NCF Nation: Brandon Graham

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Last season, defensive tackle was clearly the strongest overall position group in the Big Ten. What position will be the best throughout the league in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball headlines a strong group of returning running backs in the Big Ten.
I'm tempted to go with linebacker, where some high-profile players and future stars are scattered throughout the conference. But my pick is running back.

There's some major star power at the position this year in the Big Ten, starting off with last year's Heisman Trophy finalist and record breaker, Wisconsin's Montee Ball. While Ball is the obvious choice for preseason offensive player of the year, he could get pushed by some other backs, including Nebraska's tough-as-nails Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Even with last year's No. 2 league rusher (Iowa's Marcus Coker) gone, the position is still stacked with guys like Penn State's Silas Redd, who we both think is primed for a huge season; Michigan's Fitz Toussaint, who ran for more than 1,000 yards despite not taking over lead rushing duties until the eighth game of the season; and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, who came on strong late last season and looks great this spring.

Purdue has some very capable runners in Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt and Doug Gentry, and Ralph Bolden is coming back from an ACL injury. Ohio State has a potentially strong group with Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and freshman Bri'onte Dunn. Stephen Houston showed some good things for Indiana last year, and transfer Isaiah Roundtree had a big spring game. Minnesota is high on junior college import James Gillum. And don't forget James White at Wisconsin, who could start for most teams in the country.

Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have some question marks at tailback. But overall, running back is where the Big Ten's bread will be buttered this season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

A good choice, Bennett, as the Big Ten returns six of its top seven running backs and would have brought back all seven if not for Marcus Coker's transfer. But my experience covering this league has taught me to never overlook the defensive line. The D-line once again will be the Big Ten's strongest group in 2012.

Sure, the league loses standouts like Devon Still, Whitney Mercilus and Jerel Worthy. But you could substitute the names Aaron Maybin and Mitch King after the 2008 season, or Brandon Graham and Jared Odrick after 2009, or J.J. Watt and Corey Liuget after 2010. The Big Ten always finds ways to reload up front, and this year will be no different. There might not be as many familiar names as there are at running back, but that soon will change.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPurdue defensive lineman Kawann Short is a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Let's start off with the top returning linemen, Ohio State's John Simon and Purdue's Kawann Short, both of whom earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. Both men will contend for All-America honors, and could be potential first-round picks in the 2013 class. Then you have a guy we're both excited about: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. He's a physical freak, as you recently detailed, and has the potential to dominate games and become one of the nation's truly elite defenders in 2012. I'd also include Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill in this group of known commodities with the potential for very big things this season. Penn State's overall depth along the defensive line should be better this year.

Now for some lesser-known names who could have breakout seasons. Let's start at Illinois with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Buchanan is poised for a big year, as he showed in Illinois' spring game, while Spence is a next-level player who could follow Liuget's path this season. Speaking of defensive tackles, watch out for Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a very big man who can do very big things this season. The Buckeyes' heralded incoming freshmen should only bolster their line.

Michigan loses two standout linemen (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen), but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines falling back much at all up front. Nebraska boasts good depth at the defensive end spot and could see a big year from a guy like Cameron Meredith.

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.
The Big Ten announced its 2011 all-conference teams and most individual awards Monday night, but four more awards will be revealed Wednesday afternoon. Before the winners are revealed, we're putting in our endorsements for Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year. We'll agree on some and differ on others.

Here's our second endorsement, for the league's top defensive player in 2011:

Brian Bennett endorses Penn State DT Devon Still

There are three really strong candidates for defensive player of the year in Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David and Penn State's Still. I believe all three of them deserve All-America recognition. But in my view, there was simply not a more dominating, disruptive defensive presence in the Big Ten or the rest of the country than Still. Ever since his big showing in January's Outback Bowl, the senior played like he was on a mission. He had 55 tackles, including 17 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Remember, he was playing a position -- defensive tackle -- that usually doesn't rack up big statistics, and he faced nearly constant double-teams all season long. Yet he always seemed to find a way into an opposing offense's backfield or at least occupy enough attention that his teammates could make a stop. Penn State won this year because of its defense, and Still led the way.

Adam Rittenberg endorses Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus

Brian, I'd even add a fourth candidate to the mix in Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who will be making a lot of money next year if he decides to forgo his senior season. This is a really tough call as all four men have been outstanding for their teams. Penn State's Still has been extremely disruptive, as you point out. But my vote goes to Mercilus, who, like past Defensive Player of the Year winners, shouldn't be punished for his team falling short. From a numbers standpoint, Mercilus blows away the other candidates. He leads the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), the latter mark setting a new Big Ten record. Mercilus has one more sack and three more forced fumbles than any other FBS player this season. He also is tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss (19.5). The junior has added six quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. Yes, Illinois faded down the stretch, but Mercilus never stopped producing. Last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, played for a worse team than Mercilus. The same held true for Michigan's Brandon Graham, the Big Ten's co-MVP in 2009. Mercilus should be viewed in the same way as both Kerrigan and Graham. He deserves the hardware.

My 2010 Big Ten awards endorsements

November, 29, 2010
The 2010 All-Big Ten teams will be revealed tonight, so it's time for me to weigh in on who should take home the league's major awards.

Let's get the endorsements started.

Michigan QB Denard Robinson for Offensive Player of the Year

This was by far the toughest call, and I expect this to be arguably the most divided vote for an award in recent league history. You could make a case for at least five quarterbacks and a running back. Ultimately, I looked for the player who made the most dramatic impact on his team and whose presence most significantly impacted a game. In the end, it came down to Robinson and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa.

Both players were outstanding, and Persa's absence certainly was felt in Northwestern's final two regular-season games. But Robinson's overall impact from start to finish put him over the top. He was not only an outstanding quarterback, but the Big Ten's top runner, setting a FBS single-season record with 1,643 rush yards and 14 touchdowns. Robinson is the nation's fourth leading rusher and ranks 20th nationally in passer rating.

I'd have no issue if the award went to Persa, but Robinson is my pick. While Terrelle Pryor, Scott Tolzien and Kirk Cousins all deserve consideration as well after leading their teams to league titles, all three had help in the backfield as well as better defenses than both Michigan and Northwestern.

Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan for Defensive Player of the Year

Wisconsin's J.J. Watt made this a very competitive race, especially the past few weeks, but I'm sticking with my original choice of Kerrigan. If you look at the overall body of work, Kerrigan gets the nod. That's not to take anything away from Watt, who made more game-changing plays than any Big Ten defender and was absolutely outstanding down the stretch in league play.

The Big Ten snubbed Michigan's Brandon Graham in 2009 because he played for a losing team, and Kerrigan should avoid the same fate. He leads the nation with 26 tackles for loss and ranks second nationally in both sacks (12.5) and forced fumbles (5). Both Kerrigan and Watt are All-Americans in my view, and while I wouldn't be upset to see a split on the Defensive Player of the Year award, Kerrigan gets my vote.

Wisconsin RB James White for Freshman of the Year

Wisconsin's rushing attack entering the season appeared to be John Clay and everyone else. But White immediately put himself in the mix and, at times, stole the show with his incredible speed and shiftiness. He leads Wisconsin and ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,029 yards, and has reached the end zone 14 times despite receiving fewer carries (148) than nine of the Big Ten's top 10 rushers.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase certainly deserves consideration as well after a terrific freshman season, but I'd be stunned if the award doesn't go to White. If White wins, Wisconsin will have produced the league's Freshman of the Year for the second consecutive season, and for the third time in the past five years.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio for Coach of the Year

It's a close call between Dantonio and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, the coach everyone loves to hate. Take your shots at Bielema, but the guy has done a terrific job in Madison. Still, Dantonio has guided Michigan State to new heights following a 2009 season that saw the program take a step back both on and off the field.

The Spartans were unranked entering the season and went on to record a team-record 11 wins and their first Big Ten championship in 20 years. Dantonio made two of the Big Ten's gutsiest calls -- "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap" -- and came back to coach the team after suffering a mild heart attack on Sept. 19. The Spartans showed tremendous resiliency this fall, and it started at the top.

Wisconsin LT Gabe Carimi for Offensive Lineman of the Year

Carimi shut down Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Heyward and every other elite pass rusher he faced this fall. He should win the Outland Trophy in my view, and he could be the top offensive lineman selected in April's NFL draft.

Purdue's Kerrigan for Defensive Lineman of the Year

See above.
I normally save my Big Ten awards endorsements for after the regular season, but one race has already been decided.

Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan should be the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

End of discussion.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kerrigan
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIPurdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has made a strong case to be 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Kerrigan leads the nation in tackles for loss (23.5) and ranks second in both sacks (11.5) and forced fumbles (5). With two forced fumbles last week against Michigan, Kerrigan increased his career total to 14, breaking the Big Ten mark of 13 shared by Simeon Rice and Bob Sanders and tying the FBS record shared by Terrell Suggs (Arizona State, 2000-02), Antwan Peek (Cincinnati, 2000-02) and Kenechi Udeze (Southern California, 2001-03).

The 6-4, 263-pound senior is soaring up the draft boards after recording at least one sack in eight games and at least two tackles for loss in seven contests this season.

"I've been around a lot of All-American players, and he's playing his position at a higher level than just about any player I've ever been around," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "His numbers speak for themselves. If we're talking about performance in 2010, Ryan Kerrigan's the best defensive player in the Big Ten."

So why bring this up now? Won't the Big Ten awards recognize the best players?

Not always. Forgive me for lacking faith in the Big Ten media or the coaches to get this one right.

Let's look back to last year and the case of Brandon Graham.

The Michigan defensive end was the single most dominant player in the Big Ten. He led the nation in tackles for loss (26) and ranked 14th in sacks average (10.5, .88 per game). Graham had nine games with multiple tackles for loss and recorded two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt return for a touchdown.

"For a guy as strong as he is and as fast as he is, he was virtually unblockable," Kerrigan told me this week. "You could really take a lot from his game and apply that to yours. I've really tried to do that. He's probably the best defensive end I've seen since I've been in college."

Despite Graham's incredible production, he wasn't named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an award instead shared by Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick. Graham shared the Silver Football but was largely overlooked for postseason awards. Odrick also was named the league's Defensive Lineman of the Year by the coaches.

Why did Graham get snubbed? Simple. He played for a lousy defense on a losing team. It had nothing to do with his individual accomplishments.

That brings us back to Kerrigan. Purdue needs to win its last two games to reach a bowl, a tall order. And Purdue's defense ranks a middling 57th nationally in yards allowed and 70th in points allowed.

Kerrigan faces an uphill battle to be recognized because of Purdue's struggles. He was inexplicably left off of the lists of finalists for both the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

"Even though we don't have a winning record," Hope said, "we've had a chance to win some games against some of the best teams in the country, and a lot of it has to do with Ryan Kerrigan’s performance on defense, to keep our football team alive.

"That speaks volumes, more so than being a good player on a great team when a lot of things are going well.”

Kerrigan clearly has gained respect around the Big Ten. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team faces Purdue this week, called Kerrigan "one of the premier players in the country, not just the conference."

Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, Kerrigan's primary competitor for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, acknowledged Kerrigan on Twitter after last Saturday's games: "@RyanKerrigan94 jeeez man, you wanna save some sacks for the rest of us? Lol. congrats on the big game."

Kerrigan saw the tweet and holds the Wisconsin star in extremely high regard, saying Watt is "certainly deserving of any recognition he gets for the award as well." Although Kerrigan is about as selfless as they come about individual recognition, the possibility of being named the Big Ten's top defender isn't lost on him.

"That would be a great honor," he said. "With all the great players we have in this league, to be mentioned like that would certainly mean a lot to me."

I don't vote for the Big Ten postseason awards, but I implore the media members and the coaches to do the right thing this time.

Put No. 94 at the top of your ballots.
Corey Liuget faced a major dilemma after the 2009 season.

The Illinois defensive lineman missed the comforts of his Miami home, and the snow and cold enveloping Champaign, Ill., didn't help matters.

"It was just me missing home, family and the Miami lifestyle," Liuget said. "I'm so used to the sun out every day and being able to go to the beach, kick my feet up on the sand and do whatever.

[+] EnlargeCorey Liuget
Mark Cowan/Icon SMICorey Liuget is in the midst of a breakout season, notching six tackles for loss, two sacks and four quarterback hurries.
"There's no sand around here."

But when Liuget called his mom to tell her he wanted to come home, Lorene Liuget responded to her son like a Big Ten running back would.

With a stiff arm.

"My mom was like, 'You're not welcome back home,'" Liuget said. "I was like, 'Well, I could live with this person or that person.' And she was like, 'Don't even think about living with them. It’s not going to happen. We expect a lot more out of you.'"

Liuget was homesick but couldn't go home. Quite a dilemma, indeed.

"I had to think, 'Either stay here and get an education and play football, or go home and be a nobody,'" Liuget said. "I would have to find my own place to live. It was going to be tough for me.

"So I decided to stay."

The decision is paying off for both Liuget and the Fighting Illini. Liuget is blossoming for a much-improved Illinois defense, recording 29 tackles, a team-high six tackles for loss, two sacks, a team-high four quarterback hurries and two pass breakups this year.

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Liuget recorded a career-high 11 tackles, including a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries, last week at No. 7 Michigan State. His tackles total marked the most by an Illinois defensive lineman since Mike O'Brien had 12 against Missouri in 2002.

"Corey Liuget is legit," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who watched Liuget (pronounced Legit) while scouting the Illinois-Michigan State game.

Liuget came to Illinois as a decorated recruit in 2008 and started two games at defensive tackle as a true freshman, recording a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and five tackles for loss. He made four starts last season, racking up eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 36 total tackles.

Not bad numbers, but not what Liuget had envisioned.

"Even though I was playing and making plays," he said, "it wasn't like what Adrian Clayborn was doing at Iowa, or Brandon Graham at Michigan. Those guys were already set in the Big Ten."

It didn't help that Illinois went 5-7 and 3-9 in Liuget's first two seasons, and made a change at defensive coordinator following the 2009 campaign.

Liuget thought about transferring to a school in Florida; mom quickly shot down the idea.

"She told me if I would transfer anywhere, I wouldn't be welcome at home at all," he said. "Me being the first male out of my family to actually go to college was pretty exciting for everybody. That played a role in why my mom was like, 'Everybody wants to see you succeed and be the first one to get a college degree.'"

After making the decision to stay and putting his mind at ease, Liuget set out to improve his body. He played last season well north of 300 p0unds but trimmed 30 pounds off his frame to get down to a lean 285.

Liuget initially had "a fishy feeling" about new Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning but bought in during spring ball when he witnessed Koenning's high-energy style.

"I was like, 'Wow, this guy's crazy. He's going to get me to where I need to be,'" he said.

Liuget credits Koenning, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and others for helping him along. He's one of several former big-time recruits -- linebacker Martez Wilson is another -- to emerge this fall for the Illini defense.

"Not only is he stepping up his game on the football field, but he's stepping up his leadership in practice," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "That has a lot to do with how our defense has improved. ... Corey's becoming more of a vocal leader than he has in the past, and he's been improving every week, every game."

Illinois sits at 3-3 but has gone through by far the toughest part of its schedule. If things go right in the second half, the Illini will go bowling.

Three of the Big Ten's tie-in bowls -- Capital One, Outback and Gator -- happen to take place in Florida.

Lorene Liuget wouldn't mind welcoming home her son in January.

"She showed me some tough love right there and then," Liuget said. "But hey, it made me a better person."
Connecticut at Michigan is one of the more intriguing opening-week matchups. The Wolverines desperately need to get off to a good start, while UConn has drawn a lot of offseason buzz. Plus, the biggest Big House yet makes its debut.

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break it all down.

BB: All right, Adam. No more talk of the Big Ten raiding the Big East. Just Big Ten and the Big East meeting, thankfully, on the field. How badly does Michigan need this win, and are the Wolverines aware of just how good Connecticut is?

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Icon Sports MediaAfter another rough offseason, coach Rich Rodriguez needs to start the season off with a win.
AR: Michigan needs this game real bad, but not for the obvious reasons. We saw this team start fast last year and fall apart in Big Ten play, so a win against Connecticut might still be greeted with some skepticism. Michigan needs a win because it needs something good to happen after another rough offseason. The Wolverines need to show their fans that progress is being made, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They need to get their renovated stadium fired up again. They need to revive what's left of the Michigan mystique. This gets us to your second question (double-barrel, tsk, tsk). After the last two seasons, the Wolverines shouldn't be taking any team lightly, especially a very solid UConn team that consistently produces NFL talent and has an outstanding head coach in Randy Edsall. Michigan players know many folks are picking them to lose to the Huskies.

Let's look a little deeper at UConn. What are the two or three things Michigan must be most concerned about on Saturday?

BB: I know, it was bad question form but we're trying to save space here. Anyway, Michigan must be most concerned about the UConn running game. The Huskies have a big, physical offensive line that bulldozes people. Jordan Todman went over 1,100 yards last year, and they have a stable of other backs including USC transfer D.J. Shoemate.

Defensively, Connecticut has three standout, senior linebackers in Lawrence Wilson (140 tackles last year), Scott Lutrus and -- surprise! -- Greg Lloyd. They can all run and make plays. And mostly, Randy Edsall's team never beats itself. UConn is always very well coached, fundamentally sound and avoids mistakes.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsal
Jim Owens/Icon SMIA win for Randy Edsall's Huskies against Michigan would be one of the biggest in Connecticut history.
On the other hand, the Huskies are small up front defensively and will have their hands full with Michigan's offensive line. Speed could be a major issue, as it was whenever Rodriguez played Edsall when the former was at West Virginia. The secondary is also unsettled and was the worst in the Big East against the pass last year.

What other areas should concern UConn?

AR: Michigan certainly can put up a ton of points. Everyone is fussing about the quarterback situation, but I'm not overly concerned. Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier both have experience in Rodriguez's system, and true freshman Devin Gardner might be the most natural fit for the offense. You can't underestimate the importance of Year 3 in the spread. The O-line should be solid, as center David Molk returns to a group that has a good mix of experience and promising young players.

Rodriguez hasn't announced a starter at quarterback, but Robinson seems likely to take the first snap. He's got ridiculous wheels, and he has improved as a passer after completing just 45.2 percent of his throws last year. Forcier also brings some playmaking ability to the backfield, especially when he's on the move. The receiving corps could be a strength for Michigan, as Roy Roundtree leads a group that boasts excellent speed.

The biggest questions for Michigan are on defense, especially after losing Big Ten co-MVP Brandon Graham and corner Donovan Warren. There's not much depth in the secondary, so the Wolverines need a strong performance from hulking nose tackle Mike Martin and the rest of the defensive line. The kicking game also is a concern.

Connecticut had a historic win at Notre Dame last year but fell just short against several good teams on the road. How do the Huskies get over the hump at what should be a fired-up Big House?

BB: This is a veteran, confident UConn team that won't be intimidated by the atmosphere. As long as the Huskies can keep the Michigan quarterbacks from running wild like Pat White used to do against them, I like their chances of pulling this one off. They're going to score points with Zach Frazer running the no-huddle offense and the running game pounding away. I say they get an early lead, causing Michigan and its fans to get nervous and tight. Dave Teggart kicks a winning field goal in the final minute for a 31-28 win.

Your take?

AR: I agree that UConn won't flinch at what's left of the Michigan mystique, but I still expect the Wolverines to make some big plays early and feed off of the atmosphere. Robinson doesn't need much space to take it to the house, and I expect him and some of the backs to break off several big runs behind an improved offensive line. Michigan's defense worries me, especially in the back seven, but Martin leads a strong effort from the front four to contain the Huskies' rushing attack. This one definitely goes down to the wire, but I have the more desperate team winning. Michigan, 28-27.
Craig Roh's job description actually is more defined than it was a year ago, even though it sounds more ambiguous.

"I’m that hybrid type of position," Roh told me in April. "Half linebacker, half defensive lineman."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCraig Roh had two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2009 as a freshman.
Roh started his first collegiate game for Michigan at the aptly labeled "quick" position, a combination of linebacker and defensive line. His bio on Michigan's official website reads that he started all 12 games at outside linebacker in 2009, but Roh said he only got out of the three-point stance during practice this spring.

As Michigan's defense worked more in the 3-3-5 set during spring ball, Roh divided his time between linebacker and defensive line.

"There’s some changes," he said. "I’ve never been in a linebacker [position], second-level, setting up there. Some guys are playing basically the same position they played last year. For me, this is something new and different.

"[Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson] is helping me a lot with the learning curve."

Roh should be a lot further along when the season kicks off Sept. 4 against Connecticut. Michigan's defense needs him to provide a major boost.

At 6-5 and 251 pounds with excellent speed, Roh boasts the size and skill to excel in the hybrid role. He expects to have more responsibilities in pass coverage but will remain a pass-rushing threat after recording two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2009.

Although Roh did some good things as a true freshman, he recognized the steps he needed to make during the offseason.

"I saw a guy that definitely did need to gain some size," Roh said. "That was a big factor. And a guy that really needed to learn every facet of the defense so he could play his position."

Roh arrived at Michigan weighing just 238 pounds and lost some of it during the season.

Describing himself as "tiny" among Big Ten defensive linemen, Roh spent the winter, spring and summer bulking up in the weight room. He also followed a diet most people would dream about: six meals and more than 4,000 calories a day.

"I have crazy metabolism, and putting on weight was tough for me," he said. "It's something I've really got to concentrate on. Some meals, you're like, 'I really don't want to eat this right now,' but you have to."

Michigan loses its top two defenders -- end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren -- from a unit that struggled for most of 2009, finishing last in the Big Ten in both points allowed (33.2 ypg) and yards allowed (428.5 ypg) in conference games. Although Robinson tried to downplay talk about the 3-3-5 alignment, Michigan undoubtedly will tweak things this fall, and Roh is a big part of the plan.

"I'm a guy that's expected to perform this year," Roh said. "BG [Graham] was just an amazing player, and I feel like in some sense I need to replace what he's done."
ESPN's NFL draft expert Mel Kiper recently addressed a question Insider I get all the time: Where does Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor project for the NFL?

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireTerrelle Pryor's draft stock should soar if improves his footwork and decision-making.
Kiper drops the dreaded name -- Tim Tebow -- but points out an important difference between the former Florida star and quarterbacks like Pryor and Vince Young.
"While Tebow was in a system that asked him to run and he liked to run, Young and Pryor don't need to run, but they can run. It's a big distinction. Part of Young's growth and value as an NFL quarterback is his knowledge of his physical skills allowing him to run, but he doesn't have to just to have value. What Pryor will need to prove is that he has footwork, not just good feet, an accurate arm, not just a cannon, and that he can read plays and deliver with anticipation, not just find open receivers."

As I've written before, Pryor likely never will have textbook mechanics. But if he can improve in other areas, namely footwork and decision-making, he can be a heck of a college quarterback, and possibly a great pro quarterback. This spring, I saw improved footwork from Pryor, and if he can make smart decisions -- and anticipate the right throws, as Kiper says -- he should have a great junior season.

Kiper also weighs in on former Penn State quarterback Pat Devlin, now at Delaware, as well as former Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, the first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.

I also missed this from last week, but Kiper has come out with his position rankings (top 5) for the 2011 NFL draft Insider. These are seniors only, so draft-eligible juniors like Pryor and Wisconsin's John Clay aren't on the list.

Here are the Big Ten players who made it:

  • Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, No. 2 offensive tackle
  • Ohio State's Justin Boren, No. 2 offensive guard
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling, No. 3 offensive guard
  • Wisconsin's John Moffitt, No. 5 offensive guard
  • Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, No. 2 center (note: Wisniewski practiced at guard this spring and likely will stay there this season)
  • Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, No. 2 defensive end
  • Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, No. 4 defensive end
  • Michigan State's Greg Jones, No. 3 inside linebacker
  • Iowa's Ryan Donahue, No. 1 punter

A solid list of players there. I was a little surprised not to see Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan or Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan, but the others look to be in the right places.

Kiper on Jones: "Jones is one of the purest tacklers you'll see in college football. His stock could rise next season on a potentially underrated Michigan State team, but he'll need to overcome questions about his size. I wouldn't be surprised to see him come into camp with 10 more pounds on that frame, which should help solidify his stock."

Kiper on Clayborn and Heyward: "Heyward came on strong this past season and should be an anchor of a top-five defense next season. Clayborn was a beast down the stretch, and it's huge for coach Kirk Ferentz to get him back as an anchor point for that defense, which loses significant talent elsewhere."

Kiper on Boren and Moffitt: "Moffitt is the only guy to be added to this list; Wisconsin should have an elite line next season with Moffitt and OT Carimi. RB John Clay will enjoy running behind them. Justin Boren isn't No. 1 here yet, but could jump [Rodney] Hudson with a dominant season for a Big Ten power."
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:


Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.

Big Ten, Jewel Hampton, Jermil Martin, Jerel Worthy, Mitchell Evans, Ryan Kerrigan, Justan Vaughn, Louis Nzegwu, Lance Kendricks, Stefen Wisniewski, Robert Marve, Brian Peters, Brandon Wegher, Devin Smith, Jason Werner, Michael Carter, Michael Shaw, Chandler Whitmer, Jermale Hines, Kyle Jefferson, Zak Kustok, Kirk Cousins, Jacob Charest, Dan Herron, Jammie Kirlew, Jim Tressel, Keanon Cooper, Juice Williams, Daryll Clark, Sherrick McManis, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Bani Gbadyu, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Julian Vandervelde, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, Anderson Russell, Randy Walker, Navorro Bowman, Paul Jones, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Garrett Graham, Martez Wilson, Tim Brewster, Evan Watkins, Rich Rodriguez, Pat Fitzgerald, Robert Bolden, Matt Mayberry, Jordan Mabin, Dennis Landolt, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Denard Robinson, Bret Bielema, Rocco Cironi, Pat Angerer, Brandon Graham, Niles Brinkley, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Nathan Scheelhaase, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Tate Forcier, Kurt Coleman, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Mike Kafka, Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, O'Brien Schofield, Adam Robinson, Arby Fields, Ian Thomas, Nate Stupar, Riley Reiff, Shaun Prater, Clay Nurse, Paul Petrino, Jeff Horton, Jeff Thomas, Lenyatta Kiles, 2010 spring what to watch, Albert Evans, Darius Johnson, David Gilbert, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Gary Emanuel, Jeff Tarpinian, Joe Palcic, Jordan Hall, Josh McKinley, Mike Trumpy, Scott Concannon, Terrance Thomas, Tyler Nielsen

Big Ten pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It's that time again.

Four weeks have passed since the year-end installment of the power rankings, and while no games were played during the span, there has been some news. We know who's coming back (Greg Jones, Evan Royster, Cameron Heyward) and who's not (Thaddeus Gibson, Navorro Bowman, Amari Spievey). We also can size up the recruiting classes for each Big Ten team.

Spring practice in the Big Ten officially kicks off March 13 at Wisconsin, so let's take a look at how the teams stack up heading into the spring. Please remember that the power rankings can -- and will -- change several times before the season begins Sept. 2.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will be a consensus top 5 team and a legit national title contender entering the fall. Heyward's decision to return is huge for a talented defensive front. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor builds off of his Rose Bowl performance and Ohio State solidifies things at left tackle, safety and possibly running back, this team will be scary good.

2. Iowa: The NFL draft stung the Hawkeyes a bit, as both Spievey and left tackle Bryan Bulaga opted to turn pro. But All-America candidate Adrian Clayborn returns, and Iowa will be stacked at both running back and wide receiver in 2010. Rebuilding the offensive line will be Iowa's top priority as it aims for a Big Ten championship this fall.

3. Wisconsin: The mojo is back in Mad-town as Wisconsin returns the core players from a team that went 10-3 and finished 16th in the final AP Poll. Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay leads a balanced and efficient offense, while the defense boasts a lot of young talent but must replace star pass rusher O'Brien Schofield.

4. Penn State: No Big Ten team lost more standout players than the Nittany Lions, but Penn State has shown an ability to reload, particularly in the defensive front seven. Royster's decision to return is huge for Penn State, which will rely on the rushing attack and an improved offensive line in 2010. A crucial quarterback competition begins this spring, as Kevin Newsome tries to hold off several young challengers.

5. Michigan State: I'm a bit leery to put Michigan State this high after 2009, but Jones' decision to return eased some concerns about the defense. The Spartans must get better on both lines and in the secondary, and quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to rebound after a rough finish to his sophomore season. Recruits William Gholston and Max Bullough should help the defense right away.

6. Northwestern: The Wildcats proved in 2009 that they could overcome the losses of several offensive standouts. They'll need to do it again as All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka departs and junior Dan Persa steps in. Northwestern must revive its rushing attack this spring behind an offensive line that returns fully intact. The secondary also is a concern as three starters graduate.

T-7. Michigan: The offense will put up points again, but Michigan's big concerns rest with a defense that loses standouts Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren. A recruiting class headlined by safety Demar Dorsey certainly should help matters, as Michigan needs immediate contributions from its young players. The Wolverines need a strong spring from their early enrollees as they prepare for a critical 2010 season.

T-7. Purdue: It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finishes in the top half of the Big Ten in 2010, but a few key questions remain. The biggest one comes at quarterback, where Miami transfer Robert Marve and sophomore Caleb TerBush will compete for the top job. Purdue also must reload in the secondary and improve a run defense that has ranked last in the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons.

9. Minnesota: Spring practice will be critical for a Gophers team trying to establish an identity on offense and reload on defense. The starting quarterback job is up for grabs as incumbent Adam Weber tries to hold off MarQueis Gray and impress new coordinator Jeff Horton. Minnesota must replace all three starting linebackers, both starting defensive tackles and both starting cornerbacks.

10. Indiana: The Hoosiers should be very dynamic on offense in 2010, but they must address their chronic defensive woes as soon as possible to rebound this fall. Head coach Bill Lynch is moving several offensive players to defense this spring, and IU's ability to identify impact players likely will determine whether it can rise up the rankings.

11. Illinois: Things have been anything but quiet around Champaign the last eight weeks, as head coach Ron Zook shuffled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators and four new position coaches. Illinois doesn't have time for growing pains, and the new assistants will need to implement the scheme and get the most out of a roster filled with question marks. One way or another, Illinois will be a fascinating team to watch between now and the season opener.
It's still early February, but signing day is over and you can officially start looking forward to the 2010 season. But before we look at who's back in the Big Ten, let's look at who will be missed the most when the teams return to the practice field this spring.

Here are five players who leave big shoes to fill around the league:

Penn State QB Daryll Clark: Clark finished his career as one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history, setting team records for career passing touchdowns, single-season passing touchdowns, single-season passing yards and single-season total offense. He was even more valuable as a leader both on and off the field, and few players invested as much as the two-year starter. His presence certainly will be missed.

Northwestern QB Mike Kafka: Kafka basically became the entire NU offense in 2009 as the run game struggled. He developed into a precision passer and ended up as one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten. The second-team All-Big Ten selection led the league in both passing (3,430) and total offense (3,729). Although backup Dan Persa got some playing time after Kafka was banged up against Penn State, he'll have a tough time replacing the senior.

Michigan DE Brandon Graham: The Wolverines defense struggled mightily with Graham on the field, and it's scary to think where the unit would have been without his nation-leading 26 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Graham was arguably the most disruptive defensive lineman in the country in 2009, and he leaves a major void on the edge. Michigan will need several players to step up to fill the production void left by Graham's departure.

Iowa CB Amari Spievey: Some will argue with this one, but of all the players Iowa loses from the 2009 team, Spievey could be the most valuable. He took away one side of the field, forcing opposing quarterbacks to look elsewhere and freeing up playmaking opportunities for safety Tyler Sash and others. Iowa has some decent corners coming back, but none with the shutdown capabilities of Spievey, who recorded two interceptions and 10 passes defended.

Penn State DT Jared Odrick: Penn State has little trouble reloading in the defensive front seven, but the Lions will be hard-pressed to find another Odrick in the middle of the defensive line. Odrick consistently commanded double- and triple-teams, opening up lanes for teammates to reach the backfield. Big Ten coaches named him Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year, high honors given the league's depth along the D-line. Odrick was the biggest reason why Penn State finished sixth nationally in rushing defense (89.9 ypg).

Five more who will be missed: Purdue QB Joey Elliott, Iowa LB Pat Angerer, Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield, Ohio State S Kurt Coleman.

Final Big Ten power rankings

January, 13, 2010
The 2009 football season is in the books, so let's take one final look at the Big Ten power rankings. No major surprises here, and there likely won't be a ton of shuffling at the top until the season kicks off in September.

1. Ohio State (11-2): That Purdue loss feels like a long time ago, doesn't it? Ohio State capped an impressive turnaround with a Rose Bowl championship, snapping a three-game slide in BCS bowls. Terrelle Pryor's performance in Pasadena and a productive defense raises the expectations for 2010, when Ohio State could contend for the national title.

2. Iowa (11-2): Everyone outside Iowa seemed to doubt the Hawkeyes all year long, but this team just kept winning. Iowa delivered its best performance of the season against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never looking back. The final score didn't show how dominant Iowa was in this game. Ricky Stanzi and Adrian Clayborn will try to lead Iowa to a Big Ten title in 2010.

3. Penn State (11-2): Quarterback Daryll Clark and a valuable group of seniors went out with a big win in the Capital One Bowl against LSU. Penn State notched a signature victory against a talented opponent, completing an excellent two-year run. The Lions now must overcome some key personnel losses to challenge Ohio State for the league title this coming fall.

4. Wisconsin (10-3): A return trip to the Champs Sports Bowl ended up being the perfect opportunity for the Badgers to showcase the progress they made this season. Wisconsin beat Miami by only six points but thoroughly dominated the game on both sides of the ball. The Badgers return a bunch of key players, including running back John Clay, and will enter 2010 ranked in the top 15.

5. Northwestern (8-5): For the second straight year, the Wildcats participated in one of the most exciting bowl games, only to come out on the losing end again. Pat Fitzgerald's team gained some national respect with their comeback against Auburn, but Northwestern eventually needs to get over the hump in a bowl. The Wildcats lose several key pieces, but the program is on the rise and should again contend for a postseason berth in 2010.

T-6. Minnesota (6-7): The Gophers defense definitely came to play against Iowa State, but the offense couldn't translate good drives into points in the Insight Bowl. Getting the offense on track will be the top offseason priority for head coach Tim Brewster and his staff as they enter a pivotal 2010 campaign.

T-6. Michigan State (6-7): Credit the Spartans for performing admirably without 14 of their teammates in the Alamo Bowl, but their season long struggles in the secondary eventually caught up to them against Texas Tech. Despite a disappointing season, the Spartans are a young team that could make a jump next fall. Mark Dantonio must fix a defense that broke down too often this year.

8. Purdue (5-7): It would have been great to see Purdue represent the Big Ten in a bowl this year, but the Boilers' inability to finish games and avoid major mistakes kept them at home. Purdue is my early pick as the sleeper team in the Big Ten next fall, as head coach Danny Hope returns several exciting skill players and an excellent pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan. I really liked what I saw in Big Ten play from the Boilers.

9. Illinois (3-9): Ron Zook will be back in 2010, but his coaching staff received a major facelift. Illinois will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball this coming season, not to mention several new position coaches. It'll be a make-or-break season for Zook, who needs young players to step up on both sides of the ball.

10. Michigan (5-7): The offense should be potent in 2010, but Rich Rodriguez must repair a defense that really couldn't stop anybody. Michigan loses its two top defenders in end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren, so the coaches need to identify and develop talent during the offseason. The Wolverines simply can't afford another bowl-less season.

11. Indiana (4-8): Much like Michigan, Indiana's offense should be very dynamic in 2010, but the defense has major question marks in all three levels. The Hoosiers were close to getting over the hump this fall, but they lose a good senior class and continue to fight a history of defensive futility.
Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan likely will be a top 10 pick in April's NFL draft.

At 6-4 and a chiseled 272 pounds, Morgan has all the measurables that make pro scouts salivate. He earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the league with 12.5 sacks. He finished the regular season with 18 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Morgan at No. 8 on his draft board.

So, should Iowa be afraid of Morgan on Tuesday night in the FedEx Orange Bowl? Not a chance.

The Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense that as talent and tricky as Georgia Tech's triple option, but they've seen defensive ends like Morgan.

Pretty much every week in the Big Ten.

No league in the country had a deeper group of standout pass rushers than the Big Ten. Iowa faced stars like Michigan's Brandon Graham (nation-leading 26 tackles for loss), Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield (No. 2 nationally with 24.5 TFLs), Penn State's Navorro Bowman, Indiana's Jammie Kirlew and Ohio State's Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward. The Hawkeyes also lined up against future NFL draft picks like Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick and Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton.

Plus, Iowa's offensive linemen practice against All-Big Ten players like defensive end Adrian Clayborn every day.

"We've played a lot of good ends here, the last two years," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We have a lot of them in our conference, Graham, Penn State's guys were good. You can go right down the list. ... Certainly Morgan's an excellent football player. All the accolades that he's received, he's earned. He didn't just stumble into them. All that being said, we're not a big team for putting four guys on one guy."

Tuesday night will be an excellent chance for Iowa's offensive linemen, and particularly left tackle Bryan Bulaga, to shut down one of the game's premier defensive ends.

Big Ten awards updates

December, 11, 2009
The Big Ten went 0-for-1 on awards night Thursday, as the Ray Guy Award went to Georgia's Drew Butler rather than Michigan's Zoltan Mesko. Though I would have voted for Mesko, Butler's numbers are extremely impressive.

There was some good news on the awards front Thursday.

Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Penn State's Joe Paterno both have been named finalists for the 2009 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award. Ferentz, the 2009 Big Ten Coach of the Year, and Paterno are the only Big Ten representatives among the 10 finalists.

Where's Jim Tressel? It's amazing how little credit Tressel receives for Ohio State's turnaround this year.

Anyway, online voting for the award begins Dec. 15 and continues through Dec. 29. The winner will be announced Jan. 6 in Los Angeles before the BCS title game.

Five Big Ten players have been named to the Walter Camp Football Foundation's All-America team. Though the Big Ten surprisingly had no first-team honorees, the following players made the second team: Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer and Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko.
This is supposed to be a big night for the Big Ten.

While the Heisman Trophy presentation doesn't take place until Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), nine of college football's top individual honors get passed out tonight during the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards in Orlando. This was the same night that recent Big Ten stars like Malcolm Jenkins, Shonn Greene, Dan Connor and Troy Smith took home coveted awards like the Thorpe, Doak Walker, Bednarik and Davey O'Brien.

This year, the hopes of Big Ten Nation rest with ... Zoltan Mesko?

No offense to Mesko, who is a fabulous punter for Michigan. The senior should win the Ray Guy Award tonight as the nation's top punter.

But what does it say about a league when its only finalist for nine major awards is a punter?

At least Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be there, as he tweeted earlier today: "En route to Orlando to present an award at the ESPN College Football Awards tonight!

Now there are reasons for the Big Ten's lack of representation. Several standout players, namely Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, played for sub-.500 teams. There were certainly a few snubs, like Michigan State kicker Brett Swenson not being a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Other players, like Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker, had their national award campaigns derailed by injury.

But the lack of star power is revealing, especially on offense. Where are all the offensive stars in the Big Ten? The league's problems at quarterback have been well documented here, and it's imperative that the Big Ten improves under center for 2010 and beyond.

Here's hoping Mesko takes home the Ray Guy Award tonight. But my bigger wish is for the Big Ten to have a greater presence in Orlando at this time next year.