NCF Nation: Penn State Nittany Lions

We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark
It's getting closer, folks. The 2014 season will be here before you know it, and Big Ten media days are less than three weeks away.

The league today released the list of players who will be on hand at the Hilton Chicago on July 28-29 for media days and the kickoff luncheon.

Here they are ...

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA

David Cooper, Sr., LB
Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB
Shane Wynn, Sr., WR*

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, Sr., QB
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR*
Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., DB

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, Sr., DE*
Devin Gardner, Sr., QB*
Jake Ryan, Sr., LB*

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE*
Connor Cook, Jr., QB*
Kurtis Drummond, Sr., FS*

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, Sr., DL*
Jeff Heuerman, Sr., TE*
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB*

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, Sr., RB
Sam Ficken, Sr., PK*
Mike Hull, Sr., LB

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, Sr., FB
Darius Hamilton, Jr., DL
Lorenzo Waters, Sr., DB

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT
Jon Davis, Sr., TE
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT*
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL*
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB
Mitch Leidner, So., QB
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB*
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR*
Corey Cooper, Sr., S*

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S*
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE

WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB*
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT*
Warren Herring, Sr., DL

* indicates previous all-conference selection

I really like this list. The main reason: the number of non-seniors. Nothing against the graybeards, but too often Big Ten teams have brought only seniors to media days even if other players were better, more marketable, strong team leaders and more charismatic with reporters. Yes, I'm incredibly biased about this event: I want the best talkers.

While several Big Ten teams are taking the senior-only approach, others are bringing underclassmen who fill key roles. Minnesota will bring sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner because he's now the leader of the offense. The same goes for Indiana with junior signal-caller Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State is bringing juniors Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun because they both played huge roles in last year's championship run. Stefon Diggs is the most recognizable Maryland player, even though he's a junior. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't technically a senior, but barring injury this will be his last year as a Badger -- and his only chance to attend media days.

There's a decent contingent of quarterbacks -- seven in all -- that includes two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller, Cook and Michigan's Devin Gardner. The only major omission is Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could be one of the league's top players this season. The Lions throw us a bit of a curveball with kicker Sam Ficken. Interesting.

On behalf of all Big Ten media members, I'd like to thank Nebraska for bringing Bell. We are eternally grateful. And Kenny, I will make fun of you for being a Canucks fan.

Staying with the Huskers, senior running back Ameer Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on July 29. An excellent choice.
Maryland and Rutgers fans might have the wrong idea about their new Big Ten brethren.

For the most part, Midwesterners are excessively nice and hospitable. Coastal arrogance or aloofness has no place in the heartland, and the only frostiness in these parts is the weather. Big Ten fans might not have done backflips when they found out Rutgers and Maryland were joining the league, but now that the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins are part of the league, they will embrace their new, well-located friends.

But there are certain individuals that rankle even the most sensible Midwesterners. They are the folks you love to boo. Sadly, some of our favorite Big Ten villains -- Bret Bielema, Terrelle Pryor, Taylor Lewan -- are no longer here to kick around, but others remain.

Some of these folks have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have been too good on the field or on the sideline or as high school recruits. Others have said or done things to stir the pot.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesPenn State coach James Franklin's exuberance has grown a little annoying for some around the Big Ten.
Today, we unmask these villains.

To those on this list, an important point: the only true villains in college football are good enough to be villains. No one cares what the last-place coach or quarterback thinks. So you have earned this distinction. Put it right next to your playing or coaching awards.

Another reminder: this is all in good fun.

Without further ado, the list in alphabetical (not villainous) order:

Jim Delany, commissioner, Big Ten: He is one of the most powerful figures in college sports and has built the Big Ten into a revenue superpower through initiatives like the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten will never have a commissioner who makes a greater impact for such a long period of time. But Delany is still known more for his pro-BCS stance, Legends and Leaders, and the eyebrow-raising additions of Rutgers and Maryland. He lacks Larry Scott's polish or Mike Slive's willingness to stump for his constituents no matter what. Delany is a true independent voice and, at times, it has hurt his image among Big Ten fans. He might not be truly appreciated until he's gone.

James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Remember when Penn State's offseasons used to be quiet? Franklin has generated noise -- joyful noise for Nittany Nation, not so much for other fan bases -- since his opening news conference in January. He has made bold statements about dominating regional recruiting and backed it up so far, compiling a top-5 class for 2015. Franklin soaked up the spotlight during his May tour around the state and appears to be in front of every microphone and camera. Recruits and many fans love the guy, but some question his authenticity and get tired of the incessant hype.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: He is about as subdued a superstar as we have seen in the Big Ten and a welcome departure from his predecessor, Pryor. But the introverted Miller has inflicted quite a bit of damage on Big Ten fan bases, leading Ohio State to a 16-0 mark in regular-season league games the past two seasons as the starter. Miller has been the king of comebacks during his Buckeyes career, leading six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most among any FBS player. Knock him if you'd like for lack of a Big Ten title, but his best could be still to come.

Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State: He is the overlord of the Big Ten's best defense and one of the nation's most dominant units. Michigan State and Alabama are the only FBS teams to rank among the top 11 nationally in the four major defensive categories in each of the past three seasons. Narduzzi's incessant blitzes punish quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Just ask Michigan. The Spartans have a good thing going and Narduzzi knows it, telling ESPN.com, "I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do. ... We've been ahead of the curve for years."

Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: How can Peppers be a Big Ten villain when he hasn't even played a Big Ten game? I'll answer that question with a question: How many recent Big Ten players have generated more headlines before they step on the field than Michigan's prized incoming recruit? It's not Peppers' fault, but 13 of the 14 Big Ten fan bases likely are tired of hearing about the next Charles Woodson, his connection to "Naughty by Nature" and Peppers being the potential savior for an underachieving Wolverines program. Peppers might be the most anticipated Big Ten recruit since Pryor in 2008. He has a lot to prove this fall, and quite a few folks hope he busts.

Villains on deck: Urban Meyer, Bo Pelini, Connor Cook, Julie Hermann, Christian Hackenberg
Maryland becomes an official Big Ten member Tuesday. It marks a new chapter in Terrapins history, and a chance to build rivalries.

One new/old rivalry already exists for Maryland, at least on the recruiting trail. For that, Terrapins can thank their former assistant and coach-in-waiting, James Franklin.

Since the January day he stepped to the podium as Penn State's new head coach, Franklin has excelled on the recruiting trail and let everyone know about it. From his "dominate the state, dominate the region" claim at his introductory news conference to a more recent statement about treating Maryland, Washington D.C., northern Virginia and other areas as "in-state areas" underscore his confidence as a recruiter.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty ImagesFormer Maryland assistant coach James Franklin has made some bold predictions about how well he'll recruit while at Penn State.
Asked recently about Franklin's comments, Maryland coach Randy Edsall told the York Dispatch, "We're not gonna boast and brag. We're more about substance at Maryland. ... We're gonna worry about ourselves and not worry about anything else. Talk is cheap."

The truth is Franklin should concern Edsall. His recruiting background and ties to the Maryland/D.C. area make him a direct threat to pry prospects from the Terrapins' backyard, which suddenly becomes one of the Big Ten's more fertile recruiting areas. Of all the coaches Penn State could have hired, Franklin, because of his recruiting background and Beltway roots, might be the most detrimental for Maryland, which finds itself in a division filled with big stadiums and big tradition.

Penn State's 2015 recruiting class, rated fourth nationally by ESPN Recruiting Nation, includes three commits from Maryland and one from Washington D.C., including ESPN 300 prospects Adam McLean and Jonathan Holland. Maryland, which is completing an excellent recruiting month, has one player from Pennsylvania (linebacker Brett Zanotto).

But the belief is if Franklin remains at Penn State and continues to excel on the trail, the Lions soon will be among the Big Ten's elite from a talent and depth standpoint. Penn State isn't there now, still reeling from the unprecedented NCAA sanctions handed down in July 2011. If Franklin pulls in several top-10 classes, however, things will change in a hurry.

And that is why Maryland needs a quick strike against its new/old rival. Edsall is right: talk is cheap. Results matter, certainly on the recruiting trail but more importantly on the field.

Maryland travels to Happy Valley on Nov. 1, its first trip to Beaver Stadium since 1992. Penn State and Maryland have history, but it's not good history for the Terrapins, who are 1-35-1 all-time against the Nittany Lions, their lone win coming in 1961.

What better way for the Terrapins to show that they'll be no pushover -- on the field or in recruiting -- by beating Penn State in the teams' first league contest?

The Terps have several we-belong opportunities in their inaugural Big Ten season, as they host both Ohio State (Oct. 4) and defending league champion Michigan State (Nov. 15), and visit both Wisconsin (Oct. 25) and Michigan (Nov. 22). Wins in any of those games -- Maryland should be an underdog in each -- likely would make a skeptical league take notice.

But no game means more to Edsall's squad in Year 1 of Big Ten play than the Penn State clash. Because most likely, it's only going to get tougher.
Although there’s been plenty of good news on the recruiting trail for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, injuries and depth issues sure seem to be stacking up for the program this offseason.

According to a report from Lions 247, linebacker Ben Kline is the latest to succumb to a serious injury -- a torn Achilles tendon that should make him miss “significant time,” according to the outlet’s sources.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Ben Kline
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBen Kline's reported injury further depletes a thin group of Penn State linebackers.
The injury comes about seven months after Kline suffered a torn pectoral that required surgery. He also underwent a second shoulder surgery shortly after that. At the time of those surgeries, then-coach Bill O’Brien remained hopeful that Kline would be ready in time for kickoff this season.

Now? Well, with Franklin’s philosophy to not discuss injuries, it’s anyone’s guess as to when -- or whether -- Kline will return for his redshirt junior season.

Regardless of the severity, the injury obviously sets Penn State back. Depth issues along the offensive front have been well-documented, but the corps of linebackers are also extremely thin. Penn State now has just four linebackers who played last season and entered the university on scholarship: Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten.

Kline, a team leader who penned an articulate open letter in January about the program, could’ve challenged for a starting job had he been healthy. At the least, he would’ve played a crucial role as a backup. Last season, he battled through injuries but eventually won the starting job later in the season -- before the torn pectoral ended his year.

Kline offered this team a safety blanket of sorts at his position. He was a solid player who would’ve contributed in some manner -- but now that production will have to come from elsewhere, which likely either means a lot more Wooten, time split among non-scholarship players or an immediate impact from the two true freshmen, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder.

Linebacker for Penn State just went from a potential issue to a real concern. The rest of these players need to stay healthy -- or Penn State’s defense could end up being in almost as much trouble as the offensive line.

Video: That's a rap for Herb Hand

June, 22, 2014
Jun 22
1:11
PM ET

Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand delivers a freestyle rap for a junior elite football camp.
Maryland and Rutgers officially join the Big Ten on July 1, less than two weeks from now. The reaction from most Big Ten fans, of course, can be summed up in two words: Ho hum.

But what could quickly change the reaction is a new rivalry being created by the two expansion members. On that front, there is some promising potential.

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Eleven Warriors had a good look earlier today at the Maryland-Penn State rivalry, such as it is. The on-field history says, "nothing to see here, move along," as Penn State has gone 35-1-1 all time versus the Terrapins. But first-year Nittany Lions coach James Franklin seems to have a way of getting under opponents' skin, which opens up a realm of possibilities for this feud going forward.

Franklin spoke openly about "dominating the region" in recruiting upon taking the Penn State job. During a speech last month to boosters in Baltimore -- right in the Terps' backyard, Franklin said he viewed Maryland and New Jersey an in-state recruiting territory for his team. As far as other schools in the area? "They might as well shut them down, because they don't have a chance," he told the boosters.

Franklin would later say his words were taken out of context, but the implication was pretty clear nonetheless.

Well, Maryland coach Randy Edsall was in Pennsylvania for a golf outing earlier this week and fired back at Franklin's comments.

"Talk is cheap,” Edsall told the York (Pa.) Dispatch. "We're not gonna boast and brag. We're more about substance at Maryland. We're gonna find guys that fit the profile we're looking for. We're gonna worry about ourselves and not worry about anything else.”

I love it. Sure, coaches often spout off in the summertime, especially when rabble-rousing for their own boosters. Remember Brady Hoke's comments about Notre Dame "chickening out" of the Michigan series last year around this time? It's not so much a war of words as it is something to talk about.

But there's no doubt that these types of things add to the rivalry. Michigan did, after all, play the "Chicken Dance" song after beating the Irish at home last September. Wolverines fans ate it up.

The Maryland-Penn State series already has a little bit of juice, thanks both to the geography and the fact that Franklin used to be the Terrapins' head-coach-in-waiting. There is little doubt the two schools will butt heads on the recruiting trail, as Penn State already has four players from Maryland and the Washington D.C. area committed for the 2015 class.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/PennLive.com/Joe HermittSoon-to-be Big Ten members Maryland and Rutgers will hear plenty from Penn State coach James Franklin.
All of this makes the Nov. 1 game between the Lions and Terps at Beaver Stadium much more interesting. Provided, of course, that Maryland can field a competitive team in its new league. When the on-field results don't ignite a rivalry, the quickest way to add some flames is through a coaching conflict.

"Maryland has not had a lot of success against Penn State," Edsall told the Dispatch. "I think it's something that can be a good rivalry. We have to do something about that on our end."

Then there's Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have been just as futile over the years against the Nittany Lions as Maryland, going 2-22 all time. Still, the two schools aren't that far apart and share some commonality as northeastern state flagship institutions. Penn State has had lots of success recruiting New Jersey over the years, and Franklin's former boss -- ex-Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen -- is now the offensive coordinator at Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights will host the Nittany Lions on Sept. 13 in their first conference game as a Big Ten member; the game was scheduled before the league invited the Rutgers to join.

Rutgers fans have been looking forward to that game for many months and would love nothing more than to score the upset.

"There is a buzz from the fans,” coach Kyle Flood told reporters last month. “College football is at its best when its regional. They are our neighbor to the west, and they are the Big Ten school in Pennsylvania. Our fans are excited about it. I think they should be excited about it. We’ve got a lot of work to do for the season before that. We’ve got some really challenging games before that, but it’s probably fitting that that’s the Big Ten opener.”

Franklin likely won't be a popular figure in either Piscataway or College Park in the foreseeable future. And that's a good thing, because what the league needs with these two new East Coast additions are some buzz-worthy rivalries.
Texas and Texas A&M might not be playing one another anytime soon.

But other schools around the league are interested in the prospects of rekindling rivalries that were destroyed by two rounds of conference realignment.

While the Longhorns and Aggies remain at odds, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told ESPN.com this week he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to get Texas A&M on the Red Raiders’ schedule down the line again. Hocutt said there has been interest from Texas A&M’s side, as well.

“Hopefully that’s a series that at some point in time that could start again,” Hocutt said. “Is that a game that won’t happen again? No. We’ve had discussions about it. Hopefully we can reengage that in the coming years.”

Oklahoma and Nebraska already have an agreement in place to play a home-and-home in 2021-22. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has reportedly said he thinks his school will play Kansas again someday.

And West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who has already added Penn State and Virginia Tech to future schedules, told ESPN.com he's hopeful he'll be able to revive the “Backyard Brawl” with Pitt at some point, as well.

“At some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule,” Luck said. “What I’m trying to do with our nonconference games is stay as regional as possible and rekindle some of our historical rivalries. Penn State is back on the schedule. Virginia Tech is back on the schedule. That game meant a lot to southern West Virginians. The Pitt game meant a lot to northern West Virginians. We’ve continued to play Pitt in many of the sports.

“We’ve both gone through transitions, so it’s tough schedule-wise for both of us. But I think at some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule. I see [Pitt athletic director] Steve Pederson every now and then at various conventions. And we’ve had some discussions about that. We just haven’t been able to really eyeball the proper time to get it going again.”

Position U: Linebacker

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
9:30
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video
Who really deserves to claim the title of “Linebacker U” for the 2000s?


1. Ohio State (222 points)


Move over Penn State. Ohio State is the new “Linebacker U” -- and the Buckeyes claimed the title in a blowout. In many of these positional rankings, only a handful of points separate first and second place. At linebacker, the Buckeyes finished nearly 50 points ahead of second-place Alabama. But when your players stockpile national awards and All-America honors and then many more go on to become NFL draft picks, you put your program in position to rank at the top of this list. Players such as A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis and most recently Ryan Shazier have done that in Columbus.

Award winners: A.J. Hawk, Lombardi (2005); James Laurinaitis, Butkus (2007), Nagurski (2008), Lott (2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Matt Wilhelm (2002), A.J. Hawk (2004, 2005), James Laurinaitis (2006, 2007, 2008).
First-team all-conference: Joe Cooper (2000), Matt Wilhelm (2002), A.J. Hawk (2003, 2004, 2005), James Laurinaitis (2006, 2007, 2008), Ross Homan (2010), Brian Rolle (2010), Ryan Shazier (2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: A.J. Hawk (2006), Bobby Carpenter (2006), Ryan Shazier (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Cie Grant (Round 3, 2003), Matt Wilhelm (Round 4, 2003), Anthony Schlegel (Round 3, 2006), James Laurinaitis (Round 2, 2009), Thaddeus Gibson (Round 4, 2010), John Simon (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Courtland Bullard (Round 5, 2002), Rob Reynolds (Round 5, 2004), Larry Grant (Round 7, 2008), Marcus Freeman (Round 5, 2009), Austin Spitler (Round 7, 2010), Brian Rolle (Round 6, 2011), Ross Homan (Round 6, 2011).


T-2. Alabama (174)


The Crimson Tide has claimed two Butkus Awards and has had four consensus All-Americans at linebacker since 2009, when Alabama won the first of its three BCS titles under Nick Saban. Alabama also has had three linebackers picked in the first round (Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley) and five linebackers overall drafted during that run of dominance.

Award winners: DeMeco Ryans, Lott (2005); Rolando McClain, Butkus (2009); C.J. Mosley, Butkus (2013).
Consensus All-Americans: DeMeco Ryans (2005), Rolando McClain (2009), Dont’a Hightower (2011), C.J. Mosley (2012, 2013).
First-team all-conference: Saleem Rasheed (2001), Derrick Pope (2003), Cornelius Wortham (2004), DeMeco Ryans (2005), Rolando McClain (2008, 2009), Dont’a Hightower (2011), Courtney Upshaw (2011), C.J. Mosley (2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Rolando McClain (2010), Dont’a Hightower (2012), C.J. Mosley (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Saleem Rasheed (Round 3, 2002), DeMeco Ryans (Round 2, 2006), Courtney Upshaw (Round 2, 2012), Nico Johnson (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Derrick Pope (Round 7, 2004), Cornelius Wortham (Round 7, 2005).


T-2. Oklahoma (174)


Hey, what do you know? Oklahoma is near the top of the rankings at another position. At linebacker, the Sooners’ position is largely because of the early-2000s run when Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman cleaned up on the awards and All-America circuit. It also helps that Oklahoma has had 12 linebackers drafted since 2001.

Award winners: Rocky Calmus, Butkus (2001); Teddy Lehman, Bednarik (2003), Butkus (2003).
Consensus All-Americans: Rocky Calmus (2000, 2001), Teddy Lehman (2002, 2003), Curtis Lofton (2007).
First-team all-conference: Rocky Calmus (2000, 2001), Jimmy Wilkerson (2001), Teddy Lehman (2002, 2003), Dan Cody (2003), Lance Mitchell (2004), Rufus Alexander (2005, 2006), Curtis Lofton (2007), Travis Lewis (2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Torrance Marshall (Round 3, 2001), Rocky Calmus (Round 3, 2002), Teddy Lehman (Round 2, 2004), Dan Cody (Round 2, 2005), Clint Ingram (Round 3, 2006), Curtis Lofton (Round 2, 2008), Keenan Clayton (Round 4, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Lance Mitchell (Round 5, 2005), Rufus Alexander (Round 6, 2007), Nic Harris (Round 5, 2009), Travis Lewis (Round 7, 2012), Corey Nelson (Round 7, 2014).


T-4. USC (140)


It should come as no surprise that the greater portion of USC’s linebacker point total came during its mid-2000s run, when it was an annual BCS title contender. Standout linebackers such as Rey Maualuga -- the 2008 Bednarik Award winner, consensus All-American and three-time All-Pac-10 selection -- Keith Rivers, Matt Grootegoed and Brian Cushing helped the Trojans become the nation’s most dominant program during that period.

Award winners: Rey Maualuga, Bednarik (2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Matt Grootegoed (2004), Rey Maualuga (2008).
First-team all-conference: Matt Grootegoed (2002, 2004), Lofa Tatupu (2004), Rey Maualuga (2006, 2007, 2008), Keith Rivers (2006, 2007), Brian Cushing (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Keith Rivers (2008), Brian Cushing (2009), Clay Matthews (2009), Nick Perry (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Markus Steele (Round 4, 2001), Lofa Tatupu (Round 2, 2005), Kaluka Maiava (Round 4, 2009), Rey Maualuga (Round 2, 2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Zeke Moreno (Round 5, 2001), Oscar Lua (Round 7, 2007), Dallas Sartz (Round 5, 2007), Thomas Williams (Round 5, 2008), Malcolm Smith (Round 7, 2011), Devon Kennard (Round 5, 2014).


T-4. Miami (140)


When your program has 12 players from one position drafted and four of them go in the first round, chances are you’ll rank toward the top of the board. That’s the case with Miami, which had Dan Morgan (who won three national awards and was a consensus All-American in 2000), Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams and Jon Beason all become first-round picks after standout careers in Coral Gables.

Award winners: Dan Morgan, Bednarik (2000), Nagurski (2000), Butkus (2000).
Consensus All-Americans: Dan Morgan (2000).
First-team all-conference: Dan Morgan (2000), Jonathan Vilma (2001, 2002, 2003), D.J. Williams (2003), Sean Spence (2011), Denzel Perryman (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Dan Morgan (2001), Jonathan Vilma (2004), D.J. Williams (2004), Jon Beason (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Rocky McIntosh (Round 2, 2006), Leon Williams (Round 4, 2006), Tavares Gooden (Round 3, 2008), Darryl Sharpton (Round 4, 2010), Colin McCarthy (Round 4, 2011), Sean Spence (Round 3, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Darrell McClover (Round 7, 2004), Spencer Adkins (Round 6, 2009).


6. Penn State (134)


The old “Linebacker U” still makes our top 10. In fact, Penn State still has plenty to brag about at the position where it has long been known for producing stars. The Nittany Lions earned four national awards and three All-America designations between Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, plus they had nine players drafted since 2001.

Award winners: Paul Posluszny, Butkus (2005), Bednarik (2005, 2006); Dan Connor, Bednarik (2007).
Consensus All-Americans: Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006), Dan Connor (2007).
First-team all-conference: Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006), Dan Connor (2007), NaVorro Bowman (2008, 2009), Gerald Hodges (2011), Michael Mauti (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Paul Posluszny (Round 2, 2007), Dan Connor (Round 3, 2008), Sean Lee (Round 2, 2010), NaVorro Bowman (Round 3, 2010), Gerald Hodges (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Tim Shaw (Round 5, 2007), Josh Hull (Round 7, 2010), Nathan Stupar (Round 7, 2012), Michael Mauti (Round 7, 2013).


7. Georgia (110)


Two-time All-American Jarvis Jones and fellow 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree might get most of the glory, but this group is chock full of talent. Justin Houston is making his mark as a pass-rusher in the NFL and there are a bunch of old war horses such as Will Witherspoon, Kendrell Bell and Tony Gilbert who hung around the league for several years.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Jarvis Jones (2011, 2012).
First-team all-conference: Boss Bailey (2002), Odell Thurman (2003, 2004), Rennie Curran (2008, 2009), Jarvis Jones (2011, 2012), Ramik Wilson (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jarvis Jones (2013), Alec Ogletree (2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Kendrell Bell (Round 2, 2001), Will Witherspoon (Round 3, 2002), Boss Bailey (Round 2, 2003), Odell Thurman (Round 2, 2005), Rennie Curran (Round 3, 2010), Justin Houston (Round 3, 2011), Akeem Dent (Round 3, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Tony Gilbert (Round 6, 2003).


8. Texas (108)


Texas snuck into the top 10 on the back of Derrick Johnson, who won both the Nagurski and Butkus awards in 2004 and was a consensus All-American in 2003 and 2004 before becoming a 2005 first-round draft pick. The current Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl linebacker accounted for 62 of the Longhorns’ 108 points in the linebacker rankings.

Award winners: Derrick Johnson, Nagurski (2004), Butkus (2004).
Consensus All-Americans: Derrick Johnson (2003, 2004).
First-team all-conference: Cory Redding (2001), Derrick Johnson (2002, 2003, 2004), Aaron Harris (2005), Sergio Kindle (2008), Emmanuel Acho (2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Derrick Johnson (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Roddrick Muckelroy (Round 4, 2010), Sergio Kindle (Round 2, 2010), Sam Acho (Round 4, 2011), Keenan Robinson (Round 4, 2012), Alex Okafor (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Emmanuel Acho (Round 6, 2012).


9. Boston College (104): Luke Kuechly is responsible for most of the points here. The four-time award winner in 2011, was twice named a consensus All-American, earned all-conference honors three times and became a first-round draft pick. That's a grand total of 84 points for the Carolina Panthers star. The Eagles also have an active string of first-team all-conference linebackers that started with Mark Herzlich in 2008.

Award winners: Luke Kuechly, Nagurski (2011), Lombardi (2011), Lott (2011), Butkus (2011).
Consensus All-Americans: Luke Kuechly (2010, 2011).
First-team all-conference: Mark Herzlich (2008), Luke Kuechly (2009, 2010, 2011), Nick Clancy (2012), Kevin Pierre-Louis (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Luke Kuechly (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Kevin Pierre-Louis (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


T-10. Maryland (100)

E.J. Henderson accounts for more than half of Maryland’s points thanks in large part to his two national awards and two consensus All-America designations. Henderson is among three Terrapins linebackers who made the All-ACC first team twice (along with D’Qwell Jackson and Alex Wujciak), while Shawne Merriman is the only Terp during the 2000s to be selected in the first round of the draft.

Award winners: E.J. Henderson, Bednarik (2002), Butkus (2002).
Consensus All-Americans: E.J. Henderson (2001, 2002).
First-team all-conference: E.J. Henderson (2001, 2002), D’Qwell Jackson (2004, 2005), Erin Henderson (2007), Alex Wujciak (2009, 2010).
NFL first-round draft picks: Shawne Merriman (Round 1, 2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: E.J. Henderson (Round 2, 2003), Leon Joe (Round 4, 2004), D’Qwell Jackson (Round 2, 2006)
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Moise Fokou (Round 7, 2009).


T-10. Notre Dame (100)


There are times when a single player’s excellence is the difference between a school's spot falling near the top of the rankings and its sitting further down the list. Such is the case with Manti Te’o, who accounted for 82 points in his incredible 2012 season alone (seven national awards, a consensus All-America selection and then becoming a second-round NFL pick). Notre Dame is penalized in these team rankings by not earning points for all-conference honorees, so its spot in this top 10 speaks to how impressive Te’o’s 2012 season truly was.

Award winners: Manti Te’o, Maxwell (2012), Camp (2012), Nagurski (2021), Lombardi (2012), Bednarik (2012), Lott (2012), Butkus (2012).
Consensus All-Americans: Manti Te’o (2012).
First-team all-conference: Not applicable.
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Rocky Boiman (Round 4, 2002), Courtney Watson (Round 2, 2004), Manti Te’o (Round 2, 2013), Prince Shembo (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Anthony Denman (Round 7, 2001), Tyreo Harrison (Round 6, 2002), Darius Fleming (Round 5, 2012).

REST OF “LINEBACKER U” RANKINGS
98 – Florida State; 92 – UCLA; 72 – Florida, Stanford; 66 – Iowa, TCU, Wisconsin; 64 – Nebraska; 62 – Michigan State, Oregon State, Tennessee; 60 – LSU, Pittsburgh; 58 – Virginia Tech; 56 – West Virginia; 48 – NC State; 46 – Michigan, Ole Miss, Purdue; 44 – BYU, California, Kansas State; 42 – North Carolina; 40 – Illinois; 38 – Clemson, Iowa State, Texas A&M; 36 – Arizona, Auburn, Syracuse; 34 – Arizona State, Utah, Wake Forest; 32 – Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia; 30 – Arkansas, Georgia Tech; 28 – Kentucky; 26 – Northwestern, Vanderbilt; 24 – Colorado, Oregon; 20 – Washington; 18 – Oklahoma State, Rutgers; 16 – Mississippi State; 14 – Kansas, Louisville; 12 – Baylor; 10 – Washington State; 6 – Duke; 4 – Texas Tech; 2 – Minnesota; 0 – Indiana

Position U: Defensive line

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
9:00
AM ET
video
Which team deserves to claim the title of "Defensive Line U" for the 2000s?

1. LSU (200 points)
Four-time award winner, All-American and first-round NFL draft pick Glenn Dorsey produced 68 points by himself, but LSU is “D-Line U” because of the sheer number of outstanding players it has produced. There are 21 draft picks in all, including first-round picks Dorsey, Marcus Spears, Tyson Jackson, Michael Brockers and Barkevious Mingo. That’s an amazing legacy, which helped Les Miles’ Tigers barely edge Texas for the top spot.

Award winners: Dorsey - Outland (2007), Lombardi (2007), Nagurski (2007), Lott (2007).
Consensus All-Americans: Chad Lavalais (2003), Spears (2004), Dorsey (2007).
First-team all-conference: Lavalais (2003), Spears (2004), Claude Wroten (2005), Dorsey (2006, '07), Drake Nevis (2010), Sam Montgomery (2011, '12).
NFL first-round draft picks: Spears (2005), Dorsey (2008), Jackson (2009), Brockers (2012), Mingo (2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Jarvis Green (Round 4, 2002), Marquise Hill (Round 2, 2004), Wroten (Round 3, 2006), Al Woods (Round 4, 2010), Nevis (Round 3, 2011), Montgomery (Round 3, 2013), Bennie Logan (Round 3, 2013), Ego Ferguson (Round 2, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Howard Green (Round 6, 2002), Lavalais (Round 5, 2004), Kyle Williams (Round 5, 2006), Melvin Oliver (Round 6, 2006), Chase Pittman (Round 7, 2007), Ricky Jean-Francois (Round 7, 2009), Lazarius Levingston (Round 7, 2011), Lavar Edwards (Round 5, 2013).

2. Texas (196)
With 13 draft picks -- including first-round picks Casey Hampton, Marcus Tubbs and Brian Orakpo -- and 11 first-team all-conference picks, Texas finished a close second to LSU in the defensive line race. Orakpo was the big point producer with four national awards, an All-American honor and an all-conference selection before going in the first round of the 2009 draft.

Award winners: Orakpo - Lombardi (2008), Hendricks (2008), Nagurski (2008); Jackson Jeffcoat - Hendricks (2013).
Consensus All-Americans: Hampton (2000), Rodrique Wright (2005), Orakpo (2008), Jeffcoat (2013).
First-team all-conference: Hampton (2000), Cory Redding (2001), Tubbs (2003), Wright (2005), Tim Crowder (2005), Roy Miller (2008), Orakpo (2008), Sam Acho (2010), Alex Okafor (2011, '12), Jeffcoat (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Hampton (2001), Tubbs (2004), Orakpo (2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Shaun Rogers (Round 2, 2001), Redding (Round 3, 2003), Crowder (Round 2, 2007), Brian Robison (Round 4, 2007), Miller (Round 3, 2009), Henry Melton (Round 4, 2009), Lamarr Houston (Round 2, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Wright (Round 7, 2006), Frank Okam (Round 5, 2008), Kheeston Randall (Round 7, 2012).

3. Georgia (182)
Four-time award winner and two-time All-American David Pollack is the main reason that Georgia ranks so high on this list, but the Bulldogs have produced a ridiculous number of NFL defensive linemen in the 2000s. First-round picks Pollack, Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant and Johnathan Sullivan are among 20 NFL draft picks from Georgia, including players like Geno Atkins, Robert Geathers and Charles Johnson who have made big impacts in the league.

Award winners: Pollack - Lombardi (2004), Bednarik (2004), Lott (2004), Hendricks (2003, '04).
Consensus All-Americans: Pollack (2002, '04).
First-team all-conference: Seymour (2000), Pollack (2002, '03, '04), Quentin Moses (2005), Justin Houston (2010).
NFL first-round draft picks: Seymour (2001), Stroud (2001), Grant (2002), Sullivan (2003), Pollack (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Geathers (Round 4, 2004), Moses (Round 3, 2007), Johnson (Round 3, 2007), Corvey Irvin (Round 3, 2009), Atkins (Round 4, 2010), John Jenkins (Round 3, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Tyrone Robertson (Round 7, 2001), Josh Mallard (Round 7, 2002), Kedric Golston (Round 6, 2006), Marcus Howard (Round 5, 2008), Jarius Wynn (Round 7, 2009), Jeff Owens (Round 7, 2010), Kade Weston (Round 7, 2010), DeAngelo Tyson (Round 7, 2012), Cornelius Washington (Round 6, 2013).

4. Oklahoma (174)
A pair of All-Americans (Tommie Harris and Gerald McCoy, both first-round NFL draft picks) and an award winner (Harris) highlight Oklahoma’s batch of defensive linemen who tied for fourth in our standings. The Sooners had a total of 11 defensive linemen drafted in the 2000s.

Award winners: Harris - Lombardi (2003).
Consensus All-Americans: Harris (2002, '03), McCoy (2009).
First-team all-conference: Ryan Fisher (2000), Harris (2001, '02, '03), Jimmy Wilkerson (2002), Dusty Dvoracek (2003, '05), Dan Cody (2004), C.J. Ah You (2006), Larry Birdine (2006), Auston English (2007), McCoy (2009), Jeremy Beal (2010), Frank Alexander (2011), Ronnell Lewis (2011), Charles Tapper (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Harris (2004), McCoy (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Dvoracek (Round 3, 2006), Alexander (Round 4, 2012), Lewis (Round 4, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Wilkerson (Round 6, 2003), Ah You (Round 7, 2007), Beal (Round 7, 2011), Stacy McGee (Round 6, 2013), David King (Round 7, 2013).

4. USC (174)
With four first-round draft picks -- Kenechi Udeze, Mike Patterson, Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson -- it’s no surprise that USC would rank high on this list. The Trojans tied Oklahoma for the No. 4 spot largely thanks to that foursome, who also accounted for two of the program’s three All-American honors for defensive linemen in the 2000s (Shaun Cody had the other).

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Udeze (2003), Cody (2004), Ellis (2007).
First-team all-conference: Udeze (2003), Cody (2003, '04), Patterson (2003, '04), Frostee Rucker (2005), Jackson (2005, '07), Ellis (2006, '07), Fili Moala (2008), Brian Price (2009), Jurrell Casey (2010), Nick Perry (2011), Leonard Williams (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Udeze (2004), Patterson (2005), Ellis (2008), Jackson (2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Cody (Round 2, 2005), Rucker (Round 3, 2006), Kyle Moore (Round 4, 2009), Moala (Round 2, 2009), Everson Griffen (Round 4, 2010), Casey (Round 3, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Ennis Davis (Round 7, 2001), LaJuan Ramsey (Round 6, 2006).

6. TCU (158)
Aside from Jerry Hughes’ impressive résumé in 2008 and 2009, TCU doesn’t have a defensive line résumé that competes with some of the other top-tier programs at the position. It certainly helps the Horned Frogs’ cause that they were competing in the WAC, Conference USA or Mountain West up until 2012, as 96 of their 158 points came from linemen earning all-conference honors -- and only two of them earned that recognition since TCU joined the Big 12.

Award winners: Hughes - Lott (2009), Hendricks (2009).
Consensus All-Americans: Hughes (2008, '09).
First-team all-conference: Aaron Schobel (2000), Shawn Worthen (2000), Chad Pugh (2003), Bo Schobel (2002, '03), Tommy Blake (2005, '06), Chase Ortiz (2005, '06, '07), Hughes (2008, '09), Wayne Daniels (2010), Stansly Maponga (2011, 2012), Devonte Fields (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Hughes (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Worthen (Round 4, 2001), Aaron Schobel (Round 2, 2001), Matt Schobel (Round 2, 2002), Bo Schobel (Round 4, 2004).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Maponga (Round 5, 2013).

7. Penn State (152)
Considering that only 11 Penn State defensive linemen have been drafted since 2001, it’s impressive that five of them -- Jimmy Kennedy, Michael Haynes, Tamba Hali, Aaron Maybin and Jared Odrick -- went in the first round. Hali, Maybin and Devon Still (a second-round pick in 2012) accounted for the Nittany Lions’ three consensus All-American selections during that time period.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Hali (2005), Maybin (2008), Still (2011).
First-team all-conference: Kennedy (2001, '02), Haynes (2002), Hali (2005), Scott Paxson (2005), Maybin (2008), Odrick (2008, '09), Still (2011), Jordan Hill (2012), DaQuan Jones (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Kennedy (2003), Haynes (2003), Hali (2006), Maybin (2009), Odrick (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Anthony Adams (Round 2, 2003), Jay Alford (Round 3, 2007), Still (Round 2, 2012), Hill (Round 3, 2013), Jones (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jack Crawford (Round 5, 2012).

8. Florida State (148)
Jamal Reynolds and Bjoern Werner are the headliners, as both players earned consensus All-American honors before becoming first-round NFL draft picks -- plus Reynolds claimed the Lombardi Award in 2000. But Florida State has plenty to brag about, including 13 total draft picks and 10 all-conference selections among its defensive linemen in the 2000s.

Award winners: Reynolds - Lombardi (2000).
Consensus All-Americans: Reynolds (2000), Werner (2012).
First-team all-conference: Reynolds (2000), Darnell Dockett (2001, '03), Alonzo Jackson (2002), Travis Johnson (2004), Everette Brown (2008), Brandon Jenkins (2010), Werner (2012), Tank Carradine (2012), Timmy Jernigan (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Reynolds (2001), Johnson (2005), Brodrick Bunkley (2006), Werner (2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Dockett (Round 3, 2004), Chauncey Davis (Round 4, 2005), Andre Fluellen (Round 3, 2008), Brown (Round 2, 2009), Carradine (Round 2, 2013), Jernigan (Round 2, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Eric Moore (Round 6, 2005), Letroy Guion (Round 5, 2008), Everett Dawkins (Round 7, 2013).

9. Clemson (138)
Two-time award winner Da’Quan Bowers (38 points) and first-round draft pick Gaines Adams (22 points) -- both consensus All-Americans -- account for 60 of Clemson’s 138 points, but the Tigers have had 13 defensive linemen drafted, which is a big reason why they cracked the top 10. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Vic Beasley add significantly to the point total this season.

Award winners: Bowers - Nagurski (2010), Hendricks (2010).
Consensus All-Americans: Adams (2006), Bowers (2010), Beasley (2013).
First-team all-conference: Terry Jolly (2000), Nick Eason (2002), Adams (2006), Bowers (2010), Jarvis Jenkins (2010), Andre Branch (2011), Beasley (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Adams (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Eason (Round 4, 2003), Bryant McNeal (Round 4, 2003), Donnell Washington (Round 3, 2004), Phillip Merling (Round 2, 2008), Darell Scott (Round 4, 2009), Bowers (Round 2, 2011), Jenkins (Round 2, 2011), Brandon Thompson (Round 3, 2012), Branch (Round 2, 2012), Malliciah Goodman (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Charles Bennett (Round 7, 2006), Ricky Sapp (Round 5, 2010).

9. North Carolina (138)
There aren’t a ton of accomplished North Carolina defensive linemen on this list. The Tar Heels have just one award winner and All-American, Julius Peppers, and just seven all-conference selections. But UNC boasts a whopping six first-round draft picks in the 2000s -- Peppers, Ryan Sims, Kentwan Balmer, Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples and Sylvester Williams -- which is more than any other school in the top 10.

Award winners: Peppers - Lombardi (2001), Bednarik (2001).
Consensus All-Americans: Peppers (2001).
First-team all-conference: Peppers (2000, '01), Sims (2001), Quinn (2009), Coples (2010, '11), Williams (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Peppers (2002), Sims (2002), Balmer (2008), Quinn (2011), Coples (2012), Williams (2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: E.J. Wilson (Round 4, 2010), Marvin Austin (Round 2, 2011), Kareem Martin (Round 3, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Joey Evans (Round 7, 2002), Chase Page (Round 7, 2006), Hilee Taylor (Round 7, 2008), Cam Thomas (Round 5, 2010).

REST OF “D-LINE U” RANKINGS
128 - Utah; 126 - Nebraska, Ohio State; 116 - Florida; 114 - Pittsburgh; 108 - Iowa, Miami; 104 - Tennessee; 102 - Auburn; 100 - Wisconsin; 98 - Louisville; 96 - Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina; 94 - Arizona State; 92 - Michigan; 86 - Oregon State, Purdue; 80 - California, Syracuse; 74 - Georgia Tech; 70 - Oregon, Virginia Tech; 64 - BYU, UCLA; 62 - Texas A&M; 58 - NC State; 56 - Virginia; 54 - Illinois; 52 - Kansas State; 50 - Michigan State, West Virginia; 44 - Boston College; 42 - Arkansas; 40 - Maryland; 38 - Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Rutgers; 34 - Washington State; 30 - Minnesota, Northwestern; 28 - Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas Tech, Washington; 24 - Wake Forest; 18 - Baylor, Indiana, Iowa State; 16 - Arizona; 12 - Duke; 4 - Vanderbilt

Position U: Running backs

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
10:00
AM ET
video
Who really deserves to claim the title of "Running Back U" for the 2000s?

1. Arkansas (104 points)
In perhaps the biggest upset at any position, Arkansas can call itself “Running Back U” for the 2000s. Certainly Darren McFadden played the biggest role in the Razorbacks’ claim, but he got an assist from Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Those former backfield mates are among six Arkansas running backs who have been drafted since 2001, helping the Hogs barely edge Oklahoma for the top spot.

Award winners: McFadden, Walker (2006, 2007), Camp (2007).
Consensus All-Americans: McFadden (2006, 2007).
First-team all-conference: Fred Talley (2002), Cedric Cobbs (2003), Darren McFadden (2005, 2006, 2007).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jones (2008), McFadden (2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Cobbs (Round 4, 2004), Knile Davis (Round 3, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Hillis (Round 7, 2008), Kiero Small (Round 7, 2014).

2. Oklahoma (102 points)
When someone like Adrian Peterson has been on your campus, you have to start there when discussing Oklahoma running backs. But one of the main reasons the Sooners racked up such a considerable point total is the Big 12’s unusual practice of honoring fullbacks on its all-conference team. In addition to the Petersons and DeMarco Murrays, there are also several blocking backs included in the Sooners’ 12 all-conference running backs who made our list.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Peterson (2004).
First-team all-conference: Quentin Griffin (2002), Peterson (2004, 2005, 2006), J.D. Runnels (2005), Brody Eldridge (2007), DeMarco Murray (2008, 2010), Matt Clapp (2008), Trey Millard (2011, 2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Peterson (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Griffin (Round 4, 2003), Murray (Round 3, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Runnels (Round 6, 2006), Patrick (Round 7, 2008), Trey Millard (Round 7, 2014).

3. Alabama (100 points)
Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams had better pick it up this season, or the Alabama train is going to roll to the top spot. The Crimson Tide once again has one of the nation’s most talented backfields with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry set to join the likes of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy as top point producers from Alabama.

Award winners: Ingram, Heisman (2009); Richardson, Walker (2011).
Consensus All-Americans: Ingram (2009), Richardson (2011).
First-team all-conference: Kenneth Darby (2005), Ingram (2009), Richardson (2011), Lacy (2012), Yeldon (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Ingram (2011), Richardson (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Le’Ron McClain (Round 4, 2007), Glen Coffee (Round 3, 2009), Lacy (Round 2, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Ahmaad Galloway (Round 7, 2003), Darby (Round 7, 2007), Brad Smelley (Round 7, 2012).

4. Auburn (86 points)
Auburn hasn’t been as flashy as its in-state rival -- the Tigers don’t have a single award winner or consensus All-American in the 2000s -- but few schools have been as consistent at developing solid tailbacks. Perhaps the most memorable names are the stars from the undefeated 2004 team -- Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams -- but Rudi Johnson, Kenny Irons, Ben Tate and Tre Mason all made big impacts at Auburn, as well.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Johnson (2000), Williams (2003, 2004), Brown (2004), Irons (2005, 2006), Michael Dyer (2011), Mason (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Brown (2005), Williams (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Heath Evans (Round 3, 2001), Johnson (Round 4, 2001), Irons (Round 2, 2007), Tate (Round 2, 2010), Mason (Round 3, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jay Prosch (Round 6, 2014).

4. Wisconsin (86 points)
Montee Ball is Wisconsin’s only major award winner and consensus All-America tailback from the 2000s, but the Badgers have an impressive tradition of turning out 1,000-yard rushers. Among the program’s top producers from this era are 2001 first-round pick Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun and Anthony Davis, among others. Ball posted huge yardage and touchdown totals in 2011 and 2012 -- which explains why he was a two-time All-American and won the 2012 Doak Walker Award -- but it’s the run of consistency at running back that makes Wisconsin a producer of top rushers.

Award winners: Ball, Walker (2012).
Consensus All-Americans: Ball (2011, 2012).
First-team all-conference: Davis (2001), Calhoun (2005), P.J. Hill (2006), John Clay (2009), Ball (2011, 2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bennett (2001).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Calhoun (Round 3, 2006), Ball (Round 2, 2013), James White (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Davis (Round 7, 2005), Bradie Ewing (Round 5, 2012).

6. Oregon (82 points)
Although the Ducks have ranked among the nation’s top programs over the past half-decade, LaMichael James’ 2010 Doak Walker Award is the only major award that an Oregon player has won at any position in the 2000s. James is the Ducks’ top point producer out of the backfield in recent years, but they also won points with backs like Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith before Chip Kelly’s rushing attack turned Oregon into the offensive juggernaut that we see today.

Award winners: James, Walker (2010).
Consensus All-Americans: James (2010), Kenjon Barner (2012).
First-team all-conference: Smith (2002), Jonathan Stewart (2007), James (2010, 2011), Barner (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Stewart (2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Morris (Round 2, 2002), Smith (Round 4, 2003), LaMichael James (Round 2, 2012), De’Anthony Thomas (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Barner (Round 6, 2013).

7. USC (78 points)
Reggie Bush was actually a two-time All-American, but we aren’t factoring the 2004 nod he received because that was as an all-purpose player, not a running back. Nonetheless, Bush’s standout 2005 season was the main points driver as the Trojans cracked the top 10 largely because of the former No. 2 overall NFL pick’s accomplishments. It bears mentioning, however, that USC has already had eight running backs drafted in the 2000s.

Award winners: Bush, Heisman (2005), Camp (2005), Walker (2005).
Consensus All-Americans: Bush (2005).
First-team all-conference: Bush (2004, 2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bush (2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Justin Fargas (Round 3, 2003), LenDale White (Round 2, 2006), Joe McKnight (Round 4, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Malaefou Mackenzie (Round 7, 2003), David Kirtman (Round 5, 2006), Allen Bradford (Round 6, 2011), Stanley Havili (Round 7, 2011).

8. Penn State (72 points)
Larry Johnson’s huge 2002 season accounts for much of Penn State’s point production -- he generated 52 points between winning three national awards, becoming a consensus All-American, winning first-team all-conference honors and getting drafted in the 2003 first round -- but the Nittany Lions have had five running backs drafted and Evan Royster also won all-conference honors in 2009.

Award winners: Johnson, Camp (2002), Maxwell (2002), Walker (2002).
Consensus All-Americans: Johnson (2002).
First-team all-conference: Johnson (2002), Royster (2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: Johnson (2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Omar Easy (Round 4, 2002), Michael Robinson (Round 4, 2006), Tony Hunt (Round 3, 2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Royster (Round 6, 2011).

9. Oklahoma State (70 points)
There’s nothing flashy about Oklahoma State’s point production here. No national awards, and just Kendall Hunter among its All-Americans. But the Cowboys have been outstanding at producing all-conference running backs, with Hunter (twice) and Tatum Bell ranking among their eight backs who made the coaches’ first team.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Hunter (2010.
First-team all-conference: Bell (2003), Dantrell Savage (2007), Hunter (2008, 2010), Keith Toston (2009), Bryant Ward (2009, 2010), Joseph Randle (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Bell (Round 2, 2004), Vernand Morency (Round 3, 2005), Hunter (Round 4, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Randle (Round 5, 2013).

10. California (66 points)
Considering how Cal shares a conference with splashy programs like Oregon and USC, perhaps it’s understandable that its success developing tailbacks might fly a bit under the radar. But just look at the Bears’ résumé, starting with Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best and J.J. Arrington. There have been some enormously productive tailbacks who got their start in Berkeley.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Arrington (2004).
First-team all-conference: Adimchinobe Echemandu (2003), Arrington (2004), Lynch (2006), Justin Forsett (2007), Best (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Lynch (2007), Best (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Arrington (Round 2, 2005), Shane Vereen (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Echemandu (Round 7, 2004), Forsett (Round 7, 2008).

10. Virginia Tech (66 points)
Frank Beamer’s Hokies are another bunch who trotted out productive tailback after productive tailback. Virginia Tech hasn’t won a national award and has only Kevin Jones among its All-America backs, but its list of all-conference backs -- including first-round picks Jones and David Wilson, along with Lee Suggs, Brandon Orr and Ryan Williams -- features some players whose running abilities fit perfectly with Beamer’s winning formula in Blacksburg.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Jones (2003).
First-team all-conference: Suggs (2000), Jones (2003), Orr (2006), Williams (2009), Wilson (2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jones (2004), Wilson (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Suggs (Round 4, 2003), Williams (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jarrett Ferguson (Round 7, 2002), Cedric Humes (Round 7, 2006).

REST OF “RUNNING BACK U” RANKINGS
62 -- Boston College; 60 -- Michigan, Ohio State; 58 -- Stanford; 56 -- LSU, Miami; 52 -- Georgia Tech, Oregon State; 50 -- West Virginia; 48 -- BYU; 44 -- Arizona, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, TCU; 42 -- Texas; 40 -- Clemson, Iowa, Nebraska; 36 -- Kansas State, Rutgers; 32 -- Georgia, Minnesota; 28 -- Florida State, Louisville, Tennessee, UCLA; 26 -- Illinois, Maryland, Syracuse; 24 -- Virginia; 20 -- Colorado, North Carolina; 18 -- Baylor, Mississippi State, Wake Forest; 16 -- Florida, Northwestern, Washington, Washington State; 14 -- Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas Tech; 12 -- Iowa State, Kentucky; 10 -- Kansas, N.C. State, Texas A&M; 8 -- Missouri, Utah; 6 -- Arizona State, Duke, Indiana, Notre Dame; 2 -- Vanderbilt
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Penn State assistant Herb Hand has beaten himself up over past decisions, but none was probably as public as Tuesday night’s second-guessing: Why, oh why, didn’t the father of three toss his rice noodles with that Thai peanut sauce?

“I learned there are a lot of armchair chefs out there,” Hand told ESPN.com with a laugh.

Not a lot of football coaches find fans questioning their sauce-making capabilities. But not a lot of coaches have appeared on Food Network’s nationally televised “Chopped” show, either. Hand taped the four-person, three-round elimination competition last October -- which explained his gold Vanderbilt shirt -- and the show aired late Tuesday night.

In “Chopped,” four chefs scramble for 30 minutes to transform a mystery basket of ingredients into a dish judged on creativity, presentation and taste. They’ll do that with an appetizer, entrée and dessert -- with one chef eliminated after each round.

“When we actually walked out on set when they were filming, that’s when I was like, ‘What are you doing, man? You’re about to cook on national television,’” Hand said, laughing. “But it’s just like anything else. When the clock started and it was time to compete, I just wanted to do my best.”

The offensive line coach cruised past the first round with his winning combination of potato chip-crusted sole with bacon and garlic red Russian kale -- a sentence that will likely never again appear on ESPN.com. And Hand also won over cooking fans by sharing an ingredient with a competitor and asking the timeless question, “Who am I to hog another man’s bacon?” But the offensive line coach slipped up in the entrée round when the judges criticized the presentation of his lamb with Thai peanut sauce.

Hand was “chopped,” or eliminated, in the second round.

Hand watched the show Tuesday night alongside his fellow Penn State coaches, who were crammed in a bus on their way to help with a satellite camp in Florida. The coaches laughed and read aloud some of their favorite tweets, while playfully yelling at the TV as if it were the NBA Finals … which was airing simultaneously, but could always wait. After all, that series happens once a year. How often does a coach take over Twitter with "DominatetheKitchen" hashtags?

Penn State head coach James Franklin shook his head right before Hand’s televised elimination, as the judges told a sullen Hand that his lamb was beautifully cooked -- but the sauce lacked depth and the presentation wasn’t pretty.

“It always comes down to execution, Herb!” Hand remembered Franklin yelling.

Hand, who was playing for "Curing Kids Cancer" in honor of Wilson Holloway, said it took a day or two for him to fully recover from the Thai peanut sauce fiasco. And, once the football season ended, he started questioning himself again. If he could do it all over again -- something countless Penn State foodies have undoubtedly wondered … probably -- Hand said he would’ve tossed the sauce with the noodles, added some green onion and cilantro, and maybe mixed in some carrots for crunch.

He searched the Food Network pantry for some crushed peanuts for the dish but, regrettably, couldn’t find them and had to settle for sesame seeds.

“When the clock is running, man, you just want to get it done. You just want to get it done,” Hand repeated. “When they say to open the baskets and your time starts now, your time starts now. There are no redos or stopping the clock. It’s go time.”

To prepare for the competition, Hand treated it almost like football. He literally looked for tendencies in the judges -- scouting report on judge Scott Conant? Steer clear of pastas -- and basically broke down film with his wife. They would relax on the sofa, flip on some “Chopped,” and his wife would pause the TV during a mystery basket to ask him what he would make.

No, Hand didn’t come away as the winner on Tuesday night. But his talent for food is already well-known in Happy Valley. On the morning of signing day, during an event that was open to media and some fans, he briefly took over a chef station and flipped some omelets for fun. He also started a Penn State “pizza crawl” and, for charity, he has auctioned off a few home-cooked dinners, where he’ll travel to the winner’s home with ingredients in tow.

So, despite the outcome, don’t expect Hand to stop cooking anytime soon.

“I just love doing it,” he said. “When you can make a great meal for people you love, it’s really an expression of love. And I enjoy that -- whether it’s my wife and kids or my friends or my players. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
The SEC football coaches, proud purveyors of oversigning and other honorable recruiting practices, have banded together in the name of integrity. Take a bow, (good ol') boys. You deserve it.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/PennLive.com/Joe HermittSEC coaches aren't thrilled with Penn State coach James Franklin's decision to have summer camps in their territory.
Apparently the SEC coaches aren't too pleased with a plan hatched by one of their former colleagues, James Franklin. The new Penn State coach, formerly at Vanderbilt, and his assistants will guest coach next month at summer camps in the heart of SEC country, at Georgia State and Stetson. It means the Penn State staff can evaluate prospects from in and around Atlanta and DeLand, Fla., two SEC recruiting hotbeds.

Although NCAA rules limit programs from running high school camps more than 50 miles from their campus, coaches are allowed to work at camps outside of the radius as long as they don't run the events.

"The Big Ten and NCAA rules allow you to do these things," Franklin recently told reporters during a Coaches Caravan stop in King of Prussia, Pa. "We wanted to not only have camps on our campus, which we're going to have a bunch of them, but also be able to maybe take the Penn State brand and be able to take it to part of the country that maybe young men and families wouldn't be able to make it to our place, take it to them.

"And I'm fired up about it."

But Franklin's former SEC brethren aren't fired up. Unlike the morally reprehensible Big Ten, the SEC prohibits coaches from working at camps beyond 50 miles from campus. Again, it's all about integrity in that league.

So SEC coaches have complained to their commissioner, Mike Slive, to step in and try to stop Franklin and his attempt to enter their sacred ground.
"It's that kind of thing that gets us to think about our rules," Slive said. "They [SEC coaches] like our rule; they don't like the so-called satellite camps. They see it as a loophole and asked us to see what we can do about that."

Slive said the SEC would have to approach the NCAA about closing the loophole.

You go and do that, Commissioner Slive. March yourself to Indianapolis. By golly, someone needs to stand up for doing things the right way. And if the NCAA asks about oversigning, just show them your championship rings. So sparkly!

The truth is other programs are capitalizing on the same loophole. As colleagues Brett McMurphy and Edward Aschoff report, coaches from Oklahoma State and New Mexico plan to work several camps in Texas this summer. While Florida and Georgia are among the highest-producing states for FBS prospects, Texas tops the list.

So Franklin isn't the only one. But his plan to extend the recruiting reach for a Penn State program that has largely ignored the fertile South in recent years is brilliant. Everyone asks me how the Big Ten can close the gap with the SEC. The answer is to spend more time in its territory.

"This thing that James Franklin did with Georgia State, that’s a stroke of genius," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at LSU and Vanderbilt, told me. "If Penn State continues to do that, and other Big Ten schools continue to have an agreement with these smaller Southern schools and you can officially visit a prospect in May and June, it will be the most significant move in favor of Big Ten football in my lifetime."

Just wait until more Big Ten coaches begin stumping for earlier official visits, which would help their cause tremendously. Michigan's Brady Hoke is on board. So are many others in the league.

It'll be fun to see how the SEC reacts to that campaign.

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork offered this gem at SEC spring meetings when asked about Franklin's summer Southern migration. By the way, arguably no SEC program has a more storied oversigning tradition than Ole Miss.

"That's our backyard, so anytime those things happen, your eyes and ears perk up to say, What do we need to address [the issue] if that's a hindrance?" Bjork said. "If it's a competitive disadvantage, then we need to look at it."

Competitive disadvantage! Sound the alarms! The Big Ten is gonna get us!

To quote the other Björk:
You're all right
There's nothing wrong
Self-sufficience please!
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You'll meet an army of me

The SEC should stop complaining about, of all things, a potential challenge to its recruiting hegemony. Better yet, it should change its policy and come on up to Big Ten country. Nick Saban loves Ohio. Les Miles is a Michigan guy. Kevin Sumlin went to Purdue.

How could Division III power Wisconsin-Whitewater turn down a chance to bring back favorite son Bret Bielema to America's dairyland?

But maybe it's better that the SEC coaches dig in on this issue. Remember, they're all about fairness and honor in recruiting.

And 37-man recruiting classes.

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