NCF Nation: Jeremiha Hunter
As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.
Away we go:
2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.
4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.
5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.
7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.
9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.
10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.
11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.
12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.
In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.
Let's start off with the Legends division.
Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.
Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.
Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.
Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.
Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.
Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.
Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.
Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.
Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.
Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.
Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.
Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.
Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.
Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.
Michigan State cornerback Chris L. Rucker went through warm-ups and looks ready to play. Wide receiver Keshawn Martin is in uniform, but will only play in emergency situations. Bennie Fowler and Mark Dell will handle punt returns.
Iowa linebackers Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiha Hunter also went through warm-ups, although it's likely that true freshman James Morris will get the nod at one of the linebacker spots.
Much more to come from Kinnick Stadium, so keep it right here.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes boast two of the Big Ten's top 10 linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and they also have good depth. Homan might have been the league's most underrated defender in 2009 after tying for fourth in the league in interceptions (five) and finishing eighth in tackles (8.3 per game). Rolle makes up for his lack of size with speed and explosiveness. Ohio State's supporting cast includes Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Dorian Bell and others.
2. Michigan State: Back-to-back Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones enters the season as the frontrunner to win the Butkus Award. But he's not alone on what should be a loaded linebacking corps. All-Big Ten candidate Eric Gordon has played a ton of football alongside Jones, and the coaches were pleased with Chris Norman this spring. Hopes are extremely high for true freshmen William Gholston, the Big Ten's top-rated recruit, and Max Bullough. It's clear to see why the Spartans are moving closer to the 3-4.
3. Wisconsin: Health remains a concern, as Mike Taylor's knee problems will linger and Chris Borland comes off of shoulder surgery, but Wisconsin has plenty of talent here. Borland is a rare, do-everything player who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. Taylor likely would have contended for the same award if not for a torn ACL against Iowa. The Badgers also bring back Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen.
4. Northwestern: As a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves the look of this group. Senior Quentin Davie is a bona fide NFL prospect who has consistently reached the offensive backfield throughout his career. Middle linebacker Nate Williams enters his third year as the starter, and the coaches have solid options in Bryce McNaul, Ben Johnson and David Nwabuisi. Fitzgerald says this is the most linebacker depth Northwestern has had in his tenure.
5 (tie). Iowa and Penn State: These teams combine to lose five All-Big Ten 'backers from 2009, including first-team selections Pat Angerer (Iowa) and Navorro Bowman (Penn State). But both have historically reloaded at linebacker, and this year should be no different. Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter returns for his third year as a starter, and Jeff Tarpinian and Tyler Nielsen are primed for bigger roles. Troy Johnson and Bruce Davis are two other names to watch, and hopes are high for freshman James Morris. Penn State loses all three starters, but Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu have played a lot of football. Michael Mauti's return from an ACL injury and Penn State's strong recruiting at linebacker also elevate hope for the group.
Next up: Secondary
More rankings ...
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten schedule-makers haven't been particularly kind to Iowa the last decade or so, and they saved the biggest challenge for 2009.
In Kirk Ferentz's 11 seasons as Hawkeyes head coach, Iowa has started Big Ten play on the road nine times. Ferentz jokingly calls the road openers a tradition, though he wouldn't mind breaking it after all these years.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz' Hawkeyes impressed in their first conference match up of the season.|
The trips haven't been easy. Iowa opened at No. 18 Michigan in 2004, at No. 8 Ohio State in 2005 and at No. 9 Wisconsin in 2007. This season's Big Ten opener called for a visit to No. 5 Penn State.
So how did the Hawkeyes respond to their latest league-opening road test? By sending a message to the schedule-makers and the rest of the Big Ten.
Bring. It. On.
"It really gives us a lot of confidence," running back Adam Robinson said after Iowa's 21-10 victory at Beaver Stadium. "We know we're a team who makes a lot of mistakes, but we correct those mistakes from week to week. And we know if we play together, we can compete with anybody."
In the short term, the "who" mattered most for Iowa on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes took down a top 5 team and vaulted from unranked to No. 13 nationally.
In the long term, the "where" and the "how" will truly serve Iowa as it aims for a Big Ten title, and possibly more. Penn State had lost only two home games since 2004, both to top 5 opponents (Michigan and Ohio State).
Nittany Lions fans turned out in force for the Whitehouse, many wearing T-shirts with Iowa crossed out and the message "Pay Backs Are Hell," a reference to last year's Iowa victory at Kinnick Stadium. If the noise wasn't bad enough, Iowa had to contend with nasty weather throughout the game.
"It was a great football environment," Ferentz said. "We knew it would be. We asked our team to enjoy that, too. This is pretty rare and pretty unique, so if you like football at all, that's got to get your blood going.
"This is what football is all about, a great football crowd, a great football tradition here. If that doesn't bring out the best in you, maybe you shouldn't be playing."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- You're not supposed to get a block in punt safe.
The very nature of the coverage scheme calls for the receiving team to set up its blocking and ensure a quality return. The punter doesn't get all day back there, and a handful of players are sent blitzing toward him, but no one ever expects a block.
Fortunately for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Adrian Clayborn doesn't think this way.
|Don McPeak/US Presswire|
|Iowa's Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown.|
"They teach us to go hard every play because you never know what's going to happen," the Iowa junior defensive end said. "If I didn't go hard that play, who knows the outcome?"
If Clayborn doesn't go hard, Iowa might not secure a 21-10 win against Penn State. If Clayborn doesn't go hard, the Hawkeyes might not be a legit Big Ten title contender.
If Clayborn doesn't go hard, Iowa might not notch a defining road win against a top-5 team, the program's first since 1990 against Illinois.
"For some reason, I was confused," Hawkeyes wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said. "I'm like, 'Is this happening?' It didn't seem like it was supposed to happen."
It wasn't, but it did, and Clayborn's punt block early in the fourth quarter totally changed the complexion of the game. For the second time in this young season, special teams helped secure a victory.
But unlike the season opener, in which Iowa needed two blocked field goals to survive a scare from FCS Northern Iowa, Clayborn's block made a national statement that these Hawkeyes are for real.
"It was just a great play," running back Adam Robinson said. "From that point, our team was a different team."
Iowa's coaches teach their players to go "six seconds of Hell on every snap." As Clayborn lined up for the Penn State punt, he decided to make things hellish for Nittany Lions safety Nick Sukay.
Darrell Wilson, Iowa's linebackers and co-special teams coach, told Clayborn that Sukay lined up deep, giving the rushers a chance to penetrate. Clayborn capitalized and bulldozed Sukay, leaving punter Jeremy Boone like an unprotected king on the chessboard.
The only thing better than the block was the bounce, which went right to Clayborn.
"I honestly don't remember catching it," he said. "I remember being in the end zone with people trying to tackle me."
Clayborn's 53-yard path to the end zone felt like a blur. Looked like one, too.
"I've never seen a play like that by a big guy," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
"He's a monster," linebacker Jeremiha Hunter said.
Clayborn blocked a field goal as a redshirt freshman in 2007, but he hadn't scored a touchdown since his high school days in St. Louis, when he played both linebacker and tight end.
"That was 40 pounds ago," Clayborn joked.
The extra bulk has served the 282-pound Clayborn well, especially in big games. He set the tone for last year's win against Penn State by sacking quarterback Daryll Clark near the goal line and forcing a fumble on the third play of the game. Clayborn had six tackles, two for loss, in the win.
After a slow start against Northern Iowa, he picked things up last week with a forced fumble, a sack and three quarterback hurries in a win over Arizona.
"He's our undisputed leader right now," defensive tackle Christian Ballard said. "We all rally around him. He's the general for the D-line. We look for him to get us going when we're down."
Clayborn provided the lift Iowa needed, though the magnitude of the moment didn't hit him after the game ended.
"Me, I'm still soaking it in," he said. "It's a huge win for our team, the state of Iowa, everybody. We're enjoying it. We're just a little shocked, and glad we pulled it out."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Scott A. Miller/US Presswire|
|Shonn Greene rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns in Thursday's victory.|
Shonn Greene might be gone to the NFL, but Iowa football is definitely back.
After three middling seasons, Iowa has restored its place among the Big Ten's elite by winning six of its final seven games to close the season. The Hawkeyes (9-4) took care of business today in the Outback Bowl, stomping a bad South Carolina team 31-10 to give the Big Ten its first bowl victory of the season.
These two teams entered the game going in opposite directions, and Iowa did what it was supposed to do: Pound away with Greene and force mistakes from a shaky Gamecocks offense. If this was Greene's final collegiate game -- and from what I've heard, it will be -- the burly junior went out with a trademark performance, rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.
Looking back at recent seasons, there certainly were flashier backs or ones with better numbers, but I can't remember a guy coming off a season away from football to completely dominate his position the way Greene did this fall. He was truly a joy to watch.
Things came together perfectly for Iowa, which started the season 3-3 and turned up the heat on head coach Kirk Ferentz and his coordinators. The Hawkeyes notched a program-changing upset of Penn State on Nov. 8, crushed archrival Minnesota, 55-0, and leapfrogged Northwestern for the Outback Bowl. Honestly, it would have been nice to see the white-hot Hawkeyes face a more formidable opponent. South Carolina was in a giving mood today, committing five turnovers and 10 penalties in an unsightly loss.
Iowa's defense forces a ton of turnovers, and South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia played right into the Hawkeyes' hands with three interceptions. I'm continually impressed with the development of Iowa's underclassmen on defense, particularly Tyler Sash, Pat Angerer, Amari Spievey and Jeremiha Hunter, who laid a filthy hit on a South Carolina ball carrier early in the second half.
Greene would certainly be a big loss, but freshman Jewel Hampton looks more than capable of stepping up as the starter in 2009. Hampton isn't afraid of contact, as he showed on a near touchdown run in the third quarter. Though quarterback Ricky Stanzi needs to cut down his interceptions -- his two picks today didn't prove costly -- Iowa's offense should be fine. The defense, meanwhile, will be one of the Big Ten's best if Iowa finds replacement for star defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
The big question in the coming days involves Ferentz, who has been linked to the Cleveland Browns head-coaching vacancy. If the Browns hire Ferentz's good buddy Scott Pioli, Iowa might be looking for a new coach.