so much controversy over the number of home games played and realignment issues in the conference do the schools need to drop other sports? I know the SEC doesn't run as many sports as most B1G schools do. Also, does Title IX impact the ability to do this? I mean it's all based around profits and lets face it, women's sports don't turn a profit. Only men's bball and football do. How does this all shake out?
Adam Rittenberg: Chris, good observation on the sport disparities between the Big Ten and SEC. It always gets overlooked. But I'll tell you this: the Big Ten prides itself on having broad-based athletic programs and more sports funded than any other conference. While each school must make choices about cutting sports, I definitely don't see a league-based push to cut sports that don't make money in an effort to improve football. That goes against everything the Big Ten says it stands for.
Mallory from Chicago: I'm not a huge fan of having earlier conference games. Four non-cons to start the season has always been a useful way for teams to work out some of their kinks early and get some experience before getting into the important league games. I think if earlier games become a trend we might see some upsets that could hurt the B1G, say if an experienced but mediocre B1G team gets to play a very talented but young B1G team early, have a huge and unwanted effected on the league race. Do you think this could become a problem?
Adam Rittenberg: It could, Mallory, but I don't think a league should construct a schedule based on potential upsets, which also could happen in October or November. What the Big Ten should avoid is the snoozer Saturdays like we've had in recent years -- 8 MAC games, 4 FCS opponents, you know the drill. That's bad branding for the league. It makes the Big Ten irrelevant on that day. Why not schedule 1-2 league games in Weeks 2, 3 and 4. You don't even need to have them for the season opener. But those matchups will get attention for the league. They'll help with TV, too. The Big Ten did this for years, and every other league does it now. I don't see the drawback.
Matt from Ann Arbor: With all that osu has lost on defense, including the entire d-line, why is it that they have so much hype for next year? Seems to me to be very similar to Michigan from last season. GREAT running qb and offense coming back but not much experience on defense.
Adam Rittenberg: Very fair point, Matt. Ohio State's defensive depth -- not just up front but throughout the unit -- is a huge question mark entering 2013. The hope is Ohio State's recent recruiting efforts up front will translate into younger players (Washington, Bennett, Schutt, Spence, etc) blossoming into stars and filling the gaps left by Simon, Hankins and others. Ohio State has a budding star in LB Ryan Shazier, and the secondary should be pretty solid with CB Bradley Roby and others. The concern is whether Ohio State can survive injuries on defense. One big difference between Ohio State in 2013 and Michigan in 2012 is the offensive line. Ohio State brings back a stronger line next year than Michigan did entering 2012.
Thanks again for the questions. If yours didn't make the rundown, be sure and try again during the next chat.
Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.
1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.
3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.
4. The replacements
- Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
- The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
- Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
- Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.
But some NFL draft decisions are made for you. And when you're a virtual lock in the top 15 of the draft, you make the jump, no questions asked.
Hankins surprised no one Monday in announcing he'll forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. The Ohio State junior defensive tackle boosted his stock this season, eating up space and ball-carriers in the middle of the Buckeyes' defensive line. Many NFL draft prognosticators, including our own Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, have Hankins as the first Big Ten player off the board in April.
Hankins won't help Ohio State try to win a national title in 2013, but he undoubtedly made the right call.
"I will always be grateful for the family I have gained here at Ohio State," Hankins said in a prepared statement. "I want to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, coach [Mike] Vrabel and strength coach [Mickey] Marotti for bringing the best out of me as a football player and person, and for their constant support. I also want to thank coach [Jim] Tressel and coach [Jim] Heacock for recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to be a part of this great school and great program."
Hankins added that he intends to finish his degree at Ohio State, which is great to hear. He started every game the past two seasons and finishes his career with 138 tackles (58 solo, 80 assists), including 16.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Although Ohio State expected Hankins to leave, his departure underscores some potential depth issues the team will have up front in 2013. Defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, moves on along with nose tackle Garrett Goebel and defensive end Nathan Williams.
The good news is Urban Meyer has recruited very well at defensive line, securing blue chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington in his first class (both played this fall). Linemen like Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale all should see increased roles in 2013. Ohio State also is bringing in several standout D-line recruits like ESPN 300 selections Joey Bosa and Michael Hill.
Ohio State has a lot of young talent along the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need those players to grow up in a hurry if they want to take another step forward on defense.
A new season means new names and faces throughout the league, and this is the time to daydream about unlimited potential. So today we're taking a look at a few of the top newcomers (i.e., those who haven't played a down of Big Ten football before this season) to watch this fall:
DeAnthony Arnett, WR, Michigan State and Kyle Prater, WR, Northwestern: We put these two together because technically neither is yet eligible to play for his respective team in 2012. But the two transfers -- Arnett played at Tennessee last year, while Prater was at USC -- are both appealing to the NCAA for waivers to become immediately eligible, and both schools feel good about their chances of winning those cases. Each player fills a need; Michigan State lost its top three receivers from last year and desperately needs some experienced playmakers at the position, while Prater could step into the No. 1 receiver role that Jeremy Ebert left behind. Both could make a big impact on the season if they are able to see the field.
Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State: The top-rated recruit to sign with a Big Ten team in February, Spence was rated as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2012 class. It's easy to see why, as he's a 6-foot-4, 245-pound athletic specimen who looks ready to chase after opposing quarterbacks from Day One. Urban Meyer said he doesn't plan to redshirt many freshmen and expects his defensive line recruits to contribute right away. If not Spence, then Se'Von Pittman, Adolphus Washington or Tommy Schutt could all make their presence known up front on defense as true freshmen.
Danny O'Brien, QB, Wisconsin: Let's see. Former ACC starting quarterback graduates and transfers to Wisconsin, where he's immediately eligible. Haven't we heard this story before? True, maybe O'Brien won't play at a superstar level like Russell Wilson did a year ago. But the former Maryland signal caller plugs a huge hole on the Badgers roster, as injuries and inexperience at quarterback threatened to derail an otherwise promising season. O'Brien won't arrive in Madison until later this spring, but he's likely to grab hold of the starting quarterback job right away and perhaps lead Wisconsin back to the Big Ten title game.
Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan: Our recruiting gurus loved Bolden when he signed with the Wolverines, and the early enrollee has already drawn praise from head coach Brady Hoke on the way he's practiced this spring. Don't be surprised to see him get major minutes at linebacker and possibly contribute on special teams.
James Gillum, RB, Minnesota: The junior college transfer ran for over 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he has the opportunity to start at tailback right away for a Gophers offense in search of more playmakers. The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Gillum already has many of the skills needed for a top-flight Big Ten running back but still must adjust to a higher level of play. If he pans out, he could pair with quarterback MarQueis Gray to form a dangerous Minnesota rushing attack.
Here's how ESPN Recruiting graded the Big Ten classes .
Let's take a look at how teams filled their big recruiting needs:
The Illini have had a nice run at defensive tackle with 2011 NFL first-round draft pick Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence, who enters 2012 as a legitimate pro prospect. They solidified the interior line for the future with recruits like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.
It's no secret Indiana needs to make significant upgrades on defense, and coach Kevin Wilson looked to the junior college ranks for help. Indiana added six juco defenders, including cornerback Tregg Waters and linebacker Jacarri Alexander. These players give the Hoosiers a chance to get better in a hurry.
Running back has again become a pressing need for Iowa with the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall. While Iowa has lost running backs at an alarming rate, it also has developed young backs very well in recent years. The coaches hope to work their magic with Greg Garmon, who could be the most significant recruit of the 2012 class.
Arguably no staff in the country makes defensive line a bigger priority than Michigan, which has three coaches, including head man Brady Hoke, focused on the front four. The Wolverines lose standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen from the 2011 line, but they addressed the situation in recruiting with pickups like defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Chris Wormley.
Michigan State is creating a nice recruiting pipeline at the wide receiver position. The Spartans lose their top two wideouts from 2011 (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) but added several nice receiver pickups in the 2012, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge.
Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns, and Minnesota needed to get him some help in the passing game after the departure of Da'Jon McKnight. The Gophers added some excellent pickups at the wide receiver position in Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison.
The Huskers were thin at linebacker in 2011 and lose standout Lavonte David to graduation. Nebraska coaches also have discussed the need to add more traditional linebackers to face Big Ten offenses. Big Red filled the need in the 2012 recruiting classes with players such as Michael Rose and Jared Afalava.
Defense has been Northwestern's downfall in the past two years, and the Wildcats need more difference-makers on that side of the ball. They likely landed one in end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect who is Northwestern's most decorated defensive recruit in recent memory. Odenigbo could help immediately as a situational pass-rusher.
No Big Ten team made a bigger impact at one position than Ohio State did along the defensive line. The Buckeyes, who were a bit thin up front in 2011, got a lot better with this class, which is headlined by ESPNU 150 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt.
Skyler Mornhinweg's decommitment stings a bit, as Penn State needs more quarterbacks in the mix, but the Nittany Lions also need more difference-makers at wide receiver and tight end. They helped themselves in the 2012 class with wide receiver Eugene Lewis, ranked as the nation's No. 34 wideout by ESPN Recruiting. Tight end Jesse James is another nice pickup.
Offensive line has been a position of stability for Purdue the past few seasons, but the Boilers lose two starters from the 2011 squad (Dennis Kelly, Nick Mondek) and will say goodbye to several more after 2012. Purdue had to reload up front, and the two highest-rated players in the 2012 class, according to ESPN Recruiting -- Jordan Roos and Cameron Cermin -- all play offensive line.
Quarterback is undoubtedly Wisconsin's top priority as Russell Wilson departs and Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips battle back from major injuries. The Badgers needed a signal-caller in a small class and landed a decorated one in Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from California powerhouse De La Salle High School.
Our esteemed panel included senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill, Midwest recruiting writer Jared Shanker and Scouts Inc. recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert. This is Part I of our discussion; look for Part II later on today.
Topic 1: What impact has the arrival of Urban Meyer had on the league and in general when it comes to recruiting?
Tom Luginbill: "It's been fairly significant. If there's one thing Urban Meyer understands and has been able to do, it's that you build a championship team from the inside out. Whether it was at Florida or now at Ohio State, if you notice who essentially all his first commitments were, they were all on the defensive line and offensive line. So he understands that, if they're going to compete for a national championship, the gap has to be closed in the defensive front seven. That's the difference between what's happened in the SEC and everywhere else. So I think that's where he's made his biggest impact."
Craig Haubert: “What Urban Meyer has been able to come and do down the stretch has been huge. I knew when he took over, they would get better as a class, but I didn’t really think when this happened, they’d have a chance to crack the Top 25. They’re still in a position to possibly land some guys. Davonte Neal, the No. 1 athlete, could be headed there. Stefon Diggs and Jordan Diamond are also in the mix there.” [Diggs and Neal are both post-signing day announcements].
“If you look at this class, it’s all in the trenches, really. And our philosophy is there’s always an increased value to upper-tier linemen because they’re harder to find. Noah Spence obviously is huge, he’s a five-star, but so is Adolphus Washington. The other thing that stands out to me about Ohio State is he’s been plucking guys from other Big Ten schools. [Se’Von] Pittman was a Michigan State kid. Joey O’Connor had decommitted before he got him, but he was a Penn State kid. Same thing with Tommy Schutt. Armani Reeves. So his upper part of his class, a lot of them have come from other Big Ten schools.”
Jared Shanker: “He’s exceeded my expectations. He’s obviously a great recruiter. At the same time, I wouldn’t call it walking into a perfect situation, but with what was going on at Penn State, I think he’s taken five recruits from Penn State, so there were opportunities for him to come in and flip some guys. Noah Spence was a Penn State lean. He had O’Connor and Tommy Schutt, two other ESPNU 150 guys who were committed to Penn State. Camren Williams and Armani Reeves, two other guys at Penn State. Obviously, he’s one of the best recruiters in the game. He also had some good fortune in being able to come in at a time when things were shaky at a rival school and pick up some of their commitments. Se’Von Pittman, the other ESPNU 150 guy, he was really looking for a reason to get to Ohio State.”
Topic 2: How good is Michigan's class, and has the Wolverines' momentum slowed down in the last several weeks?
CH: “They came out fast. We’ve always had them in that 5-to-7 type range. People might get frustrated that it’s getting near signing day, when there’s a lot of buzz and things going on, and they’re not doing much, but to be fair to them, what they did has allowed them to maintain in the same area where they’ve been for most of the recruiting process. The thing that sticks out to me about this class is a lot of people kind of scoffed when Brady Hoke got hired and he said, ‘I’m a Michigan man.’ But he’s been true to that. They’ve done very well in state. A lot of their key players are Michigan guys, led by Terry Richardson. So he’s brought a little bit of that Michigan man feel, and there seems to be an excitement among recruits.”
TL: "Michigan was rolling before Meyer got the job, and they were teetering on maybe swinging Bri'onte Dunn, the running back, and Ohio State was able to keep him in the fold. Is Michigan in competition with Ohio State for some players? Yes. But Michigan right now is more focused on revamping the roster to the mold that Brady Hoke wants. They need more size up front, some size at the linebacking positions and some size at the skill spots. And I think they've done that in all three areas. [The lack of recent commitments] is a reflection of numbers and how much room they have. With the Big Ten's hard cap, they don't have a ton of wiggle room. If anything, the winning on the field and the sustained excellence helped solidify that the class would stay intact."
JS: “I don’t know if I’d say they’ve lost momentum. They really were hoping to get Josh Garnett, who ended up going to Stanford. Their class filled up so quickly, and they only had about four or five spots left midway through the season. They’re hoping to get some of the guys who are closer to signing day. They’re in good position to get Jordan Diamond. I think he’s No. 94 overall. So it seems like they’ve maybe fallen off, but they were at 21 or 22 commitments by the time the season started. They really had their run of success in the spring and summer. I’m sure they would have liked to maintain that a little bit and gotten some of those final targets like Garnett, but they’re also able to get the two receivers, [Amara] Darboh and [Jehu] Chesson, right after the season ended. So they’ve still been able to pick up some guys along the way.”
Topic 3: How has Penn State fared given all the turmoil surrounding the program and the flurry of decommitments?
JS: “My thinking for them was, if they could have just held on to their 14 commitments, that would be the main thing. They were obviously going to get some more commitments, but they weren’t going to be the top-caliber guys. If they could hold onto the 14 and add those sleeper guys who have a chance to be something at the next level, that was my expectation for them. I like that they got Akeel Lynch, the running back. I think he could be a good player. They’re probably a little disappointed that it looks like they’re going to miss out on [Skyler] Mornhinweg and the two Massachusetts guys in Reeves and Williams.”
TL: "I think to this point, Bill O'Brien has done a good job. But a lot of credit needs to go to that previous staff. Outside of the guys they lost to Ohio State, through all of this, they're still siting here with 18 verbal commitments. If you think about it, that's astounding. And I would say that the top third of them, athletically, can compete for a conference championship. Of course, you don't know all the intangibles and all that, but based on pure player level, this is a pretty strong class. It certainly isn't anywhere near where people would have expected it to be. ... But just to have bodies in this class, in my opinion, is a positive. [O'Brien] won't be judged on this class. He will be given a long leash, and in my opinion, it was made very clear with the timetable the administration set with this hire that the 2012 class is not the priority. If it had been, they would have hired a guy in December."
Cornerback Armani Reeves, rated a four-star prospect by ESPN.com, chose the Buckeyes over Michigan after visiting with coaches from both schools in the past week.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder from Massachusetts is yet another blue-chipper added to the fold under Urban Meyer, whose recruiting impact since his November hire has been immense. Ohio State was rated just behind Michigan in our latest ESPN class rankings for 2012, but the Buckeyes may end up ahead of the Wolverines with a late push.
"It just felt like the right fit for me,” Reeves told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’ve known defensive backs Coach [Everett] Withers for a while, for almost four years, so I had a good relationship with him. And I know a lot of guys in the class already -- Tommy Schutt, David Perkins and Cam, obviously.”
"Cam" is Reeves' high school teammate, linebacker Camren Williams. Like Reeves, Williams also decommitted from Penn State and headed to Columbus, as Ohio State continues to reap the benefits from the Jerry Sandusky scandal fallout. The Buckeyes also picked off ESPNU 150 recruits Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt and Joey O'Connor after they reneged on their verbal pledges to the Nittany Lions.
That's five really good prospects who could be playing for Bill O'Brien. Instead, Meyer continues to pile up the highly ranked recruits.
The Buckeyes, helped by the arrival of Urban Meyer, have secured commitments so far from five players in the final 2012 ESPNU 150, including three in the top 100. They are:
No. 4: DE Noah Spence
No. 65: DE Adolphus Washington
No. 98: DE Se'Von Pittman
No. 104: OG Joey O'Connor
No 108: DT Tommy Schutt
If these players pan out, Meyer could be building an intimidating defensive line in Columbus, and we all know that winning starts in the trenches.
Michigan is second in the league with four ESPNU commitments, and like Ohio State the Wolverines are loading up on defense with this class. Their top prospects are:
No. 68: CB Terry Richardson
No. 113: OLB Royce Jenkins-Stone
No. 132: OG Kyle Kalis
No. 142: OLB Joe Bolden
Only three other members of the ESPNU 150 are committed to Big Ten schools, and somewhat surprisingly, Minnesota and Northwestern account for two of them. They are:
No. 51: DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern
No. 112: OG Isaac Hayes, Minnesota
No. 131: ILB Michael Rose, Nebraska
ESPN has also updated its class rankings for 2012, and Michigan leads the Big Ten pack at No. 7 nationally. Ohio State is the only other league school ranked, sitting right behind the Wolverines at No. 8. The Buckeyes could overtake Michigan if Meyer is able to reel in some more top prospects late.
Speaking of which, our recruiting folks also take a look today at where some of the top uncommitted prospects stand, including blue-chippers who are looking at Big Ten schools. The No. 8 overall prospect, athlete Davonte Neal, has Ohio State on his list. Offensive tackle Andrus Peat, the No. 9 prospect whose older brother plays for Nebraska, is strongly considering the Huskers, as is athlete Devin Fuller (No. 39). Michigan is in play for offensive guard Josh Garnett (No. 44), while Ohio State is battling for tailback Joel Caleb (No. 83). The Buckeyes, Wolverines and Wisconsin are all hoping to hear good news from offensive tackle Jordan Diamond (No. 94), who isn't expected to announce his decision until after signing day.