NCF Nation: Dane Sanzenbacher
The Minnesota receiver didn't play football in his sophomore or junior years of high school as he focused on basketball instead. Despite that lack of experience, he blossomed into one of the Big Ten's best wideouts last year as a junior. McKnight caught 46 balls for 75o yards, and only Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher had more than his 10 touchdown grabs.
"I feel like I've learned a whole lot," he said. "I know about routes and what the defense is trying to do, whether it's a Cover 2 or a Trap 2. I've learned little techniques to help my game.
"I feel like I can double my catches this year. But it's all about the team winning and being more consistent."
McKnight has always had good size at 6-foot-3. He says his body is more sculpted now at a solid 210 pounds, after playing at about 208 last year. He's paying more attention to his nutrition; instead of his regular stops at McDonald's for a breakfast burrito, he's turning to bagels, apples and protein bars to start his morning.
Interestingly enough, the Gophers' second-leading receiver last year was MarQueis Gray, who is now the team's quarterback. While Gray may still need to learn the finer points of quarterback play, he and McKnight have great chemistry after playing the same position together last year. And there should be no misunderstandings between the quarterbacks and receivers.
"He knows how it is to play receiver," McKnight said. "He knows sometimes we have jammed fingers. He knows when to throw it hard and when to put some touch on it. I think playing receiver will really help him out."
Former quarterback Adam Weber always knew to look McKnight's way in the red zone last year. McKnight is hoping he and Gray form that same connection.
"I told him, from the 20-yard line on in, the jump ball is always an option," he said. "If you ever get in trouble, you can't go wrong throwing the jump ball to me."
We'll see whether defenses can learn how to stop that.
With the draft set to begin Thursday night, I thought this would be a good time to look at some Big Ten players who might benefit teams in the middle or later rounds, or even as free-agent pickups.
Here's one potential bargain from each Big Ten squad (heights and weights according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.).
Randall Hunt, G, 6-6, 318
The skinny: Hunt anchored a formidable Illinois offensive line that helped Mikel Leshoure and others run wild in 2010. He shut down Baylor's Phil Taylor in the Texas Bowl and brings a sturdy frame to the interior line. Hunt wouldn't be a bad choice in the later rounds.
James Brewer, T, 6-6, 323
The skinny: I'm hesitant to call Brewer a bargain because he could be off the board early in the draft. Indiana had another tackle, Rodger Saffold, taken with the first pick of the second round in 2010. Brewer has the size to be good at the next level, and if he's still available on the third day, he'd be a nice pick.
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, WR, 5-11, 202
The skinny: The character questions are there, but DJK was an extremely productive player at Iowa and could be a nice late-round addition for a team. He's a strong route runner with good speed and good hands, and he can stretch defenses. If a team is willing to take a bit of a risk, it could be rewarded.
Stephen Schilling, G, 6-4, 308
The skinny: Schilling played a ton of football at Michigan and helped the Wolverines to a record-setting offensive performance in 2010. His measurables might not blow teams away, but he's a smart, solid lineman who could be a nice addition in the middle to later rounds.
Eric Gordon, LB/S, 5-11, 224
The skinny: Overshadowed by fellow linebacker Greg Jones for much of his career, Gordon quietly produced at an extremely high rate for Michigan State. You could argue he was the Spartans' best linebacker during the second half of the 2010 season. Gordon turned in an impressive performance on pro day and would be a nice pickup late in the draft or as a free agent.
Adam Weber, QB, 6-3, 221
The skinny: Some Gophers fans might scoff at this, but I always felt Weber got a raw deal during his college career. He played for three different offensive coordinators, never complained about it and still set a bunch of team records. While his junior season was a disappointment, Weber did some good things last fall and drew respect around the Big Ten. Not a bad pick in the later rounds.
Eric Hagg, S, 6-1, 209
The skinny: Hagg is a playmaker, as he showed with a team-high five interceptions plus a school-record 95-yard punt return for a touchdown against Texas. He also brings versatility to the table, having played a safety-linebacker hybrid role last fall for the Blackshirts. Hagg has played on an elite college defense and would be a good get in the middle to late rounds.
Quentin Davie, LB, 6-4, 238
The skinny: Davie entered the 2010 season as a solid NFL prospect and started off strong but disappeared at times down the stretch. He made big plays throughout his career and boasts good size as an outside linebacker. Davie could help a team as a late-round or free-agent addition if he gets back to his 2009 form.
Dane Sanzenbacher, WR, 5-11, 182
The skinny: If I were an NFL general manager, I wouldn't hesitate to draft Sanzenbacher. He lacks ideal measurables but makes up for it with football intelligence and a fearless approach to the game. Sanzenbacher has great hands and became Ohio State's top threat in the red zone this season. He stood out at the Senior Bowl and would be an excellent pick in the middle rounds.
Evan Royster, RB, 5-11, 212
The skinny: Royster is a patient runner with good vision who could thrive in the right situation at the pro level. His slow start to the 2010 season is a concern, but he picked things up down the stretch and boasts a productive college résumé. If a team needs a running back in the late rounds, Royster would be a nice choice.
Keith Smith, WR, 6-2, 224
The skinny: There's risk here as Smith comes off of tears in two knee ligaments, but a team could get a major steal if the Boilers receiver can stay healthy. He has the size to excel at the pro level and might have been the Big Ten's top receiver had he stayed on the field last season. Smith is a class act who has a chance to be a solid NFL receiver.
Scott Tolzien, QB, 6-2, 209
The skinny: He might never be a full-time starter in the NFL, but teams certainly can benefit from having Tolzien on the roster. He's an extremely smart player who makes up for mediocre measurables with superb intangibles. Tolzien is accurate and efficient, and he'll prepare harder than anyone. If a team needs a quarterback in the later rounds, Tolzien would be a great pick.
Let's check out the Big Ten's top performers:
- Ohio State's Chimdi Chekwa tied for third in the 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds; Nebraska's Prince Amukamara tied for fifth at 4.43 seconds;
- Ohio State's Jermale Hines (listed as a cornerback for the combine) tied for 10th in bench-press reps with 19
- Amukamara tied for fifth in the vertical jump at 38 inches
- Amukamara tied for second in the broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches; Chekwa tied for sixth at 10 feet, 6 inches
- Nebraska's Eric Hagg finished 10th in the 3-cone drill at 6.73 seconds
- Iowa's Tyler Sash tied for fourth in the 40-yard dash at 4.62 seconds
- Sash tied for fifth in the vertical jump at 33 inches
- Sash tied for second in the 3-cone drill at 6.9 seconds
Now that the combine is finished, let's see which Big Ten players ranked in overall top performance.
BIG TEN TOP COMBINE PERFORMANCES (all positions)
- Chekwa tied for eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds; Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. finished 13th at 4.42 seconds; Amukamara finished 14th at 4.43 seconds
- Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan tied for 10th with 32; Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan tied for 12th with 31
- Indiana receiver Terrance Turner tied for fifth in vertical jump at 41 inches
- Amukamara and Turner tied for ninth in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
- Ohio State receiver Dane Sanzenbacher finished third in the 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds
- Sanzenbacher finished sixth in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Helu tied for 11th at 4.01 seconds
- Sanzenbacher finished fourth in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Helu tied for ninth at 11.07 seconds
My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.
There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.
- Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
- Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
- Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
- Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
- Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
- Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
- Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
- Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
- Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
- Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
- Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
- Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
- Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
- Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
- Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
- Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
- Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
- Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
- Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
- Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
- Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
- Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
- Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
- Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
- Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
- Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
- Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
- Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
- Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
- Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
- Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
- Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;
Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
- Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
- Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19
What to watch:
- Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
- Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
- Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
- Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
- Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
- Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
- Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
- Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9
What to watch:
- Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
- The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
- The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
- New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
- Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.
Todd McShay provides his take after three days of Senior Bowl practices. His conclusion?
At this point, I'd be comfortable drafting Locker in Round 1 only if I had a veteran starting quarterback whom I could rely on for at least one more year, an owner I know would not push for Locker to play until he was ready and a quarterback coach who knows what he's doing.
And this portion provides a general view of the positives and negatives of the week.
I think it also has been helpful for Locker to go through the process. He's showing NFL personnel and coaches that he's committed to get better and has good football character. He understands he's flawed and has areas he needs to improve on.
Locker knows he's thinking about his footwork too much and he's robotic with his mechanics. It's not second nature and he's not comfortable like most quarterbacks who are able to just go out and play the game. The bottom line is if you're inconsistent with footwork, you're going to be inconsistent with your accuracy.
Another Washington player is generating buzz: linebacker Mason Foster, who is noted by Scouts Inc.'s Kevin Weidl's as a Day 3 top performer.
Foster's instincts are the thing that stick out. He does a great job finding the ball and always being around the ball. He's good at recognizing plays and showed that by diagnosing a screen pass twice and getting in position to make the stop. Of all the linebackers, he has the most quick-twitch power and can strike at the point of attack. In one-on-one pass drills, he has a little pop that shocked blockers and knocked them back. He could be a little better using his hands, but he had a very good overall day.
McShay on former California defensive end Cameron Jordan, a big climber this week.
The thing I took from today is the more I see Cal's Cameron Jordan, who was a 3-4 DE in college, the more I think he's a better fit as a 4-3 left defensive end. He's a lot like Wisconsin's J.J. Watt. People look at them physically and see a great five-technique guy, but I think because they both have great hands, are active on the move and can make things happen that they are better fits at left DE. After studying both on film and seeing Watt in the Rose Bowl and Jordan here at the Senior Bowl, there's not a huge difference between them, but it's obvious Jordan is the better all-around prospect. Jordan is fighting to get in the top 20, while Watt is slightly behind him.
USC receiver Ronald Johnson was up and down on Day 3.
USC WR Ronald Johnson dropped one pass early but bounced back. He tracked the ball well during individual drills and opened up and made a nice adjustment on a pass thrown slightly behind him.
There are pluses and minuses with Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman.
There's a lot to like about Stanford CB Richard Sherman's size and how physical he can be. He made a great read on a five-yard out by Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher, but he couldn't get to the ball. He just doesn't have the closing speed.
Former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic needs to catch the ball better.
Love Stanford RB Owen Marecic's fight, strength and competitiveness in one-on-one blitz pickups. On the downside, he really fought the ball in pass-catching drills.
More on Locker, Jordan and Foster here.
A big picture story on Locker here. It just takes one team for Locker to still end up an early first-round pick.
As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.
Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.
Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.
Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.
Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.
Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.
Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.
Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.
Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.
Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.
Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.
Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.
Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.
Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.
Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
It's time to identify an All-Big Ten team comprised only of seniors. There were easy picks like Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, but several positions created some tough choices.
Reminder: This team includes only fourth-year or fifth-year seniors, not redshirt juniors.
Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.
In case you forgot, my All-Big Ten team included only 12 seniors, all of whom will appear below. I also selected 14 underclassmen.
Without further ado ...
QB: Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: Dan Dierking, Purdue
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: Bill Nagy, Wisconsin
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DL: Karl Klug, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Chris L. Rucker, Michigan State
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
S: Brett Greenwood, Iowa
K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Returns: David Gilreath, Wisconsin
- I really struggled with the quarterback spot. Tolzien ultimately made fewer mistakes than Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who had superior statistics and had fewer weapons surrounding him. You can make a good case for Stanzi or Indiana's Ben Chappell, but Tolzien gets a slight edge.
- No disrespect to Royster or Dierking, but the Big Ten really struggled to produce many decent senior running backs this season. Perhaps that's a promising sign for the future, but typically there are more experienced ball-carrying options. Royster was the only senior ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 rushers. I thought about Ohio State's Brandon Saine, but Dierking did more as a ball carrier.
- The No. 3 linebacker was a really tough call between Gordon and Ohio State's Ross Homan. Ultimately, Homan missing time with a foot injury and Gordon displaying remarkable consistency alongside Greg Jones made Gordo the pick.
- Another tough call was DJK ahead of Indiana's Terrance Turner, who had 21 more receptions but fewer yards and seven fewer touchdown catches.
- The deepest position among Big Ten seniors (by far): offensive guard. I went with Moffitt and Carimi, but players like Ohio State's Justin Boren, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Iowa's Julian Vandervelde and Illinois' Randall Hunt all were good options.
- Five teams didn't produce selections: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern. Is that a good omen or a bad one for 2011?
QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
Pryor won MVP honors in a BCS bowl for the second consecutive season as he led Ohio State to a victory in the Sugar Bowl. The junior maintained his focus after the suspension controversy and recorded 222 pass yards and two touchdowns to go along with 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase merits a mention after a strong effort in the Texas Bowl.
RB: Marcus Coker, Iowa
The true freshman rushed for an Iowa bowl record 219 yards and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl. Coker was the team's only proven option at running back for the bowl, and he stepped up in a big way, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
The Big Ten's best running back ended his season -- and, as it turned out, his college career -- in typical fashion, rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns as Illinois blew out Baylor. Leshoure broke five team records and tied a sixth with his bowl performance, most notably breaking Rashard Mendenhall's single-season Illinois rushing record with 1,697 yards.
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
Sanzenbacher caught three passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl, but his biggest contribution came on the game's opening drive. After Pryor fumbled the ball near the goal line, Sanzenbacher swooped in for the recovery and his first career "rushing" touchdown. The Great Dane showed why he was voted Ohio State's team MVP.
WR: Derek Moye, Penn State
His quarterback threw too many passes to Florida defenders, but Moye did his part for Penn State with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. He nearly had a second touchdown following a 44-yard reception but the ball was placed at the 1-yard line. Penn State scored on the next play to tie the score at 14-14.
TE: Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State
Ohio State featured its tight ends in a 28-point first half at the Sugar Bowl, and Stoneburner benefited with three receptions for 39 yards. Fellow tight end Reid Fragel added a 42-yard reception. Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Iowa's Allen Reisner and Michigan's Kevin Koger all merit mentions here.
OL: Josh Koeppel, Iowa
Koeppel and fellow linemen James Ferentz and Markus Zusevics got Coker going early by creating a huge hole for the freshman early in the second quarter. Coker zipped through it for a 62-yard touchdown as Iowa surged out to a 14-3 lead.
OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois
Allen helped the Illini rack up 38 points and 291 offensive yards in the rout of Baylor. He also protected Scheelhaase, who completed his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 passing.
OL: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
The Badgers didn't have the dominant offensive performance they envisioned against TCU, but they still rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Carimi, the 2010 Outland Trophy winner, did his part in his final collegiate game.
OL: Randall Hunt, Illinois
Hunt and Allen earned the highest grades from the Illini coaches after the team dominated Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Illinois mounted seven drives of 53 yards or longer, including two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that overpowered the Bears and put away the game.
C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
Ohio State physically dominated Arkansas up front in the first half, and Brewster led the way from the center position. He helped clear the way for Herron's walk-in 9-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Ohio State racked up 28 points and 338 yards in the first half and finished with 225 rush yards against Arkansas.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
Heyward delivered the best performance of his college career in his final game as a Buckeye. The senior racked up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. He also caused a critical holding penalty by Arkansas midway through the fourth quarter.
DL: Corey Liuget, Illlinois
Liuget showed Baylor why he was the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive tackle this season. The junior recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack and caused a ton of trouble in the Bears' backfield.
DL: Dexter Larimore, Ohio State
Heyward drew most of the praise in the Sugar Bowl, but Larimore caused almost as many problems for the Arkansas offensive line. The senior recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble as Ohio State held Arkansas' offense in check for a good portion of the game.
DL: Devon Still, Penn State
Still set a career high with 3.5 tackles for loss in Penn State's Outback Bowl loss to Florida. He tied for second on the team with seven tackles as Penn State prevented Florida from mounting long scoring drives.
LB: James Morris, Iowa
Like Coker, Morris raised hope for the Hawkeyes' future with a strong performance in the Insight Bowl. He recorded seven tackles, including one stop for loss, and showed more aggressiveness than some of his older teammates.
LB: Quentin Davie, Northwestern
The TicketCity Bowl wasn't a banner day for Northwestern's defense, but Davie did his part with 15 tackles, including two tackles for loss. His tackles total marked a career high in his final collegiate game with the Wildcats.
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
Wilson was a noticeable presence in what turned out to be his final game in an Illini uniform. Tez recorded seven tackles including one for loss in the win against Baylor.
DB: Micah Hyde, Iowa
Hyde made the biggest play of the Big Ten bowl season, picking off a Blaine Gabbert pass and returning the ball 72 yards for the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa appeared headed toward another second-half collapse before Hyde made Gabbert pay for his only bad decision of the game.
DB: D'Anton Lynn, Penn State
Lynn made a huge impact at the start of the Outback Bowl, recording an interception and recovering a fumble in the Penn State end zone in the first 10 minutes of the game. He finished the season tied with Nick Sukay for the team lead in interceptions with three.
DB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois
The sophomore cornerback set career highs in both tackles (9) and tackles for loss (1.5) in the win against Baylor. Hawthorne made his first start of the season after battling a foot injury for much of the fall.
DB: Devon Torrence, Ohio State
The Buckeyes' secondary once again needed a boost after losing a standout player to injury, and Torrence provided it. After All-Big Ten corner Chimdi Chekwa went out with a wrist injury, Torrence picked up the slack and recorded eight tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
Dimke showed why he's known as the Big Ten's steadiest kicker in the Texas Bowl, going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 28, 38 and 43 yards out. He became the first Illinois player to make more than one field goal in a bowl game and connected on multiple kicks for the ninth time in the 2010 season.
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Bates provided the lone bright spot for the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl, averaging 43.4 yards on seven attempts with a long of 55 yards and two punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Honorable mentions go to Illinois' Anthony Santella, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman and Iowa's Ryan Donahue.
KR: Martavious Odoms, Michigan
The fact that Odoms played in the Gator Bowl following a broken foot was pretty incredible, and unfortunately for Michigan, he got plenty of work on returns. Odoms racked up 163 kick return yards on seven attempts with a long runback of 43 yards. Honorable mentions go to Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, Iowa's Paul Chaney Jr. and Northwestern's Venric Mark.
Best performance: Iowa running back Marcus Coker in the Insight Bowl. You can make good cases for Terrelle Pryor and Nathan Scheelhaase as well, but Coker's performance under tough circumstances was absolutely amazing. The true freshman entered the Insight Bowl as Iowa's only reliable option at running back after Adam Robinson's suspension. He proceeded to rush for 219 yards -- an Iowa bowl record -- and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri.
Worst defense: There are several nominees, as Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern combined to allow 146 points in bowl losses. It's a tough call between the Michigan schools, but I've got to go with the Wolverines, who suffered the worst bowl loss in team history and surrendered 52 points to a Mississippi State team with a good, but not great, offense. Michigan State didn't fare much better against Alabama, which pulled many of its starters early in the third quarter.
Best play: There might not have been a bigger play in the 2010-11 postseason than Micah Hyde's 72-yard interception return for a touchdown with 5:32 left in the Insight Bowl. Iowa's defense looked gassed and Missouri had limited the Hawkeyes' offense to three second-half points before Hyde picked off Blaine Gabbert and took it to the house. Solomon Thomas' interception to seal Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win also merits a mention here.
Worst strategic adjustment: It's hard to attach "worst" to this one, but we're dealing with extremes here. Wisconsin diverted ever so slightly from its season-long plan to pound away at defenses at TCU and paid the price in a 21-19 loss. The Horned Frogs never consistently stopped Wisconsin's backs on runs between the tackles, but the Badgers veered from their power game at inopportune times. Even though Wisconsin's potential 2-point conversion attempt nearly worked, it's still surprising the Badgers didn't go down with their bread-and-butter run game.
Best closing argument: Illinois in the Texas Bowl. The Illini came in at 6-6 and had displayed the maddening inconsistency to suit their record. But they put it all together against Baylor in a dominating victory. Vic Koenning's defense held Robert Griffin III in check and Scheelhaase showed significant progress from the end of the regular season to the bowl and provided the type of offensive balance Illinois needed.
Worst closing argument: Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Coach Mark Dantonio talked about the game as a chance to "measure up," but the Spartans flat-lined and provided fuel to their critics with a poor performance. Although Michigan State admittedly overachieved this season, a co-conference champion has to be more competitive in such a big setting. Not the type of ending Michigan State wanted for a breakthrough season.
Best quote: Wisconsin players stole the show at Rose Bowl media headquarters leading up to the game. Safety Jay Valai provided several gems, including this one about coming to Wisconsin from Texas. "No. 1 party school, No. 1 college sports town and No. 9 education. I said, 'Hey, you live once, why not Wisconsin?' It's been a great move, except dealing with that cold, cold weather. Not good for my African blood."
Best bowl atmosphere: The Rose Bowl isn't only the best Big Ten bowl atmosphere, but the best setting in all of college sports. Fans from both Wisconsin and TCU turned out in force, and the weather held up to create an unbelievable environment in Pasadena. Wisconsin fans did the "Jump Around" at the end of the third quarter, shaking the stadium and making California natives like me get a little nervous that the Big One had finally arrived.
Worst pre-bowl storyline: The annual Joe Paterno retirement rumors. These are really getting old, pun intended. I could seriously do a separate blog that only addressed the incessant buzz about the Penn State coach stepping aside. The JoePa retirement talk dominated the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, and along with the Urban Meyer situation, we didn't hear much about the game itself. The Ohio State suspension situation also dominated the talk leading up to the Sugar Bowl.
It's hardly unusual for a defensive lineman to wait a while for his first pick. But Thomas hadn't merely gone through his Ohio State career without an interception. He never had one in high school.
He never had one in junior high school.
"It's what was supposed to happen," a beaming Thomas said.
Most folks think it wasn't supposed to happen.
The fact that Thomas was on the field Tuesday night for the Allstate Sugar Bowl created a cloud of controversy around Ohio State leading into its matchup against Arkansas.
Thomas and four others -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and left tackle Mike Adams -- had been suspended by the NCAA for selling memorabilia items and receiving improper benefits, but the NCAA decided that their punishment wouldn't go into effect until the 2011 season.
Major distraction? Check. Major detriment? Just the opposite.
The Buckeyes needed significant contributions from all five players to hold off Arkansas 31-26 and record the program's first victory against the hated SEC in a bowl game. Thomas sealed the win by intercepting a Ryan Mallett pass at the Ohio State 17-yard line with 58 seconds left.
Talk about the Irony Bowl.
"It's kind of crazy how it happened," Herron said. "We had the honor of playing in this game, so we really had to come out here and make a statement."
Herron and the offense delivered from the get-go, putting to rest concerns about their mental states and ability to execute. Ohio State surged to a 28-7 lead behind Pryor, Herron's physical running and a powerful offensive line that overwhelmed Arkansas.
For the second straight year Pryor turned in a brilliant performance in a BCS bowl, completing 14 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and adding 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Herron added 87 rush yards and a touchdown, and Posey hauled in a 43-yard touchdown strike and led the team with 70 receiving yards.
"We all play a role on this team," Adams said. "I block, that's what I do and that's what I did. DeVier, he catches the ball, that's what he does. TP, what can you say about that guy? He just makes plays."
But the biggest play came from the suspended player no one talked about; the non-starter, the guy who couldn't jump to the NFL draft because, well, he probably wouldn't hear his name called. Thomas entered the bowl with 14 tackles on the season, a solid role player and a guy who blended into the crowd.
He took center stage, though, as Arkansas entered Ohio State's red zone looking to score the game-winning touchdown following a blocked punt. Ohio State installed a new red zone package in its Nov. 20 win against Iowa, and the scheme called for Thomas to replace senior Dexter Larimore at defensive tackle.
"I'm going in for a senior, this is his last game," Thomas said. "I was just so thankful that I didn't let him down, that I'm able to send him out with a victory. [Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock] always stresses to us to send these seniors out the right way, and I was just so thankful that I was able, on this field, to make a play for my seniors."
Thomas took a two-step drop, looked for crossing routes and made the play on the ball.
"That's probably the happiest I've ever seen Sol," Adams said. "That might have been his first pick, and that's a great first pick to have."
The end result certainly could have been different without Thomas and the others on the field.
The plan calls for all five players to return as seniors in 2011. Although Ohio State can't force them to return, Tressel sounds confident the players will keep their word.
"I don't think I'm really ready for the NFL," said Pryor, who earned Sugar Bowl MVP honors. "I've got a lot of learning and better decision-making I have to make on and off the field. Off the field, I need to grow up a little bit more, mature as well. I just have a lot of growing up to do."
Ohio State's senior class grew up the past two seasons, and they cemented their legacy Tuesday night.
Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher scored two touchdowns, including a recovery of a Pryor fumble in the end zone on the game's opening possession. Larimore recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and six tackles from the tackle spot.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward had his best game as a Buckeye in his last game, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
"Cam was a beast," Tressel said. "He was all over the place."
So were the suspended players.
Whether or not they deserved to play is debatable. How they performed after getting the opportunity is not.
"When it all happened, our first concern was, 'Are we going to be able to help this team? Are we going to be able to play?'" Adams said. "You never want to let down your brothers, you never want to let down the guys in this locker room.
"When they gave us that chance, we knew we had to play well."
Let's take a look at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
How the game was won: Ohio State's defense kept Arkansas out of the end zone and held off a furious Razorbacks rally in the second half. Cameron Heyward and the Buckeyes' defensive line put enough pressure on Hogs star quarterback Ryan Mallett, who seemed a bit off at times and got no help from his stone-handed receivers. Solomon Thomas sealed things with a clutch interception in the closing seconds. The Buckeyes had a terrific offensive first half, racking up 28 points behind Terrelle Pryor's precision passing, Dane Sanzenbacher's heroics and some dominant offensive line play. Ohio State's suspended players stepped up and the team maintained focus in the face of adversity.
Turning point: After Arkansas blocked an Ohio State punt and took over in the Buckeyes' red zone, Thomas, one of five juniors suspended for the first five games of 2011, picked off a short Mallett pass. The Buckeyes then ran out the clock.
Stat of the game: Ohio State converted 6 of 8 third down opportunities in the first half but didn't move the chains on its first four opportunities after halftime until Pryor picked up a huge first down on a scramble. Arkansas showed why it is one of the nation's top third down defenses in the second half.
Player of the game: Ohio State's Heyward. Pryor came up big as well, but Heyward was all over the field and really disrupted Arkansas' offensive rhythm at times. The son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward turned in a dominant effort in his dad's old stomping ground. Pryor also deserves a lot of credit after racking up 222 pass yards and 115 rush yards.
Second guessing: Arkansas had a chance to take on seven points at the end of the first half, but Bobby Petrino took a page from Jim Tressel's book and kicked a short field goal as time expired. Although the Hogs still had a chance to win, a touchdown right before halftime would have made things a lot easier.
What it means: Ohio State no longer has to hear about the SEC struggles or its inability to make plays in the clutch on big stages. A lot of folks will point to the controversial decision to allow the suspended players to participate, but the players stepped up and the team never fragmented. Ohio State now has won back-to-back BCS bowls and should no longer hear about the failures in the national title game. This was one that Tressel, Pryor, Buckeye Nation and the Big Ten really needed, and Ohio State came through.
Player of the half: Terrelle Pryor. The Ohio State junior quarterback is making the most of his good fortune to play in this game. Once again, Pryor looks like he's made significant strides between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. He has made excellent decisions in the first 30 minutes, completing 13 of 19 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns, and adding 52 yards on the ground. Buckeyes receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore merit mentions.
Stat of the half: Arkansas entered the game ranked seventh nationally in third down defense, allowing conversions just 31.95 percent of the time. Ohio State converted 6 of 8 third-down opportunities and scored two of its four touchdowns on third-and-long plays.
Best call: Not one play call per se, but several calls by Jim Tressel to get Ohio State's tight ends more involved in the offense. Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel have combined for four receptions and 82 receiving yards. The quick pass to Fragel was a new wrinkle and helped set up a Buckeyes touchdown.
But Ohio State is making it look easy against the Hogs.
After converting 3 of 4 third-down opportunities in the first quarter, Ohio State took a 20-7 lead following a 15-yard touchdown pass on third-and-8. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor looks poised on third down, and he's getting plenty of help from star receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who already has two touchdowns.
Ohio State is mixing things up well on offense and showing a new wrinkle or two, like the quick pass to tight end Reid Fragel to spur a 70-yard scoring drive.
Arkansas' defense looks pretty shaky, so if the Buckeyes can contain the Hogs' offense, they should be in good shape.
Ohio State's D suffered a potentially big loss when star cornerback Chimdi Chekwa went down with an apparent arm/elbow injury.