NCF Nation: Carvin Johnson

The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
T-Woolf is still in hibernation, but not for much longer.

Troy Woolfolk's alter ego only comes out on fall Saturdays. After an extended absence because of injury, T-Woolf is scheduled to reappear Sept. 3 when Michigan opens its season against Western Michigan.

"He doesn't come out till the season comes," Woolfolk, the Wolverines' fifth-year senior cornerback, said Thursday. "He stays dormant. He's not back yet."

Woolfolk continues to take steps toward his return after a dislocated ankle suffered in late August wiped out his 2010 season and dealt Michigan's secondary a major blow. Limited during spring practice, Woolfolk has been cleared for full participation.

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTroy Woolfolk is looking forward to his return and making an impact on the field.
He first felt 100 percent healthy two to three weeks after Michigan's spring game and has been participating in team runs and 7-on-7 workouts this summer.

"Right now, I don't even remember getting injured," Woolfolk said. "Being out there, I don't feel it. It's not hampering me in any way. I can stop and break at 100 percent, so it's not even a factor.

"I feel like I'm going to hit the ground running right away. I don't think it'll take a few games for me to get my swag back. I'm going to have it from the jump."

The waiting game is nearly over for Woolfolk. The waiter game, meanwhile, is about to begin.

Woolfolk is hosting a fundraiser Sunday in Ann Arbor to benefit the local Humane Society chapter. The event, called Paws for a Cause, will feature a silent auction, a VIP reception and a three-course meal served by Woolfolk and several other Michigan players. Tight end Kevin Koger and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh are among the players joining Woolfolk as waiters for the night.

"I'm pretty sure they have no experience with that," Woolfolk said, "so it should be interesting."

Proceeds from the event will help find homes for abandoned animals and provide medical services for them. Woolfolk always grew up with pets and has both a dog (Julius) and a cat (Jasper) with him in Ann Arbor.

"I've always loved animals, and I wanted to give back somehow," he said. "The Humane Society does a great job helping all the injured and needy animals."

Woolfolk soon will resume summer workouts as he gets ready for preseason camp in August. He has been working mainly with Roy Roundtree, Michigan's top wideout, to prepare for the season.

The recovery was slow, as Woolfolk couldn't do much in the months after surgery. Michigan's defense allowed the most points (458) and pass yards (3,404) in the Big Ten last season, and the secondary Woolfolk could have anchored repeatedly had major breakdowns. Woolfolk started six games at cornerback and six games at safety in 2009, and he has 61 career tackles.

"It wasn't the injury as much because I can deal with pain," Woolfolk said. "It was just the fact I wasn't able to help the team. I saw suffering in some areas where I could help. I feel like I let the team down."

Woolfolk rehabbed throughout the winter and participated in some individual drills this spring. He began with a bang, intercepting a pass on his first drill, but things went downhill from there.

"I started getting beat on fade routes where I never did [before], I started getting beat on slants," he said. "My ankle wasn't right, but it slowly got better. Now I'm back locking down receivers."

If it isn't obvious, Woolfolk doesn't lack confidence, a must for a cornerback. It's an element Michigan's secondary needs after several brutal seasons. The unit has been hampered by injuries, inexperience and flat-out poor play, and the cornerback spot has been hit especially hard.

Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd both return from injuries, and Woolfolk is excited about the potential of young players like safety Carvin Johnson. He also likes the new defensive scheme under coordinator Greg Mattison.

The chance to end his Michigan career on a high note drives Woolfolk, who has been through turbulent times in Ann Arbor.

"This injury was a blessing in disguise because I've got one more year, everybody's gotten that much better and I think we're going to have a more productive year," he said. "I can't wait. I remember telling myself if I get a chance to come back, I've got to give it my all.

"Now I've got that chance."
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wisconsin's running backs are doing their thing, but quarterback Scott Tolzien has been the story so far at the Big House.

The senior has completed his first 11 attempts for 173 yards. His most impressive throw came on Wisconsin's last scoring drive, as he took a hit and still found Nick Toon for a 30-yard gain. With Tolzien performing like this, Michigan has to devote more defenders to the pass, which opens up room for Montee Ball and James White. Michigan's tackling is still very suspect, as Carvin Johnson's inability to bring down Ball behind the line led to a walk-in touchdown from 27 yards out.

Denard Robinson has to start answering for Michigan or this one will get out of hand. Wisconsin's offense looks unstoppable right now.

Badgers lead 17-0 late in the first half.
Welcome to National Depth Chart Day. No day on the college football calendar inspires more curiosity about depth charts than the Monday before the season, when most teams release their Week 1 two-deeps.

(And then there's Purdue, which didn't include a depth chart in its game notes for Notre Dame. Ugh.)

I've had the chance to review depth charts from those programs that released them today -- two-deeps from Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota are coming soon -- and I checked in on several coaches' news conferences.

Here's what stood out:

INDIANA
  • Even though Indiana will shift to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year, the depth chart lists a 4-3 with Darius Johnson and Fred Jones as the starting ends and Chad Sherer and Tyler Replogle flanking junior college transfer Jeff Thomas at linebacker.
  • Interesting to see several veteran offensive linemen like Justin Pagan and Cody Faulkner listed as backups rather than starters. Junior Andrew McDonald steps into some big shoes at left tackle as Rodger Saffold departs to the NFL.
  • The backup quarterback job remains open, as Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker are both listed as No. 2 behind Ben Chappell.
  • Indiana expects big things from redshirt freshman Duwyce Wilson, listed as a starter at wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner.
IOWA
  • Sophomores Micah Hyde and Greg Castillo are listed as the starting cornerbacks. Shaun Prater doesn't appear on the depth chart after dealing with a leg injury in camp. Prater hasn't been officially ruled out for the Eastern Illinois game, but I wouldn't expect to see much of him on Saturday.
  • James Ferentz is listed as the starting center, a spot where Iowa might be a little thin following Josh Koeppel's motorcycle accident Monday morning.
  • Starting defensive end Broderick Binns is suspended for the opener, so Christian Ballard is listed as a possible starter at both end and tackle. Mike Daniels and Lebron Daniel are the next options behind Ballard.
MICHIGAN
  • Sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner are listed as co-starters at quarterback. Head coach Rich Rodriguez reiterated Monday that Gardner won't redshirt this fall.
  • Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters at running back, with Michael Cox behind them.
  • True freshman Carvin Johnson is listed as the starter at the spur position (safety/linebacker). Pretty big surprise here, and a testament to Johnson's work in camp.
  • Senior James Rogers steps into Troy Woolfolk's starting cornerback spot opposite J.T. Floyd.
  • Receivers Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady clearly showed enough in camp to be listed as starters or possible starters against Connecticut.
NORTHWESTERN
  • Sophomore running back Arby Fields returned to practice Monday and wore a no-contact jersey after being sidelined with a shoulder problem. He's listed as a co-starter at running back with Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons. Northwestern wanted a clear No. 1 running back to emerge in camp, but Fields' injury changed the plan.
  • Junior Bryce McNaul is listed as the third top linebacker alongside returning starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. McNaul won the job in camp.
  • Venric Mark is the only true freshman listed on the depth chart, both as a backup wide receiver and a co-starter at punt returner. I'll go out on a huge limb (sarcasm) and predict Mark will be the man on returns for the Wildcats very shortly.
OHIO STATE
  • Junior defensive end Nathan Williams, a projected starter, will miss the Marshall game with a knee injury. He should be back shortly thereafter. Solomon Thomas will start in Williams' spot Thursday night.
  • Starting cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) is questionable for the Marshall game, but corner Devon Torrence (hamstring) should be fine.
  • Sophomore C.J. Barnett's strong performance in camp lifted him ahead of Orhian Johnson on the Week 1 depth chart. Johnson missed a chunk of camp with an injury.
  • Start salivating, Buckeyes fans, because running backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry likely will handle kickoff returns against Marshall.
PENN STATE
  • Sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and freshman Robert Bolden are listed as co-starters at quarterback for the Youngstown State game.
  • Sophomore Devon Smith's strong camp landed him a starting spot at both receiver and kick returner, and a backup role on punt returns.
  • Redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam is listed as the starting tight end, as Andrew Szczerba likely will miss the opener with a back injury. Penn State obviously is thin here after losing Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.
  • Veterans Nate Stupar, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting linebackers, with promising younger players like Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges right behind them.
WISCONSIN
  • After a very impressive camp, freshman running back James White appears at No. 3 on the depth chart behind both John Clay and Montee Ball. White also is the No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath. His emergence likely will result in veteran Zach Brown redshirting the season.
  • Senior Blake Sorensen likely will start at outside linebacker, as Mike Taylor continues to rehab after undergoing a second procedure on his knee in camp. Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are listed as the other starting linebackers.
  • The starting cornerback spots remain open, as Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith will compete in practice this week.

Michigan recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
12:29
PM ET
Michigan Wolverines

The class

Recruits: 27 (all high school seniors, seven early enrollees)

Top prospects: Safety Demar Dorsey is the top-ranked recruit in the Big Ten, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc. Quarterback Devin Gardner, an ESPNU 150 selection, will compete for snaps right away. Defensive recruits like Marvin Robinson, Cullen Christian and Richard Ash might be able to help the beleaguered unit early on.

Sleepers: Safety is a huge need for Michigan in 2010, and Ray Vinopal and Carvin Johnson both could factor into the mix there. Linebacker Jake Ryan, a late bloomer during recruiting, also is a player to watch.

Needs met: Arguably no Big Ten team needed to bolster a particular position like Michigan needed to bolster its secondary. The addition of Dorsey gives the Wolverines a possible immediate contributor in the back four. Rich Rodriguez added the quarterback he needs in Gardner, and Michigan also stocked up at wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker.

Analysis: Michigan started quickly, lost a bit of ground with elite prospects and then finished strong by adding Dorsey on National Signing Day. Rodriguez signed a large and important class that must help a struggling defense this fall. Gardner will push Tate Forcier at quarterback, and the early enrollees at both wide receiver and running back will be fun to watch this spring. If this class doesn't bolster Michigan's defense immediately, the Wolverines will be in trouble.

Scouts Inc. grade: B-plus

What Rich Rodriguez said:
  • "Demar is a very athletic guy. Very fast. Has indicated he may run track as well. So it will be good news for our track program. A fast guy. He can play corner and safety. We'll probably start him at corner first, eventually teach him the back end stuff as well. Also returns kicks. Runs very well."
  • (on Devin Gardner) "It helps he got in early. I don't know if 15 spring practices can really give you a whole thing. But I know it helped Tate [Forcier] last year. Devin is going to have pieces around, veterans that know what we're trying to do offensively and all that. But again, until I see him at spring practice and how quickly he picks up the plays and all that, I couldn't tell you. I know he's very competitive. He's one of those guys eager to learn."
  • "Our back-end guys, linebackers and safeties and corners, are guys we felt we needed to play in space. And so we tried to address that with the athleticism. Again, these guys are young. Let's not put too much on too soon. They have to come and earn a spot and all that. But immediately the competition has risen on the defensive side of the football."

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