Big Ten: Tyler Nielsen

Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.

Big Ten combine results: DL, LB

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
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If you checked out my Big Ten combine post from the morning, I bet you're itching for more information from the big event in Indianapolis. The defensive linemen and linebackers went through their full workouts Monday, and official results are in for seven tests.

While the 40 time and vertical jump don't mean everything, prospects can help themselves with strong numbers before all the major talent evaluators.

Here are some of the Big Ten's top performers among the linemen and linebackers:

Defensive line
  • Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus ranked fourth in 40-yard dash (4.68 seconds); tied for eighth in broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches); ranked 13th in 3-cone drill (7.17 seconds).
  • Penn State defensive end Jack Crawford ranked 14th in 40-yard dash (4.85 seconds); tied for 11th in broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches); ranked 12th in 3-cone drill (7.15 seconds); and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.25 seconds).
  • Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin tied for second in bench press (36 reps of 225 pounds); tied for 13th in vertical jump (33.5 inches); and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.25 seconds).
Linebacker
  • Nebraska's Lavonte David ranked seventh in 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds); ranked eighth in vertical jump (36.5 inches); sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.22 seconds); and tied for 11th in broad jump (9 feet, 11 inches).
  • Iowa's Tyler Nielsen ranked 15th in 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds); tied for first in 60-yard shuttle (11.43 seconds); and tied for 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.31 seconds).
  • Penn State's Nathan Stupar ranked fourth in 60-yard shuttle (11.64 seconds) and tied for seventh in 20-yard shuttle (4.28 seconds).

For more on the combine, check out our NFL draft blog.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.
My apologies for posting this a bit late, but the initial invitations list is out for the 2012 NFL scouting combine, which takes place next month in Indianapolis. This list does not include the five Big Ten juniors who have declared for the draft.

Let's check out which players made the initial list (a full list will come out later this month).

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Wide receivers
Offensive linemen
Defensive tackles
Defensive ends
Outside linebackers
Cornerbacks
Safeties
  • Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
Kickers
Punters

There are no Big Ten tight ends, inside linebackers or long snappers on the initial list.

I'm a bit surprised not to see several names, including Penn State WR Derek Moye. Still, wide receiver was a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2011, along with defensive tackle.
There's a reason why Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and for much of September. It's the same reason why Iowa is arguably the biggest underdog of the postseason heading into Friday's Insight Bowl.

That reason is because the Sooners have a wealth of talent, especially on the offensive side where they averaged more than 40 points per game this season. That presents a stiff challenge to a Hawkeyes defense that struggled to find its footing most of the year.

"We know what we're capable of if we play our best," Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen said. "At the same time, we know we have to play our best if we want to compete with these guys."

It may seem like a pretty big mismatch on paper, but motivation always plays a key role in bowl games. And despite some adversity around the team, the Hawkeyes' defense has a strong rallying cry: Win one for Norm.

Defensive coordinator Norm Parker is retiring after 13 years in that role at the school. He's beloved by former and current players alike, and Iowa doesn't want to send him out with a loss.

"To be able to say you're a part of his last group, the group he felt comfortable retiring with, it's a big honor," senior defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "That means something to us. It really does. It would be ideal to let him go out with a nice win."

"That should give us a little boost, knowing it's his last time up in the box calling the shots," Nielsen said. "We didn't do so hot against Nebraska (in the regular-season finale), so we want to turn things around and have a good performance for him."

Of course, motivation only goes so far. The Hawkeyes still will have to execute on defense at a higher clip than they did this season, when they finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in most categories and last in pass defense. That last stat has to sound pretty good to Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. Iowa seemed to play better defensively down the stretch, in part due to the emergence of Daniels and a better pass rush. But Nielsen said film reviews showed that the defense still had too many breakdowns in each game.

There's another reason, though, to believe that Iowa can exceed expectations in Arizona. Fact is, this program has been tough to beat in bowls. The Hawkeyes have won three straight bowls, including last year's upset win over Missouri in the same Insight Bowl. They've won five of their past seven under head coach Kirk Ferentz.

What's the reason for that success? Daniels calls Ferentz "a genius when it comes to bowl prep" and says his coach's attitude filters down to the players. Nielsen said the tone of the winning streak was set by the senior class before the 2009 Outback Bowl win over South Carolina.

"I don't really think it's a secret," Nielsen said. "It all depends on the senior leadership. It's how you prepare -- you've got to take everything seriously and you can't act like it's just a vacation. You're there for a job.

"Different teams approach it differently. But it's just something our seniors and our leadership in general does. You've got to know when it's time to enjoy Arizona, and when it's time to hunker down and watch film and focus on football."

Ferentz said he and his staff reassessed how they structured bowl preparation after losing by three touchdowns to USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl. Because the school's finals often go late into December, planning around that can be tricky, he said.

"We’re in a fairly decent routine that we’re comfortable with," he said.

Norm Parker has been part of Iowa's routine for as long as Ferentz has been head coach. The team would like nothing more than to give him a retirement gift.

"Everybody on the team is certainly committed to that point," Ferentz said.

“In college football, you really develop close relationships with players and coaches. ... Those relationships get built and continue throughout time, and Norm’s a guy who’s certainly reached a lot of our players, both present and past. Everybody would love to send him out on a good note.”

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 26, 2011
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Hope you all had a great Christmas. Now let's get back to football.

Halftime: Iowa 17, Michigan 6

November, 5, 2011
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Michigan has been in this position before, trailing at the half and needing a big second-half performance. The Wolverines have been a good closing team. But they haven't done it in a hostile road environment yet.

Give Iowa a lot of credit so far for bouncing back strong from last week's disheartening loss at Minnesota. The Hawkeyes came out with a lot of energy and scored on their first drive.

Michigan looked a little flat early and has made a lot of mistakes. A Denard Robinson fumble that was caused and recovered by Tyler Nielsen killed one promising drive. Robinson also threw an interception deep in the red zone late in the half. The Iowa defense, which has struggled all season, has bottled up Shoelace in holding him to just 10 rushing yards on seven carries. The Wolverines have just 128 total yards and haven't generated many big plays.

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes' offense is doing a good job of mixing the run and pass. Marcus Coker has rushed for 74 yards and James Vandenberg is 9-of-12 with a touchdown pass to Brad Herman.

Michigan has been a much better team in the second half most of the season, while Iowa has been pretty vulnerable. So this is a long way from being finished. But if things don't change, we'll have a major shakeup in the Big Ten Legends Division race.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 19, 2011
10/19/11
12:00
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Please join my (lunchtime) linked-in network:

LB Bruce Davis leaves Iowa

September, 19, 2011
9/19/11
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Reserve linebacker Bruce Davis has left Iowa for personal reasons, the team announced Monday.

Davis, a senior who is set to graduate in December, played in each of the Hawkeyes' first three games and recorded four assisted tackles. Davis missed most of last season after getting hurt early in the season against Arizona. He started one game at middle linebacker before the injury.

He served as the backup to James Morris this season at middle linebacker. Davis' departure deals a blow to the depth on Iowa's defense, which has allowed 71 points the past two games. Starting outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen injured his ankle early in the Pitt game last weekend.
My apologies for posting this a little late, but Iowa will be down a linebacker as sophomore Shane DiBona is expected to miss the 2011 season following Achilles' tendon surgery.

Coach Kirk Ferentz said DiBona suffered the injury Wednesday in practice and underwent surgery Thursday morning. DiBona started two games last season and entered preseason camp as a backup.

Although DiBona's absence hurts Iowa's depth, the Hawkeyes should still be in decent shape at linebacker with projected starters James Morris and Tyler Nielsen and most likely Anthony Hitchens or Christian Kirksey in the third spot.

DiBona was among the 13 Iowa players hospitalized with rhabdomyolosis in January and also underwent shoulder surgery in February.

Video: Iowa's Tyler Nielsen

August, 10, 2011
8/10/11
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Adam Rittenberg talks with Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen.
Preseason watch list madness continues today with the unveiling of the Butkus Award 2011 nominees. The trophy goes to the nation's top linebacker.

Linebacker isn't exactly a star-studded position for the Big Ten, at least not yet. But the league did place five players on the watch list. They are:
  • Chris Borland, Wisconsin
  • Lavonte David, Nebraska
  • Michael Mauti, Penn State
  • Tyler Nielsen, Iowa
  • Mike Taylor, Wisconsin

David looks like the favorite here after his huge 2010 season. But watch out for Mauti and Borland if they can stay healthy.
The Big Ten on Thursday announced its list of players appearing at preseason media days, which will be held July 28-29 in Chicago.

This announcement is probably bigger for media types than fans, but it gives an idea of who teams view as leaders and positive representatives for their programs.

Here's the list:

ILLINOIS
  • Jeff Allen, Sr., OL*
  • A.J. Jenkins, Sr., WR
  • Tavon Wilson, Sr., DB*
INDIANA
IOWA
  • Mike Daniels, Sr., DT*
  • Marvin McNutt, Sr., WR*
  • Tyler Nielsen, Sr., LB
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
  • Rex Burkhead, Jr., RB*
  • Jared Crick, Sr., DT*
  • Lavonte David, Sr., LB*
NORTHWESTERN
  • Jordan Mabin, Sr., CB*
  • Al Netter, Sr., OT*
  • Dan Persa, Sr., QB*
OHIO STATE
  • Mike Brewster, Sr., C*
  • Orhian Johnson, Jr., DB
  • Andrew Sweat, Sr., LB
PENN STATE
PURDUE
  • Albert Evans, Sr., S
  • Joe Holland, Sr., LB
  • Carson Wiggs, Sr., K/P*
WISCONSIN
  • Patrick Butrym, Sr., DT
  • Aaron Henry, Sr., S*
  • Nick Toon, Sr., WR*

*previous All-Big Ten or All-Big 12 (Nebraska) selection

Thoughts: Not a lot of surprises here. Six teams took the all-senior route with invitations, and no sophomores made the list. Three sophomores I hoped to see were Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin RB James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It's a little surprising that neither White nor fellow running back Montee Ball made Wisconsin's list. ... There's a pretty good quarterback presence overall with Cousins, Denard Robinson, Gray and Persa. I was interested to see if Iowa would bring James Vandenberg, who has been tabbed as a team leader. ... As for charismatic personalities, there's not a Jay Valai on this list, but another Badger, Henry, should provide some entertainment. Other quotable players include Crick, Mabin, Gray, Cousins, Mauti, Trenton Robinson, Jeff Allen and Marvin McNutt. I'm sure I'll add a few names by the end of media days. ... Cousins will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon July 29. ... Purdue's Wiggs is the lone specialist making the trip to Chicago, just like Michigan State punter Aaron Bates was last year. ... The list includes 18 former All-Big Ten selections, while all three Nebraska players earned All-Big 12 honors in 2010. Six first-team all-conference honorees will be in attendance. ... The list likely includes the preseason offensive and defensive players of the year. I'd expect Denard Robinson or Persa to earn offensive honors and Crick or David to take home defensive honors.
James Morris didn't set a goal for number of minutes played as a freshman at Iowa.

He didn't even care which unit -- first team, second team -- he joined on Saturdays. He simply wanted to get on the field. The linebacker ended up appearing in all 13 games, starting the final six, finishing fourth on the squad in tackles with 70.

"It was a pretty awesome experience," said Morris, who added four pass breakups and a sack. "I feel like I got a good jump on most of my competition. I think it'll pay bigger dividends once the season rolls around and I can apply some of that experience."

Morris knows he'll take on an enhanced role for the Hawkeyes' defense this season. He also knows others will have to replicate his rise as Iowa replaces six defensive starters, four of whom were selected in April's NFL draft (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug and Tyler Sash).

[+] EnlargeJames Morris
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesJames Morris looks to build on the experience he gained last season as a freshman.
Iowa entered the 2010 season seemingly with a clear identity on defense, but the unit ended up with mixed results. The Hawkeyes need the opposite to occur this fall -- for a new-look defense to establish its personality and consistently shut down the opposition.

"I feel like we're young, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," Morris said. "We're unproven, and there's a lot of guys on our squad who take offense to that. They want to prove themselves, and I'm hoping people are going to be surprised by what they see with the effort and how determined our guys are to prove what kind of players they are."

Morris began the proving process last season. A rash of injuries at linebacker thrust him into the starting lineup down the stretch, and he recorded 40 tackles in his first four starts.

Like many freshmen, Morris was prone to overthinking things when he first got in games. A National Honor Society member in high school, Morris admits he's "very much" an analytical person.

"You're sort of forced to lead a double life, what's expected of you on the field versus being a civil human being in conversation off the field," he said. "I thought I was doing a pretty good job of not outpacing myself toward the end of the year, as opposed to the beginning, when maybe I was playing a step slow, trying to process everything."

Morris acknowledges he made plenty of mistakes in 2010, but his effort level never wavered. He wants to be a more polished player this fall, especially as he guides the linebackers alongside veteran Tyler Nielsen.

Iowa must build depth around Morris and Nielsen with players like Christian Kirksey, Bruce Davis, Anthony Hitchens and Dakota Getz.

Morris doesn't expect the defense's personality to fully form until the end of training camp, which kicks off next month, but players are motivated to prove themselves and finish games better than they did in 2010.

"A lot of guys on our defense, they're driven and they're determined to improve and create their own identity," Morris said. "Some of them, they feel like last year was somewhat in flux in terms of what our identity was. They’re going to come out of camp with a purpose."

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