Big Ten: Vernon Gholston

The Big Ten endured arguably the worst NFL draft in its history last month, and its struggles to produce high first-round talent are well documented.

The league hasn't had a top-10 pick since Michigan's Jake Long and Ohio State's Vernon Gholston went No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the 2008 draft. The Big Ten narrowly avoided being shut out of the first round for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger when Wisconsin's Travis Frederick went at No. 31 in April's draft.

Is the troubling trend for the Big Ten more of a coaching/development issue or a recruiting issue? The declining number of first-round picks might have more to do with the Big Ten footprint than the Big Ten Conference.

As CoachingSearch.com's Chris Vannini points out, certain states in the Big Ten footprint, namely Ohio, have seen a drop in producing first-round picks in recent years. Vannini looked at where first-round picks from the past eight drafts played their high school ball.

Not surprisingly, Texas (17) and Florida (12) produced the most first-round picks between 2010-13, followed by Georgia (10) and California (8). Florida, Texas and California also were among the top producers in the previous four drafts (2006-09).

Pennsylvania is the top producer in the Big Ten footprint with five first-round picks since 2010. Michigan (4) and Wisconsin (4) are next, along with future Big Ten state New Jersey (4).

Where's Ohio? Way down the list with just two first-round picks since 2010. It comes as a surprise as Ohio is celebrated for its high school football and serves as the starting point in recruiting for many Big Ten programs.

Ohio produced nine first-round draft picks between 2006-09. New Jersey also saw its total drop from 10 (between 2006-09) to four (between 2010-13).

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin both produced three more first-round picks in the past four drafts than the previous four. All four Wisconsin products -- J.J. Watt, Gabe Carimi, Kevin Zeitler and Frederick -- played for the Wisconsin Badgers during their run of Rose Bowls. Michigan saw a slight increase in recent years, Illinois held steady and Indiana dropped from four (2006-09) to two (2010-13). Minnesota had one first-round pick in 2012 after none from 2006-09, while Nebraska and Iowa aren't on the board for either span.

What about the Big Ten's other new territory, the Washington D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia region? Maryland's total dropped from four (2006-09) to three (2010-13), Virginia's went from seven (2006-09) to three (2010-13) and Washington D.C. failed to produce a first-round pick from 2010-13 after having two between 2006-09.

What does this mean for the Big Ten? First-round draft picks are only one way to gauge the strength of a league or a region, but the numbers reinforce that much of the nation's elite talent grows up far from Big Ten campuses. Big Ten schools have to spread their wings in recruiting and invest more time and resources in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia. Many programs already do this, but there's a greater sense of urgency.

The Ohio total is a bit alarming, but I'd be surprised if the state produces so few first-round picks in the next four years. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Wisconsin total under a new Badgers coaching staff.

I still like the Big Ten's new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, from a recruiting standpoint, but the declining totals of first-round draft picks from both areas are a bit unsettling as the two programs prepare to move to the Big Ten in 2014.
The 2013 NFL draft definitely was one to forget for the Big Ten.

We don't have to rehash the numbers. They were bad. Historically bad. And reflective in a way of how the NFL brass views the Big Ten right now.

Let's move on instead to the 2014 draft. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has written several pieces looking forward at 2014, starting with his first Big Board Insider.

The good news: Kiper predicts the Big Ten will have two top 10 picks in Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 8) and Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby (No. 9).

The bad news: No other Big Ten players appear on the list of 25.

Still, this forecast is a bit sunnier for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a player drafted in the top 10 since Jake Long and Vernon Gholston went No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the 2008 draft. Lewan certainly would have been a candidate to go in the top 10 this year if he decided to skip his senior season. Roby projects very well to the NFL and could be the Big Ten's first nationally elite corner since Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins (No. 14 overall in 2009 draft).

Only one Big Ten player appears in Kiper's next 25 top draft prospects Insider, and like Roby, he plays for Ohio State's defense. Kiper projects Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier at No. 26, praising Shazier's instincts on the field. Shazier will be a junior this season.

Kiper also looks at how the 2013 draft would have changed Insider if certain prospects had been eligible or declared. He mentions Lewan (who could have declared) as a likely Top 10 pick who might have been able to challenge Central Michigan's Eric Fisher for the top spot.

It will be interesting to see what other Big Ten players show up on Kiper's upcoming projections. Several seniors to keep an eye on: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard, Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Wisconsin G/T Ryan Groy, Michigan State LB Max Bullough and Ohio State T Jack Mewhort.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 1, 2013
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Wishing you a great first weekend of March ...

Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, What are your thoughts on the Jim Bollman hire by Michigan State? Seems to fit the mold of a Mark Dantonio coordinator?

Adam Rittenberg: He definitely fits Dantonio and what Michigan State likes to do on offense. He's a pro-style guy who believes in run-first football, stout offensive line plan and limiting mistakes. Bollman drove Ohio State fans nuts at times with conservative play calls, especially at the end of his tenure. He recruited well as the Buckeyes' offensive line coach, but some of his lines didn't always perform to their potential. To be fair, Ohio State had some productive offenses under Bollman, and former Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel had a lot of control over the offensive game plan. Should Bollman's hiring make Michigan State fans do back flips? No. But did anyone expect Dantonio to hire the next Gus Malzahn? Of course not. I'm not crazy about the move, but I'm not surprised, either. One area Bollman could really help is the offensive line, which has typically been a notch below the Big Ten's elite. If Michigan State can push defenders off of the ball, it can efficiently run the ball, use play-action, control possession and limit mistakes. Teams that do those things well typically win a lot of games.



Kyle from Kingston, Ontario, writes: Adam, I will never understand this B1G vs. SEC thing. Maybe I am showing my age! As an Iowa fan, I will never cheer for an Ohio State or a Michigan Victory. In fact, I hope they lose every game, I don't care if they are playing an SEC team. Conferences don't win championships, teams wins championships! At the end of the day I want one team to win, and that is Iowa! Maybe I am the crazy one! When It comes down to it, lets say Ohio St. wins the BCS championship, does Iowa get any more glamor and praise? Help me out Adam! I just don't get it anymore....I mean rooting for your rivals? Not this Hawkeye! How about you?

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, I understand your point of view, and you're certainly not the only fan who feels this way. It does, though, illustrate a difference between the Big Ten and the SEC. There's more league pride among SEC fans even though they also have bitter rivalries in their league. The attitude is, "If my team can't win a title, I'd rather see another SEC team raise the crystal football than those snob Yankees!" Were Auburn fans rooting for Alabama against Notre Dame? Some of them were, because of their SEC pride.

I do think Iowa would get a bit more credit for being in a strong league that wins national titles even if it doesn't win any of those titles. Say Iowa goes 9-3 and loses to two Big Ten teams that make the four-team playoff, one of which wins the national title. I think Iowa is viewed in a better light nationally because it plays in such a strong league. The conference vs. conference thing is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it has become bigger and bigger. It's a big reason why we do the conference blogs at ESPN.com. There's also a genuine Big Ten-SEC rivalry. I can sense it when I'm around Big Ten officials. These are the two richest leagues -- both financially and in tradition. They have fundamental cultural differences. But they're also both chasing championships (right now, only one of them is winning them). My sense is Big Ten fans would rally around a league title contender now more than they would have a few years ago, but the league pride likely will never match the SEC's.



Derek from La Crosse, Wis., writes: In the past three NFL drafts, the B1G has had 11 WRs drafted, the SEC has had 12, the ACC has had 10, the Pac-12 has had 8, and the Big 12 has had 10. This year may not be the greatest year for the B1G, but at least over the past three years we are doing fine. It seems like this might just be another case of people thinking the B1G is a lot worse than it actually is.

Adam Rittenberg: Derek, it's good to point out those numbers, but let's look at them a little deeper. Last April, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins became the first Big Ten wide receiver drafted in the first round since Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. in 2007. The Big 12 has had five wideouts drafted in the first round between 2008-12, and the SEC and ACC both have had three. Let's also look at the NFL's receiving leaders from this past season. The highest-rated former Big Ten player -- the Miami Dolphins' Brian Hartline, who played at Ohio State -- checks in at No. 16. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 all have multiple players in the top 15. When it comes to receptions, the highest-rated former Big Ten player -- Denver's Eric Decker, who played at Minnesota -- is tied for 13th. Decker did finish second in receiving touchdowns (13). We also should note that Mario Manningham (Michigan product) was injured, but the Big Ten isn't mass-producing stars at receiver. It's a position that needs to be upgraded through recruiting. And I think it will be.



Blaine from Westfield, N.J., writes: Everyone keeps saying the lack of talent in the BIG is driven by population shifts to the south, but if that is true how do you explain the talented and highly ranked basketball programs?

Adam Rittenberg: Blaine, there are several key differences in the two sports. Roster size is probably the biggest, as basketball teams don't need nearly as many top recruits to reach an elite level as football teams do. Two or three great players can get a basketball team in the mix for a national title. Football, in most cases, requires much more depth. The number of major cities in or near the Big Ten footprint also helps. Chicago, for example, produces nationally elite basketball players every year, many of whom end up at Big Ten programs. The city isn't nearly as fruitful for nationally elite football recruits (proportionally). The same goes for Indianapolis and other Midwestern cities. You also have states or regions where basketball is as big or bigger than football. The state of Indiana certainly comes to mind. Although basketball in the South isn't a complete afterthought, we all know football is king in states like Florida, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana. The Big Ten also has more good to great programs in basketball than in football. There are more Big Ten basketball programs that have competed at an elite level in the past 25 years than Big Ten football programs.



Corey from State College, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, avid reader of the blog when I am procrastinating studying for midterms (like right now). Anyways, I don't think I am too crazy in thinking that the hardest recruiting is behind Bill O'Brien. Obviously the number of scholarships hurts in how many prospect they can miss on, but in terms of actually recruiting them to Happy Valley, I think it will be getting easier. These kids will have the opportunity to play in bowl games. While you could argue our teams may struggle with only 65 scholarship players, you can tell the recruits that our Nittany Lions' performance on the field will be up to them. Like I said, maybe I am too excited about Hackenberg and Breneman, but with one year left in the #1 student section in the country, how could you blame me?

Adam Rittenberg: You make some good points, Corey. Being able to offer the bowl experience -- in addition to the chance to win Big Ten championships -- certainly aids O'Brien and his staff on the recruiting trail. O'Brien also can use the success of the 2012 season as a major selling point. The concern is how Penn State's recruiting would be affected by a down season or two. What if the effects of the sanctions show up more in 2013 than in 2012? What if Penn State lacks the leadership it had from a special senior class in 2012? A losing season or two always impacts recruiting, whether or not there are NCAA sanctions involved. So the key for O'Brien is to keep getting good to great results on the field. Penn State doesn't need to win nine or 10 games every year to maintain recruiting through the sanctions phase, but like any team, it can't really afford 3-9 seasons, either. My point is the sanctions themselves might directly be less of a factor going forward in recruiting because these recruits will be able to participate in bowl games, but the effects of the sanctions on the current team could hurt recruiting if the wins don't keep coming.



Les from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: First round forecast "not good?" If Lewan hadn't decided to stay in school, he was projected as a high 1st round pick, according to the journalists. I guess the pundits got lucky because now they can complain about the conference. I realize it's the offseason, and interest has to be created, but why not wait until the actual draft to see what happens when the actual teams decide who they want, before bemoaning the league's fate? Also...Tom Brady, 6th round, Drew Brees, second round, Brett Favre, second round, Joe Montana, low third round...It's silly to somehow keep score based on this stuff, especially considering it hasn't happened yet.

Adam Rittenberg: Les, as I pointed out in the story, if Lewan had declared for the draft he'd likely be the first Big Ten player selected, perhaps in the Top 10 overall. The larger point is that players like Johnathan Hankins and Kawann Short, who had been on Mel Kiper's Big Board for much of the season, have seen their stock drop in recent weeks. The fact no Big Ten players are listed among Kiper's top 25 is significant when you compare the results to other conferences. And the fact the Big Ten hasn't had a player go in the Top 10 since 2008 -- after having six straight seasons of Top 10 picks -- also is significant. Of course there are examples of Big Ten players -- and those from other leagues -- who were drafted later and became stars in the NFL. The Big Ten also has produced good pros recently like J.J. Watt. But the number of high draft picks is undoubtedly on the decline. Perhaps that will change next year with Lewan and others entering the draft.



Mac from Cincinnati writes: Adam, I know he didnt make a splash in the NFL but you forgot to add Vernon Gholston in the early first round picks in your article. I believe he went 5 or 6 overall.

Adam Rittenberg: Mac, I only listed the Big Ten's top overall selection for each draft. Gholston went No. 6 overall to the New York Jets in the 2008 draft, but Michigan's Jake Long was the Big Ten's top overall pick that year at No. 1 (to Miami). That's why Gholston isn't listed, but the fact the Big Ten had two players selected in the top six shows how times have changed.
The Big Ten hasn't produced a top-10 pick in the NFL draft since Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long and Ohio State defensive lineman Vernon Gholston went at No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in 2008 (sorry, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh doesn't count, played his entire career in Big 12).

[+] EnlargeRicky Wagner
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDoes Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema have another Outland Trophy winner in left tackle Ricky Wagner?
The league's highest picks in the past four drafts have been Penn State's Aaron Maybin (No. 11 to Buffalo in 2009), Michigan's Brandon Graham (No. 13 to Philadelphia in 2010), Wisconsin's J.J. Watt (No. 11 to Houston in 2011) and Iowa's Riley Reiff last week (No. 23 to Detroit). Although the Big Ten's overall first-round numbers haven't been bad, and the league had 41 total players selected last week, its highest total since 2006, the lack of premier prospects is a bit of a concern.

But the top-10 drought could end in 2013, according to ESPN's Todd McShay.

My apologies for posting this a bit late, but McShay came out with his first mock draft for 2013Insider, which he describes as an "extremely initial" version that "won't mean much by the time the summer is over."

Here's where he sees Big Ten players being selected next April.

No. 2: Wisconsin OT Ricky Wagner
No. 14: Michigan State DE William Gholston (underclassman)
No. 15: Michigan State CB Johnny Adams
No. 21: Purdue DT Kawann Short
No. 24: Illinois DE Michael Buchanan
No. 28: Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins (underclassman)

It's an interesting list, albeit an early one. Wagner certainly will be a player to watch as he enters his third year as a starter for the Badgers. He has been a good player, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2011, but whether he can take several steps to become one of the nation's best offensive linemen remains to be seen.

Gholston seems like a strong candidate to leave Michigan State after this season, where he'll be a top contender for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors. Hankins drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches this spring, and can be a disruptive force with his size.

All the defensive linemen on McShay's list have high-level talent, and there could be more from the Big Ten (John Simon, Akeem Spence).

One player who doesn't appear is Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who many project to play wide receiver in the NFL. It'll be very interesting to see where "Shoelace" ends up next April.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 4, 2011
3/04/11
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Howdy from Texas, Nebraska fans. It's me again. I trust you're behaving.
William Gholston and Max Bullough aren't typical freshmen, so Michigan State sees no point in treating them that way.

While a large portion of Spartans freshman can be penciled in as redshirts for 2010, head coach Mark Dantonio has made it clear that neither Gholston nor Bullough will sit out this fall. Michigan State boasts excellent depth at linebacker, led by All-American Greg Jones, but barring a snag between now and Sept. 4, both Bullough and Gholston will be part of the mix.

William Gholston
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIWilliam Gholston is the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit.
"We want to make sure that we put them into situations where they can contribute on a consistent basis because you don't want to just take away a guy's year [of eligibility]," Dantonio said after a scrimmage earlier this week. "Those guys can play and have an impact."

Dantonio's words resonate with the two freshmen.

"It's an indescribable feeling to know that I have the opportunity to play as a freshman," Gholston told me Wednesday. "That's very seldom. It was rare for a freshman to play five, six years ago, so to have an opportunity, it’s great."

Why are the expectations so high for these two?

Both were decorated high school prospects with advanced physical skills and good family history. Bullough's father and two uncles played for Michigan State, and his grandfather, Hank, played for the Spartans and later served as the teams defensive coordinator. His other grandfather and another uncle played for Notre Dame. Gholston's cousin is New York Jets defensive end Vernon Gholston, the former Ohio State star who visited him this summer and provided a pass-rushing tutorial.

Gholston arrives at Michigan State as the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit, according to ESPN Recruiting, which listed him as the nation's No. 3 defensive end in the 2010 class.

A unique physical specimen who can play both end and linebacker, Gholston stands 6-foot-7 and has increased his weight to around 255 pounds in camp. He even got above 260 for a portion of practice, a major change after being listed at 237 on National Signing Day.

"I was at 265, didn’t know it and I ran like an ox," Gholston said, laughing.

The 6-3, 235-pound Bullough also drew strong reviews in high school -- ESPN Recruiting rated him as the nation's No. 4 inside linebacker in 2010 -- and helped himself by enrolling this spring and going through practice.

"In the spring, everything comes faster because it's mostly veterans out there," Bullough said. "Every day, I'd be thinking, 'What do I do here? What do I do on this play?' Now everything comes second nature to me. I'm trying to learn to play fast, play more aggressive, play meaner."

The mean part shouldn't be a problem, as classmate Tony Lippett found out in a recent practice.

Gholston didn't practice this spring, but he was a fixture at the football complex, attending almost all of the team's 15 workouts. The many trips from Detroit to East Lansing helped him absorb the defense, which will incorporate more 3-4 elements this fall.

"It's fun having Will out here finally," Bullough said. "I feel like I've been here forever, waiting for Will to get here. We're trying to work together and teach each other."

Added Gholston: "Most of the learning, I grasp that part. It’s just applying what I learned. I've got little spurts where I do the right thing. I need to do the right thing every single time."

Although they're in the same class, Bullough is doing most of the teaching so far.

"Max is a very smart player, very physical and very tough," Gholston said. "I've never seen a freshman, a football player the same age as me, have so much knowledge about the game and be so consistent in everything he does."

The Big Ten has had its share of outstanding linebacker tandems in recent years: Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, Penn State's Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor and Iowa's Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, to name a few.

Michigan State hopes Gholston and Bullough mold a similar legacy together. The first steps begin this fall.

Bullough isn't taking the opportunity for granted.

"It is nice to hear," he said. "It’s all based on assuming -- I can only speak for myself -- I keep getting better each and every day. It's on my shoulders right now."

Big Ten lunch links

February, 23, 2010
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Man, I love curling.

"The negative recruiting was the worst I've ever seen it this year," Zook said. "But a lot of that is our own people. There's not enough people that believe this program can be where it can be."

Big Ten recruiting scorecard

June, 22, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A fairly busy week for Big Ten recruiting, highlighted by Michigan State landing defensive end William Gholston. Here's your updated recruiting scorecard (note: because of my upcoming vacation, the next scorecard will appear July 7).

ILLINOIS

  • 2010 verbal commits: 5
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Safety Corey Cooper, quarterback Chandler Whitmer
  • Quick take: Safety Daniel Easterly gives Illinois another dynamic defensive back, this time from the heart of Michigan State/Michigan territory in Detroit. Easterly also can play linebacker or wide receiver. Illinois appears to be close to landing several more Top 150 prospects.  

INDIANA

  • 2010 verbal commits: 5
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
  • Quick take: A good week for Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers, who added four high school prospects to the commit list. Wideout Logan Young is a big target at 6-5, 190, and tight end Leneil Himes also adds to the passing arsenal. 

IOWA

  • 2010 verbal commits: 6
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
  • Quick take: The Hawkeyes picked up an intriguing prospect in quarterback Austin Vier. He boasts very impressive size at 6-7, 220 pounds, but he didn't put up great numbers as a high school junior. Vier looks like a project who could pay off down the line for Iowa. 

MICHIGAN

  • 2010 verbal commits: 15
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Devin Gardner, wide receiver Jeremy Jackson, wide receiver Ricardo Miller, guard Christian Pace, safety Marvin Robinson
  • Quick take: Michigan continues to add recruits and has started to address the defense after stocking up on offensive skill players. Defensive back Courtney Avery originally committed to Stanford but switched after a recent offer from the Wolverines. The big question will be whether Michigan has both quantity and quality in its class.

MICHIGAN STATE

  • 2010 verbal commits: 5
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Defensive end William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough
  • Quick take: Gholston is a huge get for Michigan State and gives Mark Dantonio an elite defensive prospect from within the state. The cousin of former Ohio State star Vernon Gholston headlined an excellent week for the Spartans, who also added talented cornerback Mylan Hicks. All five commits are from Michigan, continuing a promising trend for the Spartans. 

MINNESOTA

  • 2010 verbal commits: 5
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
  • Quick take: A quiet week for the Gophers, but more commitments likely are on the way after camps this week. Cornerback Allen Veazie could contribute early in his career. 

NORTHWESTERN

  • 2010 verbal commits: 3
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
  • Quick take: The Wildcats finally got on the board and had a big week with three commits, all surprisingly from the South (2 Florida, 1 Louisiana). Running back Shontrelle Johnson looks a lot like Tyrell Sutton on film, and quarterback Trevor Siemian will provide depth behind Evan Watkins. Northwestern is still looking for another quarterback in the class. 

OHIO STATE

  • 2010 verbal commits: 5
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Tackle Andrew Norwell, linebacker Jamel Turner, defensive end David Durham
  • Quick take: It's awfully quiet in Columbus right now. No need to panic, but the Buckeyes didn't end up with William Gholston and are still waiting on quarterback Andrew Hendrix. Expect some action soon for the Buckeyes. 

PENN STATE

  • 2010 verbal commits: 8
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Wide receiver Adrian Coxson, running back Silas Redd, center Miles Dieffenbach, defensive end Kyle Baublitz
  • Quick take: Things have slowed down a touch after a busy late-spring push for the Nittany Lions. Dieffenbach and Baublitz are key early commits to fortify the offensive and defensive fronts. 

PURDUE

  • 2010 verbal commits: 1
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Robert Marve (2007 watch list)
  • Quick take: Danny Hope takes a very patient approach toward recruiting and doesn't understand the early offer craze. Still, it will be interesting to see when the Boilermakers land their first high school prospect. Purdue is in the mix for running back Austin White and punter Drew Basil.  

WISCONSIN

  • 2010 verbal commits: 3
  • ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
  • Quick take: The Badgers should add a commit or two later this week as they continue a strong in-state recruiting push. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Who's getting lucky on St. Patrick's Day? Get your mind out of the gutter for a minute.

As our green-themed blogging continues, it's time to distribute four-leaf clovers to five Big Ten teams, players or coaches who could use a little luck heading into the 2009 season.

Minnesota linebacker Sam Maresh -- Arguably no player in the country deserves a dose of good fortune as much as Maresh, whose career was put on hold by heart surgery last summer. After he made a quick recovery to prepare for 2009, Maresh discovered a non-cancerous tumor in his left leg. The heralded recruit hopes to practice this spring, and it will be pretty special when he steps on the field again.

Indiana coach Bill Lynch -- Lynch needs better luck on the health front after the Hoosiers' injury report resembled a Russian novel last season. Injuries wiped out Indiana's starting secondary, nagged at quarterback Kellen Lewis and struck an already suspect offensive line. Here's to better health in '09.

Michigan -- The Wolverines endured the worst season in team history last fall and remain extremely young at several key positions. They could use a break or two early on this season to gain some confidence, and it wouldn't hurt if freshman quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson blossomed quickly.

Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki -- Moeaki hasn't been able to stay on the field and could really use a senior season without any injury setbacks. A dislocated elbow and broken hand cost him most of the 2007 season, and he battled a leg injury and a concussion last fall. Moeaki has all the tools to be one of the league's top tight ends, but he needs some better luck this fall.

Ohio State defensive end Lawrence Wilson -- Pegged to succeed Vernon Gholston as the Buckeyes' primary pass rusher, Wilson has been plagued by injuries the last two seasons. He broke his leg in the 2007 opener against Northern Illinois and tore his ACL in Week 7 last fall against Purdue. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Signing day is less than 48 hours away, but these links are ready right now. 

  • Wisconsin takes a quality-over-quantity approach toward in-state recruiting, and it's paying off for Bret Bielema, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. 

"Since Bielema took over recruiting, prior to Barry Alvarez's final season in 2005, the Badgers have signed 14 players who have been ranked as four- or five-star recruits by Rivals.com. Nine of them were from Wisconsin. The Badgers have signed six players ranked as four-star recruits or better by Scout.com and five of them were from within the state."

  • Ohio State's 2009 recruiting class answers needs and adds depth at several key positions, Tim May and Ken Gordon write in The Columbus Dispatch.  
  • Santonio Holmes is Ohio State's greatest Super Bowl participant after Sunday night's heroics, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  • Michigan State has already started on its 2010 recruiting class and is targeting, among others, the cousin of former Ohio State star Vernon Gholston, Matt Dorsey writes in the Detroit Free Press.
  • Despite heavy criticism for prosecuting Penn State football players, Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira plans to seek a second term, Adam Clark writes in The Daily Collegian. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- At 6-foot-7 and 335 pounds, Steve Rehring is a big boy.

The Ohio State right guard can handle a little criticism.

 
 Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
 Alex Boone and the Ohio State offensive line will need their A-game against the Longhorns' defensive front.

"We take the blame," Rehring said of himself and his linemates. "If people want to blame us, that's fine. Whatever. We do some dirty things sometimes. People don't understand what we do down there."

Ohio State's front five has borne the brunt for the unit's struggles for most of the season. Despite returning four starting linemen, the Buckeyes finished 78th nationally in total offense (339.7 yards per game) and didn't truly find an identity until the closing stretch of the season.

The topsy-turvy season brought criticism from both outside and inside the locker room. Left tackle Alex Boone gave the line an 'F' for its performance in nonconference play. Rehring was a little more forgiving with his regular-season grade, giving the line a 'B' or 'B-minus.'

The group needs an A-plus performance Monday night against No. 3 Texas in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Fox, 8 p.m. ET). Led by All-American Brian Orakpo, Texas leads the nation in sacks (3.7 sacks per game), while Ohio State is tied for 78th in sacks allowed (2.17 per game).

"We have a lot to prove," Boone said. "We've been up and down all year. We've been talking about that and how we need to get better."

Pass protection has been the biggest knock against the Buckeyes, who ranked no worse than 29th nationally in sacks allowed during the last three seasons.

"I don't think pass blocking all goes on the offensive line," Rehring said. "We take the blame for it, always. If you get beat, you get beat. That's on the offensive line. But sometimes, protection-wise, we're supposed to do this or that.

"As a collective group, we need to protect the quarterback."

Starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor is prone to holding the ball too long at times, and he'll need to have a quicker release against Texas, which boasts seven defenders with multiple sacks, led by Orakpo (10.5) and linebacker Sergio Kindle (9). Both Rehring and Ohio State tight end Rory Nicol likened Orakpo to former Buckeyes star Vernon Gholston, the hulking end who had 14 sacks last season.

"We need to do a good job schematically of trying to keep Texas true and contained to their schemes and not letting them just tee off, off the edges," Nicol said. "Staying out of third-and-long situations where they get in that 30 front, they put Orakpo and the other kid on the edge and they're coming. They're coming to get the quarterback."

Speed has become a sore subject for Big Ten teams in recent seasons, and the new spin on the debate is that the major differential can be found on the line of scrimmage, not with the skill players.

Rehring doesn't buy it.

"We've got great defensive lines in the Big Ten," Rehring said. "I would put our defensive line against anybody and run 40s, across the board. On the offensive line, it doesn't matter. As long as you have good technique and do what you do, you have quick feet, it doesn't matter how fast they are.

"As an offensive line, we're pretty quick guys, play with good technique and we go against a great defensive line every day in practice. So we'll see how it works out."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Penn State's Maurice Evans is the Big Ten's top defensive end.

After Big Ten Media Days interrupted the position-by-position ratings, we're back at it today with the defensive ends. Despite losing premier pass rushers like Ohio State's Vernon Gholston and Michigan State's Jonal Saint-Dic, the league looks solid on the edges. National sacks leader Greg Middleton from Indiana is back alongside Penn State star Maurice Evans, Illinois marauder Will Davis and others.

Here's the rundown:

1. Maurice Evans, Jr., Penn State -- Middleton had more sacks last season, but Evans proved to be a greater backfield menace. He ranked sixth nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss and ranked second in the Big Ten with five forced fumbles to go along with 12.5 sacks. Penn State boasts the Big Ten's best line, which makes it harder for opponents to double-team Evans.

2. Greg Middleton, Jr., Indiana -- He came out of nowhere to lead the nation in sacks with 16 last season. Middleton registered six multi-sack games and forced two fumbles, returning one for a touchdown. His challenge this fall will be maintaining a high level of production despite increased attention from opponents.

3. Will Davis, Sr., Illinois -- The defensive line could be Illinois' strongest unit, and Davis is its anchor. He ranked fifth in the league in sacks last season (9.5) despite not being an opening-day starter. Davis boasts excellent speed off the edge and will be coveted by NFL teams in April.

4. Matt Shaughnessy, Sr., Wisconsin -- Health is a concern after Shaughnessy broke a bone in his right leg during spring practice. If he's full strength by Aug. 30, he could do some major damage. The prototype end ranked fourth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 18 last season, and he has nine sacks in the last two years.

5. Derek Walker, Sr., Illinois -- After being named the team's top lineman in 2006, Walker's production fell off a bit last fall. But another year playing with a talented line should help him. Walker has excellent size and complements Will Davis on the other end of the Illini line.

6. Tim Jamison, Sr., Michigan -- Jamison is always around the ball and should flourish under new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. One of many Wolverines players to benefit from the new strength program, Jamison had 10 tackles for loss last season to go along with two forced fumbles and an interception.

7. Brandon Graham, Jr., Michigan -- Graham recorded only 25 tackles last season, but he made them count. The sophomore led Michigan in sacks (8.5) and ranked second in forced fumbles (3). He also recovered two fumbles. Graham's summer weight-room progress is well documented, and he could shoot up this list by the end of the season.

8. Josh Gaines, Sr., Penn State -- The Nittany Lions' most experienced defensive lineman has played in every game the last three years, making 21 starts. His numbers might not be as eye-popping as other players on the list, but Gaines' endurance and leadership are invaluable to Penn State's defensive front.

9. Lawrence Wilson, Jr., Ohio State -- Many tabbed Wilson for a breakout season in 2007, but a broken leg in the opener sidelined the promising pass rusher. He's back to full strength and appears to be the ideal replacement for Gholston. If Wilson builds off his momentum as a freshman, when he collected three sacks and five tackles for loss, he'll soar up the list.

10. Cameron Heyward, So., Ohio State -- Heyward should be primed for a strong season after filling in well for Wilson as a freshman. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss (10) and added three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. The athletic Heyward provides versatility at end and should complement Wilson, who's more of a pure pass rusher.

Other defensive ends to watch this fall:

Trevor Anderson, Jr., Michigan State

Kirk DeCremer, So., Wisconsin

Corey Wootton, Jr., Northwestern

Jammie Kirlew, Jr., Indiana

Willie VanDeSteeg, Sr., Minnesota

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rankings switch to the defenses today, and things begin up front. Like their offensive trench mates, defensive linemen are best graded as a unit, so that's where we'll start. But because there are so many standouts in the Big Ten, I'll follow-up with individual rankings for interior linemen and defensive ends. Examining the personnel at Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, defensive line is arguably the league's strongest position group.

Here's the rundown:

1. Penn State -- It's tight at the top, but the Nittany Lions get the nod with an experienced and talented group. Defensive ends Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines lead the way after combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season. Aaron Maybin provides depth at end, and the interior line features Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and the reinstated Chris Baker.

2. Illinois -- Coach Ron Zook was extremely high on this group coming out of the spring, and for good reason. The Illini are stacked at end with All-Big Ten selection Will Davis, Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher. They must replace mainstay Chris Norwell at defensive tackle, but former walk-on David Lindquist comes off a strong 2007 in which he recorded 4.5 sacks.

3. Ohio State -- It's rare to see the Buckeyes outside of the top two, but they certainly have the talent to jump up the list. The main concern is the loss of defensive end Vernon Gholston, who tied for third nationally in sacks last fall. But the Buckeyes have a capable replacement in Lawrence Wilson, who returns after breaking his leg in the 2007 opener. Blossoming end Cameron Heyward helps the pass rush, and Ohio State has four capable interior linemen.

4. Michigan -- All four starters are back, and the line should be Michigan's strongest position group entering the season. End Brandon Graham had a strong summer after recording 8.5 sacks last season. He'll team with Tim Jamison to provide a formidable pass rush. The Wolverines will use multiple fronts but should operate mostly out of the 4-3, giving senior tackles Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson the chance to do damage.

5. Wisconsin -- Health and depth are the major questions entering camp, but there's little doubt the Badgers have loads of talent up front. End Matt Shaughnessy earned second-team all-conference honors last season and should have a stellar senior year if he recovers from a broken fibula. Senior tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk also come off injuries, as does end Kirk DeCremer, who recorded 5.5 sacks as a freshman.

6. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes boast the league's best interior line with senior tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. King has started the last 32 games, and Kroul's starts streak stands at 37. If Iowa can find disruptive pass rushers to bookend King and Kroul, it will shoot up the list. The spotlight will be on sophomores Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn, who had their moments as reserves last fall.

7. Indiana -- Greg Middleton headlines the group after leading the nation in sacks last season with 16. Indiana's challenges will be identifying a second pass-rushing threat and becoming sturdier against the run (159.7 ypg allowed in 2007). Junior end Jammie Kirlew recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season, numbers that should increase with the double-teams Middleton will draw. Senior Greg Brown and the Burrus twins (Keith and Kevin) must solidify the interior.

8. Purdue -- Cliff Avril's departure hurts, but the Boilermakers return several experienced players up front and could easily leapfrog some teams by the end of the season. Seniors Alex Magee and Ryan Baker could be the best defensive tackle tandem in coach Joe Tiller's tenure, and Keyon Brown finished last season with 2.5 sacks in the Motor City Bowl.

9. Michigan State -- I'd be surprised if Michigan State doesn't jump up the list, but it's hard to minimize the losses of standout ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, steps into one spot and gives the Spartans a proven pass rusher. Hopes are high for tackle Justin Kershaw in his senior season, and sophomores Antonio Jeremiah and Oren Wilson will compete at the other tackle spot.

10. Northwestern -- With four multiyear starters back for the fall, the Wildcats should be much higher on the list. But a disappointing 2007 season leaves the group with plenty to prove. Tackle John Gill is a fail-safe NFL prospect and 6-7 end Corey Wootton provides size on the edge, but the line simply doesn't make enough plays. Northwestern must finish off sacks after collecting only 18 last season, and senior end Kevin Mims must step up opposite Wootton.

11. Minnesota -- This will be a familiar spot for Gophers defenders until they prove otherwise. Minnesota generated a league-low 11 sacks last season and got gashed for 229.3 rushing yards per game. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg tries to regain his 2006 form (10 sacks) after a disappointing junior season. New coordinator Ted Roof must find two capable tackles and could look to the team's crop of junior-college transfers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg 

We're T-minus two days from the start of Big Ten media days in downtown Chicago. Items sure to be discussed ad nauseam: Joe Paterno's future, Rich Rodriguez's offense and the trouble in Iowa City. I can't imagine Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz is looking forward to his time at the podium Thursday.

Time to take a spin around the league:

  • The Iowa state Board of Regents meets today to discuss how the university handled the sexual assault case involving two former football players and a female athlete last October. If Ferentz erred in his response to the incident, he should go, SportingNews.com's Dave Curtis writes.
  • Former Hawkeye Abe Satterfield joined ex-teammate Cedric Everson in pleading not guilty to the sexual assault charges.
  • Prep quarterback Kevin Newsome is still coming to Michigan, despite rumors that he's reconsidering his commitment. Meanwhile, the Wolverines went into Les Miles' backyard to snag their latest 2009 commit, defensive end DeQuinta Jones.
  • It's impossible to sugarcoat Ohio State's bowl record against the SEC, but here's an interesting explanation about the struggles, courtesy of Bleacher Report.
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises breaks down the Ohio State defense. The big challenge is generating more pressure without top pass rusher Vernon Gholston.
  • In case you missed it, Carson Palmer might live in Ohio, but the former USC quarterback is no fan of the state school.
  • Indiana promoted from within to find its new compliance director. Up next: a new athletic director.
  • Youngstown State, this is your future.
  • Despite a rough stretch off the field and constant speculation about his future, Paterno still envisions a strong season in Happy Valley this fall.
  • Illinois picked up two high school teammates for its 2009 recruiting class.
  • Bleacher Report ranks the top 10 mascots in college football. Bucky the Badger comes in at No. 6, two spots ahead of Sparty the Spartan. No love for Purdue Pete or Brutus Buckeye? Can't wait to see all the mascots Friday at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon.
  • Think Illinois' struggling basketball program could use wide receiver Jeff Cumberland in the post this winter?

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