NCF Nation: Craig Roh


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.

The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.

"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."

The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.

Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.

"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."

[+] EnlargeFrank Clark
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Big Ten foes will be going up against an even stronger Frank Clark in 2013.
The lesson for Clark?

"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.

Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.

"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.

There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.

Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.

When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.

"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.

"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."

Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.

They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.

"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.

"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."

Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.

There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.

"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."

Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.

After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.

"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."
CHICAGO -- Big Ten football media days are in the books, and the 2012 college football season is officially here.

Here's a look back at some of the top items from the past two days ...

Best dressed: Montee Ball. If you want be called Mon-Tay, as Ball now goes by, you had better back it up. The Wisconsin star dressed to impress both days, sporting a suit with a purple vest and bowtie Thursday, followed by a suit with a black vest and a red tie Friday. Guessing that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema preferred the red tie. Honorable mention goes to Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen for his three-piece beige suit. Very sleek.

Most heartfelt moments: It's a tie between Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, who reflected on an emotion-charged week for the program, and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who made a touching and revealing speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon, discussing his humble roots, the loss of his brother and his responsibility as a high-profile athlete.

Best line from Robinson: "I met the President of the United States, and I met LeBron James, and they both knew who I was."

Best bold statement: First-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is setting the bar high for his quarterback, Braxton Miller. How high? "Braxton Miller has a lot of skills that Tim [Tebow] didn't have," Meyer said. "Braxton Miller is dynamic, he's the most dynamic athlete I've ever coached at quarterback. What I just said, people should go, 'Whoa.' He is, really by far. That's how good of an athlete he is." Fullback Zach Boren agrees, telling ESPN.com, "One or two Heisman Trophies are in his future." No pressure, Braxton.

Best newlywed moment: Bielema, who got married in March, was asked which ring feels better, his wedding band or his Big Ten championship ring (he wore both Friday). "It depends on who's asking," he said.

Best physical assessment: Michigan junior left tackle Taylor Lewan, on teammate Craig Roh's claim that he's husky. "Call me husky all you want. Feel these hips if you want, too. I'm 310 pounds. There's got to be a little love, right?"

Best recruiting comment: Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, asked about plucking heralded linebacker recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo from Centerville, Ohio. "Urban can't take 'em all," he said, referring to Ohio State's Meyer. "But they offer 50, we get one, hooray for the 'Cats."

Best media day debut: Andrew Maxwell hasn't started a game at quarterback for Michigan State, but the junior handled himself well in the spotlight this week. "I've organized the 7-on-7s, get guys in the meeting room, get guys in the film room, texting them, saying, 'What time are you free? What time do you have class today?' " he said. "You really start to see how that's working when guys are texting and calling you, saying, 'Hey, can we get in the film room today.' When it's a two-way street, that's when you're most effective."

Best social media comment: Although several of Kirk Ferentz's Iowa assistants are on Twitter, including his son, Brian, the team's offensive line coach, Ferentz hasn't warmed up to social media for his players. "We're really not big on Twitter," he said. "I told them they can Twitter their lives away as soon as they've played their last game. If they want to Twitter the next 60 years, have at it. Facebook, Myspace, your space, my book, your book, it's probably not fair to try to rein that one in, but we just try to encourage that it's going to be part of their DNA. Whatever they post, they're responsible for."video
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan lost some invaluable leadership on the offensive line when center David Molk graduated. A somewhat unlikely figure is volunteering to fill that void.

"I definitely see myself as a leader," junior left tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com. "I want to be one of the main guys that really helps through all the successes and all the bad things. I want that to be put on myself.

"I'm the left tackle, the blind side. They made a movie about it. So it's my job to be a leader."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTaylor Lewan was the No. 2-rated tackle on Mel Kiper's initial 2013 Big Board.
Lewan has been a lot of things during his career so far with the Wolverines. A standout lineman who's a key cog in the entire offense? Yes. A goofball who keeps his teammates laughing? Sure. A thorn under the skin of opposing players and occasionally officials? Yep.

But leadership is something new for Lewan, who's trying to shed some of his old labels for new and improved ones. Those who know him best noticed a major difference this spring.

"Taylor has just gotten more serious," said defensive lineman Craig Roh, who graduated from the same Scottsdale, Ariz., high school as Lewan. "For example, he's doing a diet now, and every Sunday he goes grocery shopping so he can make his own food. That may not seem like much, but for a college guy that's a lot. I just see him concentrating on things that matter more."

There's much at stake this year for Lewan. He'll be blocking for a potentially highly potent offense led by Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint as Michigan likely begins the season in the top 10. And a great year could have Lewan positioned to enter the 2012 NFL draft.

In his first 2013 Big Board , ESPN.com's Mel Kiper Jr. pegged Lewan as the No. 2 tackle and No. 12 prospect overall for next year's draft. Kiper said the 6-foot-8, 302-pounder "will get the Jake Long comparisons all year in Ann Arbor" and has "elite length and athleticism for the position."

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges agrees with that assessment.

"If Taylor works hard, stays concentrated and maintains focus, he can be very, very good," Borges said. "That's really his story. If he's focused, there isn't anything we ask him to do that he can't do."

Staying focused and disciplined has been a challenge at times. In his first two years of starting, Lewan has too often been a magnet for yellow flags. He cut down his penalties in the second half of last year but still drew three personal fouls, most famously getting tangled up with Michigan State's William Gholston several times before Gholston finally tried to punch Lewan, earning the Spartans' defensive end a one-game suspension.

He has also served as the team's resident comedian, cracking jokes and using his outgoing personality to keep things light. But Lewan says he has learned now when to have fun and when to get down to business.

"I think it's really a maturity thing," he said. "I'm 20 years old now, but I came into college when I was 17. I don't want to put it all on that or anything, but it's really just maturing.

"When I'm here in the building, football is No. 1. It's kind of one of those switches you have to turn on. I turn off all the joking."

Much of Michigan's fortunes may depend on the health of Robinson and Toussaint. Safeguarding them is a job Lewan takes very seriously.

"I'd rather be the guy who gets injured and plays with a broken wrist or something rather than them, because they're the ones running the ball," he said. "I can play with pain, but I don't want them to have to. Every part of my game needs to improve so that doesn't happen."

Lewan hasn't become a total killjoy. This spring, he bought a tandem bike that he could ride to practice, and teammates clamored to join him on it. The sight of the 300-pounder and another hulking football player on a bicycle built for two caused a lot of double-takes around campus.

"He's still Taylor," Roh said. "He's just not as much of a clown."

A focused Lewan could stake a claim as the best lineman in the Big Ten in 2012. And that's no joke.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's Craig Roh has been ingesting about 5,000 calories per day this spring, trying to bulk up by about 10 pounds to play strong side defensive end. He's eating six meals per day, and says there are days when he feels like throwing up all the time.

Yet, this offseason has been a lot easier to stomach for Roh than last year, when another transition didn't get off to the smoothest of starts. During last spring and summer, Roh was steadily getting criticized by new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison as he moved from linebacker to weakside defensive end.

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is bulking up to switch positions on Michigan's defensive line.
"I'd have those moments like, 'Does he even think I'm worth anything?'" Roh told ESPN.com. "He broke me down to my core and built me back up. It was one of the hardest things I've been through in my life, but also one of the most rewarding."

After a slow start last year, Roh improved to finish with 32 tackles, including eight for loss, on one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten. Now, he's the only starter back on the line, moving over to the spot where Ryan Van Bergen starred a last season.

The Wolverines are counting on him to be a playmaker and a leader, two things he accomplished in spring practice.

"I think the move of Craig Roh was a very, very good move," Mattison said. "He had one of the best springs of any of our guys. I think the thing that would bother him was open spaces. We felt that moving him inside gives him a chance to show his ability."

Roh will be right in the middle of the action on the strong side, and often will have to face more than one blocker. Hence the need to build up from last season's listed playing weight of 269 pounds.

"It's great because the ball comes to you, and you don't have to run far to get to it," he said. "You just have to be strong and throw off blocks, be explosive. That's what I am. It's an exciting transition, and I've been able to make a lot of plays in spring practice. It's been fun."

Fun hasn't always described Roh's other moves. In Rich Rodriguez's 3-3-5 scheme, he played outside linebacker and, like much of the defense during that era, struggled mightily at times.

"At linebacker, I did not know what was going on at all," he said. "I know what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. I'm not good at linebacker. I know I am good at reading and reacting on the defensive line."

It took a couple of games last season before Roh started feeling comfortable in Mattison's system. He told the media last fall that he broke down in tears in front of his family after the opener against Western Michigan. He had to get used to the high standards Michigan has for its defensive line. After all, Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke are defensive line coaches at heart, and Jerry Montgomery is a demanding position coach.

"The pressure is immense," Roh said. "You have three different people critiquing what you're doing. They're not always going to give you compliments. Most of the time, they're not going to give you compliments."

But they have been complimentary of Roh's play so far this offseason, with Hoke telling ESPN.com that Roh "can be a big plus for us this year." A bigger plus, if he keeps up his high-calorie diet.
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."

Half: Ohio State 24, Michigan 23

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
1:54
PM ET
The Game might not have any impact on the Big Ten race, but so far it has been as entertaining as any edition in this rivalry's history. Unfortunately for Michigan, it finds itself on the losing end yet again after one half.

It's been a half full of big plays and major momentum shifts, and both athletic quarterbacks have put on shows.

Both teams also made one critical mistake. Ohio State gave up a safety when left tackle Mike Adams took down Craig Roh by the facemask in the end zone. Michigan also scored a touchdown after the ensuing punt to go up 16-7. That marked the fourth straight game that Ohio State had fallen behind by at least nine points in the first quarter, and Wolverines fans were ready to explode as it looked like their team might end the seven-game losing streak in emphatic fashion.

But the Buckeyes, with little to play for besides pride, refused to go away easily. Linebacker Ryan Shazier forced a Denard Robinson fumble that set up a field goal, and Braxton Miller ran for a 19-yard touchdown to put Ohio State back on top. Somewhere, Urban Meyer must have been smiling.

About the only thing Miller did wrong for most of the half was fail to establish a good connection with DeVier Posey, who he missed a few times including what would have been a sure touchdown. But with 1:21 left, he threw a 43-yard dart to Posey for a touchdown. Ohio State hasn't been able to pass very effectively all season, but Miller has thrown for 127 yards and two scores in the first half alone. Michigan fans must be wondering what has happened to the defense that has looked so strong the last several weeks.

Robinson had the fumble, but he's otherwise had a great game. He has run for two scores, including a 41-yarder on an option play, and has completed 7-of-8 passes with a 26-yard touchdown.

We could be set up for a fantastic finish in the second half. If the final 30 minutes are as entertaining as the first 30, this game could be remembered for a long time in the lore of The Game.

Michigan offering reasons to believe

October, 5, 2011
10/05/11
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There's a certain 1980s power ballad that's quite popular whenever it is blared on the loudspeakers at Michigan Stadium. Particularly the line about a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke is singing a similar but slightly different tune: "Don't Start Believin'."

Hoke has consistently downplayed just about every aspect of his team's 5-0 start. When the two major polls placed the Wolverines among the top 12 in the country this week, Hoke did everything but lead an "Over-rated!" cheer.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Tim Fuller/US PresswireBrady Hoke is telling anyone who will listen that the Wolverines have not arrived yet.
"I think we're a long way from being a Michigan football team," Hoke said Tuesday. When asked if he saw any signs on the field to believe his team could eventually become one of the nation's best this year, he answered simply: "No."

That attitude has filtered down to the players.

"The thing that I like about our team the most is that none of us believe we should be ranked what we’re ranked," center David Molk said. "We don’t like it. We don’t want anything to do with it. As a group, we believe we’ll downplay ourselves and look at our weaknesses before we look at our strengths."

It's a smart move on Hoke's part to keep expectations low. In each of the past two years, Michigan got off to solid starts in September and worked its way into the national rankings. Those teams, however, quickly fell back to earth in Big Ten play under Rich Rodriguez. This year's squad has most of the same players and many of the same flaws. And these Wolverines have played each of their first five games at home, with their first road trip of the season finally coming this week at Northwestern.

But Hoke and his players can soft-pedal the situation all they like. Truth is, there are actually reasons to start believing in Michigan.

Our preseason view of the Wolverines was that they could be a little better on defense while perhaps taking a step back offensively as Denard Robinson adjusted to a new system. The stats show a significant improvement on defense, while the offense remains one of the most potent in the Big Ten.

It's almost shocking to see Michigan tied for second nationally in points allowed per game (10.2) after the way this defense played the past few seasons. First-year coordinator Greg Mattison's switch to a 4-3 scheme has helped maximize the team's talents, and players like Craig Roh, Kenny Demens and Jordan Kovacs are playing some of the best football of their careers. Through five games last year, Michigan allowed 127 points and 433.6 yards per game. Through the same span this season, it has yielded just 51 points and 316 yards per game.

What's even more encouraging is how the defense usually gets better throughout the course of a game. Wolverines opponents have scored only seven points in the fourth quarter all year long, a sign that Mattison and the players are making good adjustments. The defense is also stiffening at big moments, as opponents have scored only seven times in 14 red zone opportunities.

This is hardly a shutdown defense. But Michigan did pitch its first shutout since 2007 last week against Minnesota, and Mattison's crew has had a knack for coming up with turnovers, grabbing an average of three takeaways per game. Mattison has kept players fresh by rotating in lots of bodies up front, and this defense is playing with obvious confidence, if not always perfect technique. It's certainly doing enough to keep the Wolverines in every game they play, especially given how the offense is performing.

Robinson & Co. may be playing in a new system, but things don't look all that different statistically and stylistically. Michigan is averaging 37.2 points per game, only slightly down from last year's production through the first five games (41.4 ppg) and ahead of the 2010 full-season average of 32.8 points a contest. Robinson ran for more than 1,700 yards a year ago; this year, he's on pace for 1,565 yards.

Shoelace's running numbers dipped during Big Ten action last year, as the toll of taking so many hits got to him. The Wolverines have committed to using more people than just their quarterback to run the ball this year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith are each averaging at least 6.5 yards per carry. While Robinson has looked shaky as a passer at times this season, offensive coordinator Al Borges pledged to design more short and intermediate throws to help his confidence. Using that plan last week, Robinson completed 15 of 19 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against Minnesota.

Maybe the best reason to believe, though, is the schedule. While Michigan finally hits the road this week and will play a tough rivalry game the following Saturday at Michigan State, it caught a big break by not drawing Wisconsin as a cross-division opponent. Everyone else in the Big Ten looks beatable, and Michigan's final two games at home against Nebraska and Ohio State don't appear nearly as daunting as they did back in the preseason. With all the Buckeyes' current problems, the Wolverines could finally snap their seven-game losing streak in their most important rivalry.

Is this the nation's 12th-best team right now? Probably not. But ...

"I believe we have the potential to be [ranked that high]," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "I don't think we've played enough quality opponents, and I don't think we've played to the level we need to have earned that honor. But we can get there."

The journey is really only beginning. Maybe, though, it's time to start believing.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
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Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Big Ten play is just around the corner, so it's time to get serious. Week 4 didn't provide too many revelations, as the league's top teams took care of business. Minnesota and Indiana, meanwhile, hit new lows after being outclassed by North Dakota State and North Texas, respectively.

We were tempted to not rank the Gophers and Hoosiers this week. But we're contractually bound to do so.

There's not much shuffling in the top 10, but we expect much more movement a week from now after the first set of Big Ten games are in the books.

Here are this week's rankings ...

1. Wisconsin (4-0): After a virtually flawless performance in nonconference play, the Badgers enter Big Ten action with plenty of confidence. Quarterback Russell Wilson continued his record-setting start Saturday, with help from top WR Nick Toon. The competition level goes up significantly this week, and Wisconsin has yet to face any real adversity, but the Badgers have been the league's only consistently dominant team.

2. Nebraska (4-0): Bo Pelini's squad remained perfect with a solid road win against Wyoming, and for the third consecutive week, Big Red seemed to improve as the game went on. There's still room for improvement on both sides, and Nebraska will need a more polished performance to beat Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. If the offense cleans up some mistakes and keeps surging behind Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez, Nebraska will be very tough to beat.

3. Michigan (4-0): The Wolverines are 4-0 for the third consecutive year, and there are reasons to believe this season will be different than the previous two. There are also reasons to remain concerned. Michigan beat San Diego State primarily because of its defense, which is a very encouraging sign. Craig Roh led the Wolverines' best defensive effort of the season. Denard Robinson did his thing with 200 rush yards and three touchdowns, although his mistakes in the passing game could come back to haunt UM.

4. Illinois (4-0): There were some tense moments, but Illinois found a way to remain unbeaten and improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1951. It's a significant achievement, and a playmaking defense continues to be the biggest reason for the Illini success. Illinois can't lean on its defense forever, though, and must clean up some mistakes on offense. An inability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns could come back to haunt the Orange and Blue.

5. Michigan State (3-1): While the Spartans are still looking for a win against quality competition, their defense looks like the real deal. Not only are they limiting yards and points, but they're making big plays, as they showed Saturday by recording four interceptions against Central Michigan. Le'Veon Bell provided a much-needed spark for the run game. Michigan State leads the nation in total defense (172.3 ypg) and ranks eighth in points allowed (11 ppg).

6. Ohio State (3-1): Buckeyes fans don't like being this far down in the rankings, but the good news is their team has an excellent chance to move up in the coming weeks. Ohio State plays Michigan State, Nebraska and Illinois in its next three games, so we'll soon know exactly where it stands. The offense began to shape its identity behind freshman QB Braxton Miller on Saturday, and Ohio State excelled in the kicking game.

7. Penn State (3-1): The Lions' offense came to life against Eastern Michigan as Matthew McGloin made a good case to be the starting quarterback. Penn State's narrow Week 3 win against Temple looks a lot better after the Owls thrashed Maryland in College Park. The big downside from Week 4 was a serious knee injury to Penn State standout linebacker Michael Mauti. Although the Lions boast depth at linebacker, Mauti's leadership will be missed.

8. Iowa (3-1): The Hawkeyes enter the bye week with confidence after an easy win against Louisiana-Monroe. Quarterback James Vandenberg is on fire, racking up 1,095 pass yards with 10 touchdowns and only one interception through the first four games. Vandenberg's emergence along with several receivers makes Iowa a very dangerous offense in Big Ten play. We'll get a good read on Iowa when it resumes play Oct. 8 at Penn State.

9. Northwestern (2-1): The wait for Dan Persa's return should end this week, as Persa is expected to make his season debut for Northwestern against Illinois. How Persa performs after a lengthy rehab remains to be seen, but his presence should provide a lift for Northwestern, particularly in the passing game. The bye week fell at a good time for the Wildcats, who need to get healthy on defense.

10. Purdue (2-1): Who are these Boilers? Tough to tell after the first three games, but we'll find out a lot more this week as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium. Quarterback Robert Marve told Rittenberg this is a program-defining game for Purdue, and he's right. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare for the Irish, who will provide tests on both sides of the ball. It'll be interesting to see if Purdue continues its rushing success against the Notre Dame defense.

11. Minnesota (1-3): The USC opener feels like a long time ago, doesn't it? Minnesota failed to build off of a nice win against Miami (Ohio) and fell Saturday to an FCS opponent for the second consecutive year and the third time in the past five seasons. More troubling was that North Dakota State looked like a superior team in almost every area. Coach Jerry Kill now has a quarterback quandary on his hands -- Marqueis Gray or Max Shortell -- and the defense has a long way to go.

12. Indiana (1-3): If this isn't rock bottom for the Hoosiers, it's scary to think what will be. Indiana fell behind 24-0 to winless North Texas before mounting a furious rally in the final minutes. Lance Dunbar torched the Hoosiers for 279 yards, and Indiana's offense once again made too many mistakes and didn't generate much of a run game against one of the nation's worst rush defenses. First-year coach Kevin Wilson has a lot of work ahead of him this week as Big Ten play begins.
Five lessons from the final week of nonconference play in the Big Ten.

1. There's a lot to prove in Big Ten play: Four weeks of nonconference games still leave many unanswered questions about most of the Big Ten. One team (Wisconsin) has looked consistently dominant, albeit against shaky competition, while two squads (Indiana and Minnesota) are fighting for space in the Big Ten basement. Every other team has been tough to figure out. Michigan and Illinois are 4-0 but flawed, and Nebraska hasn't been as consistently dominant as many expected. Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State all have their pluses -- and their areas to fix. Bottom line: Big Ten play can't get here soon enough, and several proving-ground games arrive in Week 5.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Hillman
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesRonnie Hillman lost two fumbles against Michigan's defense on Saturday.
2. Michigan can lean on its defense more this year: It's not a finished product -- Brady Hoke will be the first to admit as much -- but the Wolverines' defense is making important strides. San Diego State came to Ann Arbor averaging 38 points a game, but Michigan held the Aztecs to seven. Defensive end Craig Roh led a strong performance from the front seven, which prevented Ronnie Hillman from really hurting the Wolverines. Michigan forced three turnovers and recorded the big stops when it needed them. While the secondary still has some holes and will struggle against a more polished passer, Michigan can rely more on a unit that repeatedly let it down the past three seasons.

3. Ohio State isn't dead yet: It was easy to count out the Buckeyes after their awful performance against Miami last weekend. But reports of the program's demise may have been premature, judging by Saturday's 37-17 win over Colorado. Quarterback was the main issue for the offense, and while Braxton Miller was far from perfect, the freshman's dual-threat ability breathed new life into a stale attack. Miller is going to get better and more confident as the season goes along, and Ohio State's defense is a constant. The Buckeyes will see much better teams than the Buffaloes, beginning this week against Michigan State. But they will also get four key suspended players back in two weeks. Dismiss Ohio State's Big Ten chances at your own risk.

4. Penn State clicking with Matt McGloin: Rob Bolden might have more talent and support among Penn State fans, but Matthew McGloin is showing that he deserves to be on the field, too. The Nittany Lions' offense just seems to run better with McGloin at the controls. Although Bolden didn't play poorly against Eastern Michigan, McGloin carried the day, completing 14 of 17 passes for 220 and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His chemistry with top wideout Derek Moye (6 catches, 65 yards, 2 touchdowns) is obvious. McGloin's performance doesn't add much clarity to Penn State's quarterback competition, but he gives the Lions a much-needed spark.

5. Long way up for Gophers, Hoosiers: Minnesota and Indiana each got their first wins of the season in Week 3. But this week brought some serious backsliding for both. Minnesota lost at home to North Dakota State -- a good FCS team, to be sure, but still an FCS team. The Gophers still have major problems with their pass defense and are getting inconsistent play from the offensive backfield. The Hoosiers went on the road and fell behind winless North Texas 24-0 before mounting a fourth-quarter rally that fell short. Indiana's offense, which had started to find a rhythm against Virginia and South Carolina State, stalled in Denton while not producing a touchdown until the fourth quarter. First-year coaches Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson will have to work some magic to get their teams ready to compete in Big Ten play.
Time to honor the top performers from around the Big Ten in Week 4:

  • Iowa QB James Vandenberg: Last week's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week had another big game against Louisiana Monroe. He completed 21-of-32 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score in a 45-17 victory.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead has been the steadying force for Nebraska's offense this season. After a solid performance last week against Washington, Burkhead went off against Wyoming for 170 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 15 carries in a 38-14 victory over Wyoming. Along with QB Taylor Martinez, Burkhead sparks Nebraska's potent rushing attack.
  • Michigan DE Craig Roh: Bigger and seemingly better, Roh helped Michigan produce its best defensive performance of the season in a 28-7 win over San Diego State. He recorded two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble as the Wolverines' front seven held San Diego State in check and limited the Aztecs to one touchdown. Fellow defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and linebacker Jake Ryan also merit mentions.
  • Wisconsin WR Nick Toon: Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson has grown roots in this space, but this week we're going to honor Wilson's favorite target during a 59-10 win over South Dakota. The senior continued his bounce-back season with seven catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Just another weapon for the Wisconsin offense.
  • Illinois RBs Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young: With the Illini in a thriller against Western Michigan, their two backup running backs provided a big spark. Pollard, a senior, ran for 133 yards on 14 carries, while the freshman Young chipped in 100 yards on just 12 attempts in the 23-20 win.

Michigan defense, run game fuels win

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
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The Brady Bowl is all over, and Brady Hoke's new crew beat his old one.

Let's take a look ...

Michigan 28, San Diego State 7: The Wolverines won this game because of two reasons, one a surprise and the other certainly not. The defense put together its best performance of the young season, making big stops and keeping San Diego State off of the scoreboard for nearly three quarters. Aztecs star RB Ronnie Hillman got his yards (110) but didn't really hurt the Wolverines, who received some nice performances from DE Craig Roh and the front seven. While a more polished passing team will hurt Michigan, the defense is taking some very important steps.

The other reason for victory was the run game, led by, who else, Denard Robinson (200 rush yards, 3 TDs). The junior QB repeatedly gashed San Diego State when operating in the shotgun spread, and he and the other ball-carriers received plenty of help from the offensive line. Still, it's tough to fully buy Michigan after watching Robinson struggle with his passing again (8-for-16, 2 INTs).

The Wolverines won't win many Big Ten games with four turnovers, especially three after halftime. The defense prevented the mistakes from hurting today, but Michigan still has a lot to clean up.

Troy Woolfolk has been around Michigan football all his life, and he knows the hyperbole that often follows the Maize and Blue.

Woolfolk, a fifth-year senior cornerback for Michigan, heard the big declarations about the direction of the program after season-opening wins in 2009 and 2010.

He issues some words of caution entering Saturday's opener against Western Michigan.

"I have a problem with people saying, even if we win this next game, that Michigan is back," Woolfolk told ESPN.com this week. "We have to earn that right, every game, to say Michigan is back. So I won't be proud until the last game. If we win all the games, that's when I'll know we're finally back."

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
AP Photo/Tony DingTroy Woolfolk could lean on his father, Butch, himself a former Michigan star, when it came to dealing with injuries.
Woolfolk's attitude is refreshing. If the grand proclamations about Michigan after the past two openers proved true, Tate Forcier would be a Heisman Trophy candidate and the defense would consistently keep opponents out of the end zone. Obviously, neither of those things panned out.

What Saturday's opener represents is an opportunity for Michigan's defense to start the process of returning to its traditional form. The Wolverines not only veered off track the past three seasons, they totally derailed, finishing no better than 77th nationally in points allowed and bottoming out in 2010 by finishing 110th nationally in yards allowed.

While many will be watching electric quarterback Denard Robinson and his transition to a new offense Saturday, the more significant developments will take place on defense. New coach Brady Hoke and his staff, led by veteran defensive guru Greg Mattison, have spent the past few months repairing one of the nation's worst units.

The product is far from finished, but it will finally be on display.

"Michigan is known for defense," said Woolfolk, who returns Saturday after missing all of last season with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle. "The past years, we didn't live up to that, but this year, we should be able to play sound, good Michigan defense."

Any potential Wolverines turnaround starts with the defensive line, the area in which both Hoke and Mattison specialize. Hoke likes his rotation, which is led by team captain Mike Martin and senior end Ryan Van Bergen, and also features a bulked-up Craig Roh, Jibreel Black, Will Heininger and massive tackle Will Campbell, who the Wolverines hope can finally reach his potential.

"We've got some multiple alignments that we can put out on the field," Hoke said, "and that's going to help us in a lot of ways, help us keep fresh so we've got guys in there who are fresh all day long."

Hoke added that he wants to see his defenders "playing with a fanaticism."

Woolfolk also mentioned we'll see more intensity from a defense that finished 98th nationally in sacks in 2010.

But the critical question is whether Michigan can limit the fundamental meltdowns that led to so many big plays and extended so many drives the past few seasons. Even in last year's 30-10 opening win against Connecticut, Michigan's defense had breakdowns the Huskies simply couldn't exploit.

Better teams did, and the results weren't pretty.

"Those major breakdowns are due to [the need to be] a student of the game," Woolfolk said. "You have to actually know the defense and try to go in, even after practice, to study film and truly understand your position. Once you can do that, it will cancel out the big plays.

"Mistakes are going to happen. The thing we like to focus on is not making the same mistake."

Michigan hopes a more experienced secondary can learn from the past, especially Saturday against a high-powered Western Michigan passing attack led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2010.

The lone positive for a Wolverines secondary ravaged by injuries and other personnel issues is that younger players got their feet wet -- and quite often their backsides burned -- in games.

"Courtney Avery, he played as a true freshman," Woolfolk said. "Terrence Talbott, he played as a true freshmen. So we have a lot of sophomores who played their freshmen year. Plus, we have me and J.T. [Floyd] coming back, who have also played a lot.

"We have a lot of experience, so the secondary should be fine."

It will take more than a strong performance Saturday to determine whether Woolfolk is right, but the opener marks a new beginning for a defense that craves one.

"I've seen it," Martin said. "I've been there every single day. ... It’s something you can’t hide. Every single day I can say we're getting better."
It's time to wrap up the defensive line rankings with a closer look at the ends.

Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.

This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireJohn Simon has played all over the defensive line for Ohio State.
1. John Simon, Ohio State, junior: This selection might surprise some because Simon has spent much of his time at defensive tackle. He'll likely play both line spots for Ohio State this fall, but expect the junior to have a breakout season in 2011. Simon is among the strongest players in the league and provides explosiveness up front for the Buckeyes.

2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.

3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.

4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.

5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.

6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.

7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.

8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.

9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.

10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.

Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.

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