NCF Nation: J.J. Watt

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt's right-hand-man says the defense wouldn't be the same without him. His father says he wouldn't put a price on his son's dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL's top defensive player when discussing him -- at least in each's recruitment.

"There's a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn't he have more offers?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "So everywhere that I've been, I've recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn't have a lot of offers."

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt's path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt is among Notre Dame's leaders in tackles.
VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as "unusual" in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt's father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt's parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt's father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

" 'Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped,' " the elder Schmidt joked. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe's narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame -- which offered him a preferred walk-on spot -- and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

[+] EnlargeJoe Schmidt
Courtesy of the Schmidt familyJoe Schmidt fell in love with Notre Dame as a kid while visiting his sister, who ran track for the Irish.
"We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all," Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn't look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

" 'My dream is to play at Notre Dame,' " the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. " 'Even if I have success at another school, I don't want to think, 'Could I have done it at Notre Dame?' If I go there and it doesn't work out, at least I gave it my all.'

"My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off."

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC's final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt's been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame's nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt's unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school's internal academic probe. He's been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

"That's my brother, I love him," said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish's leading tackler (31). "Both of us in the middle, it's just all about family and making sure we're on the same page. ... The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn't be there without him."
Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.
The Big Ten endured arguably the worst NFL draft in its history last month, and its struggles to produce high first-round talent are well documented.

The league hasn't had a top-10 pick since Michigan's Jake Long and Ohio State's Vernon Gholston went No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the 2008 draft. The Big Ten narrowly avoided being shut out of the first round for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger when Wisconsin's Travis Frederick went at No. 31 in April's draft.

Is the troubling trend for the Big Ten more of a coaching/development issue or a recruiting issue? The declining number of first-round picks might have more to do with the Big Ten footprint than the Big Ten Conference.

As CoachingSearch.com's Chris Vannini points out, certain states in the Big Ten footprint, namely Ohio, have seen a drop in producing first-round picks in recent years. Vannini looked at where first-round picks from the past eight drafts played their high school ball.

Not surprisingly, Texas (17) and Florida (12) produced the most first-round picks between 2010-13, followed by Georgia (10) and California (8). Florida, Texas and California also were among the top producers in the previous four drafts (2006-09).

Pennsylvania is the top producer in the Big Ten footprint with five first-round picks since 2010. Michigan (4) and Wisconsin (4) are next, along with future Big Ten state New Jersey (4).

Where's Ohio? Way down the list with just two first-round picks since 2010. It comes as a surprise as Ohio is celebrated for its high school football and serves as the starting point in recruiting for many Big Ten programs.

Ohio produced nine first-round draft picks between 2006-09. New Jersey also saw its total drop from 10 (between 2006-09) to four (between 2010-13).

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin both produced three more first-round picks in the past four drafts than the previous four. All four Wisconsin products -- J.J. Watt, Gabe Carimi, Kevin Zeitler and Frederick -- played for the Wisconsin Badgers during their run of Rose Bowls. Michigan saw a slight increase in recent years, Illinois held steady and Indiana dropped from four (2006-09) to two (2010-13). Minnesota had one first-round pick in 2012 after none from 2006-09, while Nebraska and Iowa aren't on the board for either span.

What about the Big Ten's other new territory, the Washington D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia region? Maryland's total dropped from four (2006-09) to three (2010-13), Virginia's went from seven (2006-09) to three (2010-13) and Washington D.C. failed to produce a first-round pick from 2010-13 after having two between 2006-09.

What does this mean for the Big Ten? First-round draft picks are only one way to gauge the strength of a league or a region, but the numbers reinforce that much of the nation's elite talent grows up far from Big Ten campuses. Big Ten schools have to spread their wings in recruiting and invest more time and resources in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia. Many programs already do this, but there's a greater sense of urgency.

The Ohio total is a bit alarming, but I'd be surprised if the state produces so few first-round picks in the next four years. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Wisconsin total under a new Badgers coaching staff.

I still like the Big Ten's new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, from a recruiting standpoint, but the declining totals of first-round draft picks from both areas are a bit unsettling as the two programs prepare to move to the Big Ten in 2014.

Wisconsin offensive lineman Travis Frederick shouldn't be surprised if he receives a Christmas card this year from the Delany family.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany breathed a sigh of relief late Thursday night as the Dallas Cowboys selected Frederick in the penultimate pick of the first round of the NFL draft. Frederick, who played guard and then center for the Badgers, opted to skip his senior season and enter the draft. He was the first center and the ninth offensive lineman selected in a beef-heavy first round.

Dallas' selection of Frederick at No. 31 prevented the Big Ten from another dubious distinction in its tumble down the college football pecking order. Many draft experts predicted the Big Ten wouldn't produce a first-round draft pick for the first time since 1953, 17 years before the AFL-NFL merger. Dallas traded its No. 18 pick to San Francisco for the No. 31 pick and a third-round choice.

The SEC continued to dominate the draft with 12 first-round selections, while the ACC (6) and Pac-12 (5) also had good showings. There's no nice way to put this, but the Big Ten's talent gap at the top is pretty obvious right now. At least Frederick prevented the first-round shutout, but his selection is the latest that the Big Ten has had its first player drafted in the modern draft era.

Several other Big Ten players were seen as first-round possibilities, including Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short and Frederick's teammate, Badgers running back Montee Ball. They'll have to wait a little longer to hear their names called.

 

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
4:30
PM ET
Some questions and answers before the weekend. Not surprisingly, a lot of you are weighing in on this story.

CK from Seattle writes: I'm going to call it right now Adam. B1G has a good bowl season (or at least better than recent years -- not saying much I know). Reason being the B1G teams seem to often play higher ranked teams and teams playing close to home. With our poor rankings this year, I imagine we'll have some more even matchups. That said -- Wisconsin has looked terrible, Michigan isn't impressive, MSU struggled against mediocre ND and Nebraska had a laugher in Cali. Verdict is still out on OSU. Well -- after saying that, I feel less confident, but still think we'll get better matchups this year.

Adam Rittenberg: CK, you very well could be correct. It's hard to envision the Big Ten keeping its streak of multiple BCS berths alive. Then again, I've thought the streak would end in the past, and it hasn't, as Big Ten teams and their massive fan bases remain so attractive to the big bowls. The matchups undoubtedly would be better and potentially more appropriate if the Big Ten only sends a team to the Rose Bowl. And if the Big Ten does well, I think the league will get credit because difficulty of bowl lineup doesn't seem to matter much with how leagues are perceived. That said, the Big Ten has to start winning Rose Bowls again. One victory in the past nine is pretty bad.




Dan from Austin, Texas, writes: As a proud PSU alum, it's tough to see the conference in this state. I agree with the premise you are attributing this to, however to understand why the talent pool is low, you have to understand what QBs in other markets are doing all year round. Look at how many Texas QBs are leading D1 programs around the country and starting in the NFL. The reason 7-on-7 leagues that were started about 10 years ago. You now have a generation of Texas QBs who have been able to have 2x to 3x more reps than QBs in the North.

Adam Rittenberg: I think 7-on-7 leagues are a factor, Dan, but spring football in the south might be a bigger one. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller told me that from a talent standpoint, the recruits he landed from Texas and other states weren't way above those from the Midwest. But the fact that the Midwest kids didn't have spring football in high school made them less prepared to play college ball right away. "The southern states are really getting the edge," Tiller told me. "Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren’t necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also noted that some southern states (Texas) have longer regular seasons than those in the Midwest, so players are playing more games before they arrive at college.




Steve from San Francisco writes: I can't agree with Earle Bruce, and not just because I went to Michigan. I think the quarterbacks in the league are not the problem. Look at Alabama. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron have led them to National Championships and they are not NFL caliber quarterbacks. Maybe they will be backups for a while, but they aren't carrying those teams, it is the top-down talent around them -- strong defenses, speedy, large, wide open receivers, and huge, yardage-churning running backs. Go back to UM-Bama to start the season, McCarron's and [Denard] Robinson's numbers were eerily similar, and how close was the final score? McCarron missed a bunch of receivers too, he just happened to also have 3 running backs tearing up the field. The question is: will the Big Ten ever be able to pull enough talent in all schools so that every class has the depth to match the SEC and I think the answer is no. I wanted to go to Michigan, but I grew up in the north. Most of the talent these days is in the south. Why would they ever go to a place that is frozen in the winter when they could be in the sun with girls in bikinis? Yes, you get your one-offs, but it is all positions talent and depth where the Big Ten has lost its prestige.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Steve. Bruce also told me the running back position is down in the Big Ten, and while I don't necessarily agree with him there, the number of elite QB-RB combinations might not be as high as it should be. The wide receiver spot certainly has been down in the league, and I would also look at cornerback as a weakness in recent years. Everyone points to defensive line play and says that's where the SEC has the advantage, but I look at the linemen the Big Ten has produced in recent years -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward, Jared Odrick etc. -- and don't see a massive shortage. Maybe there's not as much depth in the Big Ten as there is in the SEC, but I don't think there's a dearth at defensive line. Your last point is spot on. The issues go beyond just one position, and it's hard for the Big Ten to recruit overall rosters that can match the best teams from the SEC.




Brutus from the Ninth Circle writes: Hey Adam, have a question about Penn State. With the departure of Paul Jones, I'm beginning to think that there are 2 key things going on. First, [coach Bill] O'Brien knows that he has to get the scholarships down to a certain level and he has to "trim the fat," if that's the right phrase. Second, every team has under-performers, so they would be the first to go. It seems to me that BOB is cleaning house to get to the levels that he needs to be at, protecting the core players, and lightening the load with players that are less critical. Jones was the 3rd string quarterback and way down the list on TE. Seems like a good call to let Jones go. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, I don't think O'Brien is running players off from Penn State. I think he's being honest with them about their futures, and he didn't see a future for Jones at quarterback for the Lions. I believe O'Brien when he said he saw Jones as a contributor at tight end, but ultimately Jones wanted to play quarterback, as he tweeted Wednesday night, and he couldn't do that at Penn State. It's probably too soon to how Jones would have fared as a tight end for PSU, and there are quite a few players ahead of him at that spot. While I don't think O'Brien will lie awake at night thinking about how he could have kept Jones in State College, I don't think he's thrilled to see Jones leave. As O'Brien said Thursday night, Jones just needed a fresh start.




Dylan from Nebraska writes: Adam, Is there a Big 10 team that could, with some help, still contend for a national title? Would a 1-loss Nebraska, or Michigan St team make it? Would an undefeated Minny or Northwestern make it?

Adam Rittenberg: It's very hard to envision any Big Ten team taking the field in Miami on Jan. 7. The problem is the Big Ten didn't do much of anything in the first four weeks to justify having a 1-loss team make the title game ahead of comparable squads from other conferences. Between Minnesota and Northwestern, I'd say Northwestern would have the better chance because it has a slightly stronger strength of schedule than the Gophers do. And while I've been impressed at what both teams have done, there's little to believe either squad will run the table, especially in the tougher division (Legends). UCLA, which beat Nebraska, already has a home loss to Oregon State, pretty much eliminating the Huskers. Maybe if Notre Dame runs the table and so does Michigan State, there would be a slight, slight chance. But it's hard to see a national title game without featuring a team from the SEC, which has won the past six championships.




Jesse from Lansing writes: Adam -- Coach Kill seems to be a great fit for Minnesota right now. He doesn't reek of that used car salesman attitude (all talk-no walk) that [Tim] Brewster brought to the U. I am really enjoying his matter-of-fact, tough-love gotcha style and the fact that he's more focused on developing his players than the previous regime. Points also for the consistency brought on by his loyal coaching staff. Say Kill is able to build back this program in the next 3-4 years, what are the chances another BCS program lures away him away? I would like to think he's happy here and would stick around for a while. The U administration has been more than generous in providing him the resources he needs to get the job done as well as the time (7-year contract, I believe). Still, Bill Snyder can't stay at Kansas State forever, and being a native Kansan, that would be another opportunity for him to say retire close to home.

Adam Rittenberg: Jerry Kill might not have been Minnesota's first or second choice, but the guy looks like the right choice for a long-suffering Gophers program. He has definitely paid his dues in coaching at the lower rankings, and he doesn't take this opportunity for granted. That said, he obviously has ties to the Kansas area. Ideally, Kill would build up Minnesota's program enough so a move to Kansas State would be more lateral than an obvious step up. I don't get the sense he's a guy who wants to keep moving around every few years, but I doubt you're the only Gophers fan who made the connection to the K-State situation. Kill won't make any move until he feels like he has built up the program sufficiently, which likely is still a few more years away.




Nick from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Hi Adam. I am a die-hard, but very realistic Iowa Fan. Its probably taboo to make comparisons between the last 4 years of Hayden Fry's dismal career and where Kirk's career currently is. The reality is Hayden Fry recruiting significantly diminished after the Tavian Banks/Tim Dwight era which led to more losses. Ferentz had to completely rebuild Iowa. Over the last few years the talent, development has reduced with the losses increasing. Ferentz use to personally coach special teams and it showed. Since he stopped coaching them they have gone down hill ... quickly. I see him now more as a figure-head like Hayden Fry's last years. Do you see these comparisons as well? The angst is growing in Florida among the Iowa fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I can understand your frustration, and I doubt you're the only one making that comparison. While Iowa's program undoubtedly has lost momentum since 2009, I don't know if there has been a huge drop in talent. Iowa never was talented enough to overcome mistakes like running away from an onside kick or committing a dumb personal foul penalty in the closing seconds of a 2-point game. Most of Ferentz's teams have played smart, fundamentally sound football and often played above their collective talent level to win a lot of games. I don't think the 2012 Hawkeyes fit this description. It's fair to wonder if players are being developed as well as they used to in Iowa's program, but aside from a handful of recruiting classes (i.e. 2005), I haven't seen major differences in the types of players Iowa signs. I'm sure the facilities upgrades will help in recruiting, and I also think Ferentz has a lot left as a coach. But it's definitely a rough situation right now in Hawkeye Country.




Charlie from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, Just listened to your "Game of the Week" talk and noticed you said that Le'Veon Bell is the Big Ten's best running back. I think that's a little presumptuous to proclaim this early in the season. Based on a larger time scale (last year) and his performance in limited time this year, I'd still take Rex Burkhead. Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to pull out the Brian Bennett card and base everything you think, do, and say on "body of work." But, this isn't directly about body of work, it's who you think is best based on all past performances and projected future performances. Although Bell will unquestionably, unless he gets hurt, finish the year with more yards than Burkhead, don't you think Burkhead deserves just as much mention for the Big Ten's best running back?

Adam Rittenberg: Charlie, my comment pertained strictly to this season. No one would argue -- aside from a few Northwestern fans -- that Bell has been the Big Ten's best running back this season. We've barely seen Burkhead, and he could turn out to be the league's top back, but he hasn't been to date this season because of the knee injury. Burkhead's overall career has been more impressive than Bell's, but I think Bell has closed the gap -- more because of what he has done lately, not because of any shortcomings with Rex's game. I will say this: Le'Veon Bell projects better to the NFL than any back in the Big Ten, including Burkhead and Montee Ball. If he keeps this up, he could be a potential first-round pick in next year's draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season.




Dave from Denver writes: Does Schlabach get paid by the SEC too?

Adam Rittenberg: Only in joy.
Wisconsin's wish list for the 2012 season certainly starts with a capable and effective quarterback. But an elite pass-rusher might come next.

Although the Badgers' defense put up good numbers in 2011 -- ranking 15th nationally in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and fourth in pass defense -- it didn't put much heat on opposing quarterbacks (71st nationally in sacks). J.J. Watt certainly was missed. Watt had taken the baton from another top pass-rusher, O'Brien Schofield, following the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeDavid Gilbert
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's David Gilbert said he has a "passion" for putting heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Who can turn up the heat in Badger Country this fall? David Gilbert nominates ... himself.

"I always wanted to be a premier pass-rusher here," Gilbert told ESPN.com. "It's what I like to do. It's my passion. So I don't think I'll have any problems being that. That's what I bring to the team."

Wisconsin gladly would welcome it from a defensive end who may have been on his way to big things in 2011 before suffering a broken right foot in practice before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska. Gilbert had started each of Wisconsin's first four games and had recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

He tried to rush back in time for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl appearance, only to suffer a second break as well as nerve damage shortly before the team headed to Los Angeles. He initially scheduled surgery for March but decided against it, and has been rehabbing ever since.

"I'm 93 percent," Gilbert said, admitting the specific percentage is a self-diagnosis. "The X-rays are pretty positive, but you don't want to get a third break there. It's an easy injury to resurrect. I wouldn't run a shuttle to my right side. Lateral movement is my final test, so I'd say 93 percent.

"It's a learning process, but I'm definitely close at this point in my recovery."

The lengthy rehab and setbacks have taught Gilbert patience and the importance of communicating with his doctors and trainers. But his approach to the game hasn't changed.

He wants to make a splash on every snap, and compete with his teammates for big plays.

"If I make a play, I go up to whoever it is closest to me and they've got to make a play next," he said. "It's a competition between defensive players, how perfect we can be. I want them to make plays. Pass the juice. That's what it is: Pass the juice all game."

The "pass the juice" phrase comes from Gilbert's high school days in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We were all so greedy in high school," he said. "I had to find a way to phrase it. We were competing all the time for tackles. If anyone got four yards, we were pissed. We were coming for your head. We didn't want to give anyone anything. That was our mentality."

Gilbert hopes he can instill the mentality with Wisconsin's defense, which can trace its shortcomings to a handful of plays. The two long passes for touchdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State certainly stand out, but Oregon also gashed Wisconsin for touchdowns of 91, 64 and 54 yards in its Rose Bowl victory.

"When you play against a team that can get three good plays on you and win, that's going to fuel the mentality even more than you don't want to give anyone anything," Gilbert said. "A yard is too much. Zero yards is too much. We want negative yardage. That's the mentality I'm going to try to put with everyone on the defense.

"If you let up for one second …"

Wisconsin loses some key pieces on defense -- safety Aaron Henry, cornerback Antonio Fenelus, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym -- but it also regains the services of two defensive starters, Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith, who missed almost the entire 2011 season. Head coach Bret Bielema last month caused a stir when discussing Smith's value, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "If Devin Smith had played the entire year at the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would have lost."

Bielema feels similarly about Gilbert.

"There were two significant injuries for us last year, to David Gilbert and Devin Smith," Bielema told ESPN.com. "David has a chance physically to be a premier player in our league. He's really starting to come into his own.

"Hopefully, he'll be the backbone of a third straight [Big Ten] championship run this year."
MADISON, Wisc. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty Images"Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus ... " Bielema said.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."

Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.

They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.

"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."

Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.

"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."

What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.

"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."

Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.

"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."

Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."

That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

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

Take 1: Brian Bennett

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

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

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

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

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.
As both Wisconsin and Michigan State are finding out, the difficult step from good program to potential powerhouse must be taken in hostile territory.

Make no mistake: both programs have made significant strides in the past year and a half. They shared a Big Ten championship in 2010. They recently have put players on the national radar such as J.J. Watt, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Javon Ringer, Montee Ball and Greg Jones. They're both recruiting well and have coaches (Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio) who are unlikely to jump ship. Since the start of the 2010 season, neither team has lost a game in its own stadium.

But as we've seen the past two weeks, neither Wisconsin nor Michigan State has truly arrived. The reason: The Badgers and Spartans both struggle to win signature road games.

The issue seems more pronounced with Michigan State than Wisconsin -- more on that in a bit -- but it's separating these two programs from truly putting themselves in the upper echelon.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteWisconsin waged furious fourth-quarter comebacks in losses to MSU and OSU, but lost after giving up long pass plays in the final minute of each game.
The Spartans and Badgers are not alone in their struggles. Road wins against good teams have been especially hard to come by this season. Home teams are 18-8 in Big Ten play, and the only division title contender with a home defeat is Ohio State, which fell to Michigan State on Oct. 1.

"You know in this league you're going to go in and get punched in the mouth," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You better punch back."

Michigan State and Wisconsin must start punching back more often.

Wisconsin isn't far away from making the jump. The Badgers' past four losses -- three road, one at the Rose Bowl -- have come by only 22 points. Their only losses this season -- at Michigan State and at Ohio State -- ultimately resulted from allowing long pass plays in the final minute of the game. And in each contest, the Badgers rallied furiously in the fourth quarter, erasing deficits of 14 points at Michigan State and 12 points at Ohio State.

But the Badgers aren't doing the little things needed to beat good teams on the road. They had punts blocked in each of the games, leading to touchdowns for their opponents. They struggled to get off the field on defense, as MSU and OSU combined to convert 19 of 36 third-down attempts. They didn't control possession time and struggled on punt and kickoff coverage. And in crunch time, they either failed to execute on defense (Michigan State) or had a communication breakdown (Ohio State).

"Every year on the road, it's tough to get a win," Bielema said. "And if you inflict wounds on yourself, it's nearly impossible. We did too many things that cost us the game."

Wisconsin cleared some of its road hurdles in 2010, rallying to win at Iowa and beating Michigan in the Big House for the first time since 1994. The Badgers recorded three consecutive road wins in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006, Bielema's first season.

But in what many believed was Wisconsin's defining stretch of 2011, the Badgers came up short away from home. It cost them a potential shot at the national title and possibly more.

"It's not like we embarrassed ourselves the last two weeks," Bielema said Monday. "There's plenty of teams around the world of college football that were higher ranked than we were that got pounded pretty good by people that weren't ranked or weren't good teams. So I understand why people are upset. And, believe me, there's no one who will be more upset than me, but we didn't make a fool out of ourselves.

"We lost a couple of plays, a couple of games on the heartaches that will last for a lifetime."

Michigan State can't make the same claim about its struggles away from Sparta.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIn two road losses this season, Michigan State has been outscored 55-16.
The Spartans' two losses this season -- at Notre Dame and at Nebraska -- have come by a combined score of 55-16. Their two losses in 2010 -- one road, one at the Capital One Bowl -- came by a combined score of 86-13.

"That's one of the things we talked about ... if we're going to win the conference or have an opportunity to be close to it, we've got to go on the road and win," Dantonio said. "We have won 12 straight games here at home. We've not lost since '09 at home. So we're doing things pretty well here. ... But nevertheless, you've got to go on the road and win. It's a tough environment all over this conference, but you've got to embrace that and be successful there."

Like Wisconsin, Michigan State has taken some steps on the road. It clinched a share of the league title last November with its first win at Penn State since 1965 -- two years after falling to the Nittany Lions 49-18 in a game with similar implications. The win at Ohio State marked Michigan State's first in Columbus since 1998.

But the lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska signal Michigan State has a long way to go to be a consistently good road team.

"No matter where we play, no matter what stadium, what field, what fan base we have to go against, we still have to be willing to go up and step to the challenge and respond," Spartans defensive tackle Jerel Worthy told ESPN.com. "It's all about a mindset. We just have to go out there, quiet the crowd early and just play your brand of football."

Michigan State's brand this season has been outstanding defense. The Spartans rank in the top six nationally in points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Even in the two road losses, Worthy and his fellow defenders have performed well.

The Spartans' problems have come on offense. Michigan State has scored just 26 points and averaged just 288.6 yards on the road. The Spartans have committed six of their 11 turnovers in the three road contests.

It's no wonder Dantonio says his team must take a different mindset on the road -- "more of a defensive posture," he said.

"That's good for him to say," Worthy said. "It shows the confidence he has in our defense."

Of the top six Big Ten title contenders, Wisconsin and Michigan State have the most favorable remaining schedules. Both teams must go on the road twice, and while neither the Badgers nor Spartans face a ranked team away from home -- Wisconsin visits Minnesota and Illinois; Michigan State visits Iowa and Northwestern -- recent history shows they can't take any game for granted.

If both squads survive, they could reunite Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
You couldn't have scripted a much better Wisconsin debut for quarterback Russell Wilson.

The NC State transfer led eight Wisconsin possessions, all of which led to scores and seven of which ended in the UNLV end zone. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that would have been even better had he hit two open tight ends in the first half. And while Wilson showed mobility in the pocket and the ability to extend plays, he also took off twice, recording a 46-yard touchdown and a 16-yard scramble. With this offensive line, Wilson shouldn't hesitate to run the ball when he sees fit.

Although UNLV's defense is bad, Wilson's accuracy bodes well for Wisconsin, which figured to see a drop-off after losing Scott Tolzien (72.9 percent completions in 2010). The Badgers also had more explosion plays than I expected, especially with passes and long runs after catches by Montee Ball, James White and Bradie Ewing. Wilson definitely can check down the ball and expect big gains.

Wilson certainly earned the right to wear a headset before the end of the third quarter as Wisconsin cruised to a 51-17 win. Just a terrific debut for a guy who looks like an excellent fit for a Big Ten title contender.

The concerns for Wisconsin coming out of tonight's game rest with the defense. The Badgers struggled against the run in the first half and allowed two sustained touchdown drives after halftime. There didn't seem to be enough sustained aggressiveness.

The Badgers didn't have a shut-down defense in 2010, but they made big plays. Top playmaker J.J. Watt is gone, so who fills the void? Chris Borland would seem like the top choice, but he might not be as effective at middle linebacker than he was on the outside as a freshman in 2009. Wisconsin could really benefit from a lineman taking a big step like Watt and O'Brien Schofield did the past two seasons.

There's a lot of time to work things out on defense, and coordinator Chris Ash will demand a better effort when Oregon State comes to Madison on Sept. 10.

There will be games where Wisconsin needs quarterback Russell Wilson to be the difference maker.

This is not one of them.

Wilson has looked very solid in his debut, showing good mobility in the pocket and a strong arm on passes to his wide receivers. He ended a near spotless first half against UNLV with a career-long 46-yard touchdown sprint, displaying the new element he brings to an already powerful Wisconsin offense.

Still, the supporting cast, namely running back Montee Ball, stole the show as the 11th-ranked Badgers lead UNLV 37-3 at halftime. Wisconsin scored on all six of its first-half possessions as the offensive line mauled the Rebels.

Ball, who rushed for 777 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games last season, continues to produce at a high rate but looks like a new back, thanks to his slimmed-down frame. His improved stamina and desire to stay on the field showed after he took a short pass, raced 63 yards to the UNLV 3-yard line and then stayed in the game to score the ensuing touchdown. The junior racked up 129 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on 11 touches in the half, staking Bennett's fantasy team to an early lead.

One of my fantasy ream running backs, Wisconsin's James White, added 60 rush yards and a touchdown to go along with a 40-yard reception.

Neither Bennett or I drafted Wilson, which could be a mistake as the senior completed 8 of 11 pass attempts for 206 yards and a touchdown to go along with the rushing touchdown. Aside from two overthrows to open tight ends, Wilson looked terrific. Receivers Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis look like they're benefit a lot from having Wilson on the field.

UNLV isn't very good, and we might not get a true read on how strong the Badgers offense can be until Nebraska comes to Madison on Oct. 1. Oregon State provides a decent test next week.

If there's a concern for Wisconsin, it's a defense that allowed three strong UNLV drives and 105 rush yards. Although the defensive line stepped up late in the half, the Badgers clearly miss J.J. Watt and might need to get creative with how they blitz linebacker Chris Borland and others. It'll be interesting to see what coordinator Chris Ash dials up in the second half.

The outcome isn't in doubt, so we'll get to see plenty of personnel in the final 30 minutes.
The Big Ten produces plenty of good players each season, but only a select few make the jump from good to great.

Wisconsin's J.J. Watt was one of them in 2010.

Watt turned in a solid sophomore season in 2009, recording 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his first season as a starting defensive end for the Badgers. I ranked Watt at No. 25 in my preseason player countdown, viewing him as a good player with the potential to be great.

Few could have predicted how great Watt would be that following fall. He completed a meteoric rise by earning second-team All-America honors, made more impact plays than any Big Ten defender and finished the season with 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and nine passes deflected. He then became the first Big Ten player selected in April's NFL draft.

Who will be this season's J.J. Watt?

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
Kim Klement/US PresswirePenn State linebacker Michael Mauti has star potential, but has been sidetracked by injuries.
Here are five players who could take the step from good to great in 2011.

Penn State LB Michael Mauti: Hopes have been high for Mauti since he arrived in State College, and he has shown that when healthy, he can be a special player. After missing the 2009 season while recovering from a torn ACL, Mauti was hitting his stride last fall before a late-season shoulder injury. If he can stay on the field this fall, he should do big things as a leader for Penn State's defense.

Ohio State DL John Simon: Simon's teammates billed him as a future All-American as a freshman, and he could meet those expectations in 2011. He recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two pass deflections in his first season as a starter last fall. A weight-room superstar who's among the nation's strongest players, Simon can play either line spot and could see more time as an edge rusher this season.

Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: A jack of all trades in 2010, Burkhead is in line to emerge as Nebraska's featured running back this fall. Coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck have complete faith in the junior, who has grasped the new offense and comes off of a 951-yard rushing performance in 2010. Burkhead won't appear on our preseason top 25 player countdown, but he could be among the league's top 10 players by season's end.

Michigan DT Mike Martin: Martin has gained respect around the Big Ten without putting up monster numbers. His potential as a next-level player is obvious, and he could take a big step forward this season as Michigan revamps its defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. A starting nose tackle the past two seasons, Martin will be moved around more this season and should drop back in coverage from time to time. Expect many more impact plays from No. 68.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt came to Iowa as a quarterback but has settled in as a receiver, where he'll enter his third season as a starter this fall. With Derrell Johnson-Koulianos gone, McNutt becomes Iowa's clear No. 1 wideout. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior is a legit NFL prospect who stretches the field and makes plays in the red zone. He could be in the mix for national honors this season, especially if new quarterback James Vandenberg blossoms.
It's not all about the seniors in the Big Ten anymore.

The past four winners of the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year have been non-seniors, including sophomores in each of the past two seasons (Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Wisconsin RB John Clay). Two of the first three Big Ten players selected in April's NFL draft were defensive linemen with junior eligibility (Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Illinois' Corey Liuget).

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson passed for 2,570 yards and ran for 1,702 yards last season.
Wisconsin still touts as a developmental program but has produced the Big Ten Freshman of the Year the past two seasons (RB James White and LB Chris Borland). Other teams consistently produce non-senior stars.

With that in mind, let's take a look at three non-seniors to watch and three impact freshmen.

NON-SENIORS TO WATCH

1. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan, junior, 6 feet. 193: You couldn't take your eyes off of Robinson in 2010, particularly in September, when he was college football's most exciting player. The dynamic Wolverines quarterback now must transition to a new system that likely doesn't fit his skill set quite as well as the spread offense did. Will "Shoelace" reinvent himself or stumble? Find out this fall.

2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, junior, 5-11, 210: Although he'll share carries with another underclassman to watch, 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, Ball might have more Badgers fans buzzing. He was arguably the nation's hottest running back in the second half of last season, recording 777 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. Ball, who slimmed down during the offseason to increase his speed, could be Wisconsin's featured ball carrier.

3. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue, sophomore, 5-9, 176: Some of you might not have noticed Allen last season as Purdue struggled and wasn't relevant in November. Don't make the same mistake this fall, as Allen could be one of the nation's most dynamic defenders. He recorded three interceptions as a freshman, including two pick-sixes, and led the Big Ten with 129 interception return yards. Allen is fast, aggressive and not afraid of being physical with bigger receivers. Keep an eye on him in 2011.

IMPACT FRESHMEN

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, 6-3, 210: Miller's potential impact became a lot more interesting after Terrelle Pryor left the program June 7. After enrolling early and going through spring ball, Miller now has a chance to compete for the full-time starting position. The talent and athleticism are there, and if Miller shows he can grasp the system and separate himself in camp, he could lead Ohio State's offense Sept. 3 against Akron.

2. Tony Lippett, CB/WR, Michigan State, 6-2, 189: After redshirting in 2010, Lippett had a breakout spring and had coordinators Dan Roushar (offense) and Pat Narduzzi (defense) fighting over his services. Lippett plays cornerback and wide receiver but will start his career on the defensive side. He should get on the field in nickel and/or dime packages and could be a factor on special teams.

3. Jamal Turner, WR, Nebraska, 6-1, 180: Nebraska needs more options at receiver and Turner should work his way into the mix. The early enrollee who soon moved from quarterback to receiver sparkled in the spring game, racking up 228 all-purpose yards. Turner could join Brandon Kinnie as one of Nebraska's top wideouts, and he'll definitely be a factor in the return game.
Last year, Wisconsin and Ohio State met on an impeccable October night at Camp Randall Stadium in a game that ultimately decided the Big Ten’s automatic BCS bowl berth. This fall, a Leaders division title could be on the line as Wisconsin visits Columbus on the night of Oct. 29.

Wisconsin likely will enter the season as the Leaders division favorite, still riding the momentum from its Rose Bowl appearance. The Badgers boast a strong returning nucleus and added arguably the nation's top transfer in quarterback Russell Wilson.

A second consecutive Big Ten title could vault Wisconsin into ranks of the national elite and make the Badgers the team to beat in the Leaders division, especially if an Ohio State backslide is on the horizon. Ohio State, meanwhile, has no plans to lose its spot.

We should know a lot more about these Buckeyes when Wisconsin comes to town. NCAA penalties could be handed down by this date. Ohio State likely will have sorted out its quarterback situation, and the key players suspended at the start of the season will be back. Regardless of the challenges facing new coach Luke Fickell and his players, Ohio State is always dangerous particularly at home. The Buckeyes have lost only one Big Ten game at home in the past three seasons.

Like most teams, Wisconsin has struggled in Columbus, boasting a 7-28-3 mark at Ohio Stadium. Wilson's experience could help if he's the starting quarterback, but he'll be facing an always stout Ohio State defense that should have a rhythm after replacing seven starters. Wisconsin physically dominated Ohio State at the line of scrimmage in last year's 31-18 win, a night Buckeyes players surely haven't forgotten.

Ball-carriers for both teams will be on display as Wisconsin sends its star tandem of James White and Montee Ball against Ohio State's stable of backs. The Buckeyes won't have to deal with All-American J.J. Watt this year, so they'll look to create room for Dan Herron and others.

This game could signify a power balance shift in the Big Ten -- or reaffirm that things haven't changed.

Either way, it's one not to be missed.
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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