NCF Nation: Eric Lair

When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeacki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 9

October, 28, 2010
10/28/10
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Ten items to track in what figures to be an exciting Week 9 in the Big Ten.

1. Spartans try to stay perfect: Michigan State isn't being viewed as a legit national title contender just yet, and the odds makers and others expect the Spartans to go down Saturday at No. 18 Iowa. But if Mark Dantonio's edgy team gets out of Iowa City with a win, look out. Michigan State's remaining schedule is very favorable and a 12-0 mark certainly will be within reach. Standing in the Spartans' way is an Iowa team that must win Saturday to remain in the Big Ten title race. The past three games between the Spartans and Hawkeyes have been decided by a total of 12 points, so expect another close one at Kinnick Stadium.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Jerry Lai/US PresswireMark Dantonio's Spartans could be looking at a 12-0 record if they can survive Saturday's game at Iowa.
2. Moment of truth for Michigan, Rodriguez: It's not the first so-called "must-win" for Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, but the Wolverines and their constantly scrutinized coach would really benefit from a victory at Beaver Stadium. A win makes Michigan bowl eligible for the first time since 2007, ends a two-game slide and quiets talk about Rodriguez's job and a second straight collapse. A loss would turn up the heat even more on Rodriguez and the Wolverines before a challenging November slate.

3. Dan Persa vs. Ben Chappell: Two underrated and underappreciated quarterbacks meet up at Indiana's Memorial Stadium. Most of the quarterback hype in the Big Ten centers elsewhere, but these two signal callers have been outstanding. Persa gained some national respect with his gutsy performance last week against Michigan State, but his Davey O'Brien Award snub suggests he still has something to prove. The junior will look to strike against a vulnerable Indiana secondary. Chappell has been brilliant at home and tries to bounce back from a rough afternoon at Illinois against a Northwestern defense that has struggled to stop the pass.

4. Robs reeling: Both Penn State and Purdue are dealing with injuries at the most important position on the field. Penn State could be without starting quarterback Rob Bolden against Michigan, as the freshman continues to recover from a head injury suffered last Saturday. If Bolden can't go, Matt McGloin likely will make his first career start for the Lions. Purdue will make a game-time decision on starting quarterback Rob Henry, who suffered a laceration on his throwing hand against Ohio State. If Henry isn't ready at Illinois, the Boilers will turn to true freshman Sean Robinson, who entered the season No. 4 on the depth chart.

5. Banged-up Buckeyes secondary to be tested: Injuries have been the big story for Ohio State's defense, especially in the secondary. Though the Buckeyes posted a shutout last week against Purdue, they faced a team that didn't test them through the air. Ohio State shouldn't have trouble beating last-place Minnesota, but Gophers wideouts Da'Jon McKnight and MarQueis Gray and tight end Eric Lair have combined for 98 receptions, 1,381 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. Expect Minnesota to air it out against an Ohio State secondary very thin at the safety spot.

6. Royster approaches rushing record: Seven games into the season, Evan Royster still needs 31 rushing yards to break Curt Warner's all-time Penn State record. The Nittany Lions senior should reach the mark against a Michigan team allowing 144.7 rush yards per game, although Royster has only one 100-yard rushing performance this season. Aside from the record, Penn State likely needs a big game from Royster and/or freshman Silas Redd, especially if Bolden sits out. It's important for the Lions to control the clock and keep Michigan's explosive offense off of the field.

7. Hyde vs. Hyde: Asked about getting tickets for the Iowa game, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose grandfather played for the Hawkeyes, said he didn't want to take any away from teammate Marcus Hyde. Saturday will be special for the Hyde family as Marcus, a senior safety for Michigan State, goes up against his younger brother, Micah, a sophomore cornerback for Iowa. Although both brothers play in the secondary, they had a run-in on a kickoff play in last year's game at Spartan Stadium. "He kind of hit me in my back," Marcus Hyde said. "I thought it was somebody else. When I saw it was him, I started laughing." It should be fun watching these two on Saturday.

8. Zook aims for a Big Ten sweep: Name the only Big Ten team Ron Zook hasn't beaten in his Illinois tenure? If you guessed Purdue, well done. Zook is 0-3 against Purdue in his six seasons as Fighting Illini coach. Illinois has dropped five consecutive games against the Boilers and last captured the Cannon in 2002. A victory Saturday would continue Illinois' surprising surge and put the team one step close to bowl eligibility with four games to play.

9. Pivotal game for Lynch, Hoosiers: Bill Lynch calls it simply "the next game," but Saturday's contest against Northwestern could have major implications for the Indiana program. The Hoosiers are 0-3 in Big Ten play this fall and 2-17 in the league since the start of the 2008 season. Athletic director Fred Glass has been loyal to Lynch and has spoken publicly about the need to honor contracts, but another loss would increase the calls for change. Lynch and the Hoosiers only need two more wins to become bowl-eligible, but they need to show they can get over the hump in league games.

10. Stanzi, Cousins take center stage: The Big Ten is a quarterback's league in 2010, and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins are two of the best. Both men have a chance Saturday to distinguish themselves in the race for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and possibly get some Heisman Trophy love. Stanzi has been one of the nation's most improved players, although he'd like to recapture some of his crunch-time magic from 2009. Cousins returns to a stadium he visited often as a boy and has a chance to lift Michigan State one step closer to Glendale.

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