NCF Nation: John Moffitt

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."
My apologies for posting these a day late -- blame it on Russell Wilson -- but it's time to break down the Big Ten offensive linemen entering the 2011 season.

Rather than list the top 10 across the three position groups, I've decided to go a different route: top five players at each spot. Despite losing standout linemen like Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, the Big Ten returns several of the nation's top players at their positions.

Center might be the Big Ten's deepest position, while the league also boasts several standout tackles. The guard spot is a bit thin.

Let's take a look.

CENTER

Michael Brewster
Greg Bartram/US PresswireMichael Brewster may be the best center in the country.
1. Michael Brewster, Ohio State, senior -- Brewster enters the season as the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. He has started each of the past three seasons and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. Boasting 36 career starts, Brewster could be the top center selected in next April's NFL draft.

2. David Molk, Michigan, senior -- Molk is right up there with Brewster among the nation's truly elite centers. If not for some injury trouble, he could be at the top of the list. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in 2010 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy. Molk has made 29 career starts and displays top-notch blocking skills and leadership.

3. Peter Konz, Wisconsin, junior -- Konz is a big reason why Wisconsin's line shouldn't take a step back despite losing Carimi, Moffitt and Bill Nagy. He has made 20 starts at center in the past two seasons and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. After missing most of spring practice with an ankle injury, Konz's health this fall is a big key for Wisconsin.

4. Mike Caputo, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers' line has a few question marks entering the season, but center isn't one of them. Caputo is the undisputed leader of the group after starting every game in 2010. The former walk-on earned consensus honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and helped Nebraska eclipse 200 rushing yards in 10 of 14 games.

T-5. James Ferentz, Iowa, junior: Ferentz has emerged as an All-Big Ten caliber lineman and will lead one of the league's better groups this season. He started every game in 2010 and showed impressive durability, playing every offensive down in nine contests. Iowa needs an elite offensive line this season, and Ferentz will be leading the charge.

T-5. Graham Pocic, Illinois, junior: Along with Jeff Allen and others, Pocic leads an Illinois line that punished opponents at times last season. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter. Pocic solidified a line that helped Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank 11th nationally (246.1 ypg).

TACKLE

1. Riley Reiff, Iowa, junior: Reiff has put himself in position to become the next truly great Hawkeyes offensive lineman. He started every game in 2010 and 11 of 13 contests in 2009, earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. Already projected as a potential top-15 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Reiff should be in the mix for the Outland Trophy as he anchors the Iowa line.

2. Mike Adams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes will be counting the days until Adams returns from his suspension to open the season. After some ups and downs early in his career, Adams blossomed last season and started to meet the lofty expectations placed on him coming out of high school. He earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. If not for the five-game suspension, he would be a top contender for the Outland Trophy.

3. Jeff Allen, Illinois, senior: One of the league's best and most experienced offensive linemen, Allen will lead a strong Illini line this fall. He has started 34 games in his first three seasons at Illinois, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last fall. Allen is a bona fide NFL prospect who should challenge players like Brewster, Molk and Reiff for Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors.

4. Al Netter, Northwestern, senior: Besides star quarterback Dan Persa, Netter is the only player coach Pat Fitzgerald considers an undisputed starter entering the fall. Perhaps it's because Netter has started each of the past 39 games. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 and should be primed for a big senior season. Northwestern needs him to help spark its rushing attack.

5. Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin, junior: We'll get a full read on Wagner after he switches from right tackle to the left side to replace Carimi, but the expectations are high. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 after stepping in for the injured Josh Oglesby at right tackle. Wisconsin really likes Wagner's potential, and he'll have a chance to blossom at the more prestigious tackle position.

GUARD

1. Joel Foreman, Michigan State, senior: An easy pick here as Foreman enters the season as one of the nation's top left guards. He has earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and started 36 games at left guard, including each of the past 22. Offensive line is a huge question mark for the Spartans, so Foreman's play will be huge.

2. Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, senior: Zeitler will be a leader this fall for a Wisconsin line looking to continue its tradition of excellence. He has started 22 games at right guard in each of the past two seasons and helped Wisconsin rank among the nation's top rushing offenses. Zeitler earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Hugh Thornton, Illinois, junior: Thornton has played a lot of football in his first two seasons and could take another step in his development this fall. He started eight games at weak-side guard in 2010 after starting seven games at tackle in 2009. Illinois expects the offensive line to be its strength, and Thornton is a big part of the group.

4. Ken Plue, Purdue, senior: This pick is a bit risky after Plue worked his way into the coaches' dog house in spring practice. But he has the size, the skills and the experience (28 starts) to become one of the Big Ten's top guards this fall. If the 6-7, 358-pound Plue can work out his issues, look out for him and the Boilers.

5. Patrick Omameh, Michigan, junior: After starting all 13 games for a record-setting offense in 2010, Omameh is a reason why hopes are high for the Wolverines offensive line. He has started 16 consecutive games and has the ability to contend for All-Big honors. Omameh must get a little more consistent this fall, but I like how he projects for 2011.
The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin loves to describe its program as "not sexy," but the label is becoming less and less accurate.

After the Badgers made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, nine members of coach Bret Bielema's staff received inquiries from other teams. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren landed the head-coaching job at Northern Illinois. Two assistants, John Settle and Greg Jackson, left for posts in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst turned down a lucrative coordinator offer from Texas to remain with his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Bret Bielema leads a Wisconsin program that has churned out a lot of elite players in recent seasons.
The inquiries also are coming Wisconsin's way, as decorated recruits from "coast to coast" -- particularly running backs and offensive linemen, two position groups where the Badgers have flourished -- express interest in the program.

"They're getting recruited by heavy, heavy people in their area," Bielema said. "We haven't had that number of people respond from outside our area."

Wisconsin is pushing for a $76.8 million athletic performance center that would include new locker rooms and training facilities and an upgrade for the McClain Center, the team's indoor practice facility. Although Wisconsin has remained in the top half of the Big Ten on the field, it needs a boost with its facilities.

So, is Wisconsin bringing sexy back? Perhaps on the surface, but the program hasn't changed at its core.

"The only reason we're at the level we're at is because we maximize what we are," Bielema said. "Our staff, our players and our administration recognizes why we've had this success and not to deviate from that plan just because there might be better things out there.

"We're going to build this new facility, but bigger isn't always better. It's about the components and how functional it is and what it stands for."

The Wisconsin Way will be put to the test in 2011 as the Badgers lose more standout components than any other Big Ten squad. Gone are four All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt -- the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award winner in quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back John Clay, and other key contributors.

Other than Ohio State, every Big Ten team has struggled to reload in recent years. Can the Badgers buck the trend in 2011?

"Here, we really have to develop our players where they're really good their last 2-3 years," co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "We feel like this is a developmental program, and we're proud of that."

No position group better demonstrates the philosophy than the defensive ends Partridge coaches.

In 2009, O'Brien Schofield went from anonymous to first-team All-Big Ten, finishing second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for sixth in sacks. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and finished it as one of the nation's best defenders. He's projected as a first-round pick in this week's NFL draft and could be the first Big Ten player selected.

There are other examples of Badger reloading. Wisconsin has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons. Carimi and his predecessor at left tackle, Joe Thomas, both won the Outland Trophy as seniors.

"People from the outside looking in, they've never heard of these names so they assume they're not any good," Bielema said. "We try to have people waiting in the wings. I remember when no one knew who Lance Kendricks was, or Gabe Carimi, or John Moffitt or Scott Tolzien or J.J. Watt. We were able to develop those guys, bring them through and the results were what you saw last year.

"It's our desire to have a championship every season, but sometimes you're not going to have the personnel to accomplish that. What you want to do is remain competitive, stay in the top level of our conference."

Bielema thinks Wisconsin has a chance to be just as good on defense.

Although Watt leaves a major void, the Badgers boast unprecedented depth at defensive tackle and more overall depth along the line. The secondary returns All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, playmaking safety Aaron Henry and others with experience. If linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy after missing most of 2010 with shoulder injuries, the midsection will be solid.

Leadership shouldn't be an issue as both Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym are stepping forward.

"I'm sure a lot of people out there are counting us out," Henry said. "I could care less about flying under the radar. I just want guys to go out there every week and leave a statement, that we are Wisconsin football, we do play hard-nosed football and we're going to play every snap like its our last."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRunning back Montee Ball, 28, returns to a talented Wisconsin backfield along with speedy James White.
The bigger questions come on offense, starting with the most important position on the field. Jon Budmayr understudied for Tolzien in 2010 and, barring a major surprise, will move into the starting role. Budmayr, who had his ups and downs this spring, must not only display efficiency but remain healthy as there's no proven depth behind him.

Wisconsin once again will lean on a run game expected to be among the nation's best as backs Montee Ball and James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, both return. Although three starting linemen depart, the coaches are excited about who will fill the gaps.

"There's questions for any team, what they can and cannot do," Ball said. "That's why we keep grinding every day so we can show everybody what we're capable of doing."

At Wisconsin, there's no other way. The Badgers aren't a team that can simply show up and win, a fact reinforced last season.

"The thing we did best was we practiced so well during the week," Butrym said. "The one time we didn't practice well was [before the Michigan State game]. It was a Thursday and it was very sloppy and the end result of that was a loss."

Butrym admits the poor practice made him "a little paranoid" about sniffing out signs of complacency. So far, the attitude is good.

"We definitely have to earn it," Henry said. "Ohio State's still in the conference, we added Nebraska, Iowa's still in the conference. Guys know nothing's going to be handed to us."

Checking in on the Badgers ...

April, 19, 2011
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MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from Madtown, where it feels more like late fall than late April. Snow is in the forecast. Badger weather.

I'll be spending the day with coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers, who come off of their first Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. Wisconsin came up short in Pasadena, a loss that likely still stings around here, but it's time to turn the page.

We'll find out a lot about the Wisconsin program this coming season. No Big Ten team loses more star players than the Badgers, who say goodbye to five All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks, tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and running back John Clay -- in addition to quarterback Scott Tolzien and other standouts. While Wisconsin has proved it can mass-produce running backs and offensive linemen, the team must show it can continue making strides despite the lost production. Bielema and his staff have recruited well as of late, and their player development skills will be put to the test.

Here are some of the items I'll be tracking today:
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr's spring progress. After backing up Tolzien last season, Budmayr seems to have the inside track for the starting job. Curt Phillips is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Joe Brennan has no game experience. Is Budmayr separating himself? If not, what does he need to improve?
  • Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but the Badgers became a big-play unit and no one made more plays than Watt. Chris Ash takes over as coordinator after upgrading the secondary in his first season with the Badgers. He's looking for contributors this spring. Wisconsin should be solid in the secondary with Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith, but it needs to replace two starting linebackers and Watt, of course. I've heard a lot about the Trotter twins (Michael and Marcus) this spring. How do they factor in the mix and who else is stepping up?
  • Like most teams, the Badgers have been at their best when they boast strong leaders. They lose quite a few from the 2010 team, and it'll be interesting to see who is answering the bell along both lines, at linebacker and at the quarterback spot.
  • Despite losing Clay and three starting offensive linemen, Wisconsin's run game should once again be scary good this fall. No Big Ten player improved more throughout the season than Montee Ball, and Wisconsin also returns reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White. Fifth-year senior Zach Brown also has re-entered the mix. It'll be good to check in with the backs and see how they're doing this spring.

More to come from Badger country. Stay tuned.
There's little doubt that the first Big Ten player drafted in April will be a defensive lineman.

(Not including Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played his entire career in the Big 12.)

Who will hear his name called first? Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan? Illinois' Corey Liuget? Iowa's Adrian Clayborn? Ohio State's Cameron Heyward?

I'll have more on the hopefuls as we get closer to draft night, but colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are always dissecting the draft and have come out with their latest three-round mock selections.

Here's McShay's mock draft and where the Big Ten players fall:

First round
  • Illinois DT Corey Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, No. 16 overall to Jacksonville
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, No. 17 overall to New England
  • Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi, No. 21 overall to Kansas City
  • Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 24 overall to New Orleans
  • Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, No. 32 overall to Green Bay
Second round
Third round

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft and where the Big Ten prospects fall:

First round
  • Watt, No. 10 overall to Washington
  • Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Kerrigan, No. 20 overall to Tampa Bay
  • Carimi, No. 23 overall to Philadelphia
  • Clayborn, No. 27 overall to Atlanta
  • Heyward, No. 30 overall to New York Jets
Second round
  • Wilson, No. 34 overall to Buffalo
  • Leshoure, No. 53 overall to Indianapolis
  • Doss, No. 64 overall to Green Bay
Third round
  • Ballard, No. 67 overall to Denver
  • Kendricks, No. 68 overall to Buffalo
  • Moffitt, No. 77 overall to Tennessee
  • Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, No. 81 overall to Oakland
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, No. 85 overall to Philadelphia
  • Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, No. 93 to Chicago

Some interesting stuff here. Both McShay and Kiper think the Colts' Big Ten pipeline will continue, and both also like Buffalo to draft Big Ten players. Kiper includes three players McShay leaves out -- Chekwa, Homan and Wisniewski -- while McShay includes one player (Brewer) who Kiper leaves out. It also stands out how teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have more high-level draft prospects this year than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.

Amukamara is the only Nebraska player included in both mock drafts. Both McShay and Kiper have Amukamara going 13th overall to Detroit, where he'll reunite with former Huskers' teammate Ndamukong Suh.

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;
Spring practice is creeping closer, and Purdue will hit the field in less than two weeks (March 1 to be exact) for the first of its 15 workouts.

Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
  • Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
  • Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19

What to watch:
  • Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
  • Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
  • Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
  • Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
  • Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
  • Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
  • Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
  • Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
  • The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
  • The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
  • New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
  • Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.
I'm following the excellent lead of colleague David Ubben and connecting present to past with this post.

[+] EnlargeMikel Leshoure
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicIllinois running back Mikel Leshoure was an unranked recruit coming out of high school.
As many of you know, I look at most recruiting rankings with skeptical eyes. Sure, a portion of highly rated incoming recruits meet expectations, but many do not. Recruiting matters, but coaching and development matters more, especially in a league like the Big Ten.

National Signing Day is just around the corner, so to get ready, let's take a look at my 2010 All-Big Ten team and how the players ranked as recruits.

I used ESPN Recruiting rankings, which listed several players at different positions coming out of high school. Here's a look at the star grading.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan --ESPNU 150 selection, four stars, No. 7 athlete, No. 101 overall player in 2009 class
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois -- Unranked in 2008 class
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State -- ESPNU 150 selection, four stars, No. 11 running back, No. 112 overall player in 2009 class
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State -- Two stars, No. 168 receiver in 2007 class
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern -- Two stars, No. 187 receiver in 2008 class
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin -- ESPNU 150 selection, four stars, No. 16 wide receiver, No. 107 overall player in 2006 class
C: David Molk, Michigan -- Three stars, No. 6 center in 2008 class
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin -- Unranked in 2006 class
T: Mike Adams, Ohio State -- ESPNU 150 selection, four stars, No. 8 offensive tackle, No. 88 overall player in 2008 class
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin -- Unranked in 2006 class
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State -- ESPNU 150 selection, three stars, No. 4 center, No. 131 overall player in 2007 class

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue -- Two stars, No. 72 defensive end in 2007 class
DL: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin -- One star, No. 172 defensive end in 2007 class (signed with Central Michigan)
DT: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa -- Four stars, No. 9 inside linebacker in 2006 class
DL: Corey Liuget, Illinois -- Three stars, No. 17 defensive end in 2008 class
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State -- Two stars, No. 101 defensive end in 2007 class
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois -- ESPNU 150 selection, five stars, No. 1 defensive end, No. 5 overall player in 2007 class
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State -- One star, No. 110 inside linebacker in 2007 class
DB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State -- Two stars, No. 73 cornerback in 2006 class
DB: Tyler Sash, Iowa -- Two stars, No. 165 running back in 2007 class
DB: Jermale Hines, Ohio State -- Three stars, No. 9 outside linebacker in 2007 class
DB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue -- Three stars, No. 50 cornerback in 2010 class

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois -- Unranked in 2008 class
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State -- Unranked in 2007 class
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- Three stars, No. 44 athlete in 2008 class
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State -- Unranked in 2008 class

There certainly were a lot of steals throughout the Big Ten, and Illinois' Leshoure might have been the biggest one of all. Wisconsin did an incredible job of developing players like Carimi, Moffitt and Watt. Although Adams came in with plenty of hype, Ohio State's other selections all exceeded expectations. Michigan State certainly got a lot out of Jones, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders in recent memory.

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Senior Big Ten team

January, 24, 2011
1/24/11
5:00
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As we gear up for the Senior Bowl, I wanted to piggyback off of an excellent post by colleague Chris Low from last week.

It's time to identify an All-Big Ten team comprised only of seniors. There were easy picks like Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, but several positions created some tough choices.

Reminder: This team includes only fourth-year or fifth-year seniors, not redshirt juniors.

Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.

In case you forgot, my All-Big Ten team included only 12 seniors, all of whom will appear below. I also selected 14 underclassmen.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: Dan Dierking, Purdue
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: Bill Nagy, Wisconsin
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
[+] EnlargeEric Gordon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEric Gordon narrowly edged out Ross Homan for a spot on the All-Senior Big Ten team.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DL: Karl Klug, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Chris L. Rucker, Michigan State
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
S: Brett Greenwood, Iowa

SPECIALISTS

K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Returns: David Gilreath, Wisconsin

Some thoughts:

  • I really struggled with the quarterback spot. Tolzien ultimately made fewer mistakes than Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who had superior statistics and had fewer weapons surrounding him. You can make a good case for Stanzi or Indiana's Ben Chappell, but Tolzien gets a slight edge.
  • No disrespect to Royster or Dierking, but the Big Ten really struggled to produce many decent senior running backs this season. Perhaps that's a promising sign for the future, but typically there are more experienced ball-carrying options. Royster was the only senior ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 rushers. I thought about Ohio State's Brandon Saine, but Dierking did more as a ball carrier.
  • The No. 3 linebacker was a really tough call between Gordon and Ohio State's Ross Homan. Ultimately, Homan missing time with a foot injury and Gordon displaying remarkable consistency alongside Greg Jones made Gordo the pick.
  • Another tough call was DJK ahead of Indiana's Terrance Turner, who had 21 more receptions but fewer yards and seven fewer touchdown catches.
  • The deepest position among Big Ten seniors (by far): offensive guard. I went with Moffitt and Carimi, but players like Ohio State's Justin Boren, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Iowa's Julian Vandervelde and Illinois' Randall Hunt all were good options.
  • Five teams didn't produce selections: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern. Is that a good omen or a bad one for 2011?
Selections by team: Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (5), Michigan State (5), Iowa (4), Penn State (3), Purdue (2)
PASADENA, Calif. -- Wisconsin finally got it rolling midway through the fourth quarter.

Trailing TCU 21-13 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, the Badger battering ram kicked into high gear.

John Clay ran for 14 yards. Then he ran for 30 more. After a nifty throw from Scott Tolzien to Lance Kendricks picked up 10 yards on third-and-6, the Badgers got back to their bread and butter.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Jae C. HongQuarterback Scott Tolzien and Wisconsin could not get going offensively against TCU.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.

Touchdown.

Had Wisconsin finally rediscovered who it is and why it got here?

"I'd like to think so," senior guard John Moffitt said. "But it wasn't who we were today. And that's all that matters."

Wisconsin's run-heavy, clock-eating drive at the end of Saturday's game was the exception rather than the rule. Too often the Badgers strayed from what had made them Big Ten champions, and it cost them in a 21-19 loss to TCU.

"We were doing some uncharacteristic things," said running back Montee Ball, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown. "Twenty yards going in, we score seven points. We don't get penalties, and we did today. We wasted our timeouts because we had the wrong information in there.

"We were most definitely not playing Wisconsin football, and that's how you lose football games."

There were moments and even stretches where Wisconsin appeared to establish its identity Saturday. But it never lasted.

Ball began the game with a major statement, dashing 40 yards through a huge hole on the right side of the line. But the drive stalled in the red zone on a dropped pass by Nick Toon, and Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal.

Toward the end of the first half, Wisconsin converted a fourth down on a fake punt and twice moved the chains on third-and-long to reach TCU territory. But again, they had to settle for a field goal.

And then there was the game's defining play, which followed Wisconsin's defining drive. Rather than stick with the run on the potential tying 2-point conversion attempt, the Badgers went to the air. Tight end Jacob Pedersen found space in the end zone, but TCU's Tank Carder swatted away Tolzien's pass.

"That was something we saw on film, and obviously the guy was open," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But you've got to get the defender's hands down in that situation. Hindsight is 20/20. I felt confident with the call, [offensive coordinator Paul Chryst] felt confident, and we went with it."

Not surprisingly, Tolzien concurred and saw what he needed to see.

"It looked like a zero blitz, they were bringing everyone and just playing man," Tolzien said. "I wouldn't change a thing. We had a guy open, and their guy tipped it, plain and simple."

TCU linebacker Tanner Brock was surprised to see Tolzien line up in the shotgun after the previous drive, which featured runs on nine of 10 plays.

"A little bit [surprised]," Brock said, "because that's not really Wisconsin."

Wisconsin reached the Rose Bowl primarily because of its offense, a unit that averaged a team-record 45.2 points in Big Ten play. The Badgers racked up 201 points in their final three regular-season games and scored 31 points or more in their final seven games. Saturday, they became the first team in FBS history to produce three 1,000-yard running backs in a season.

This offense ran the ball at will, executed in the play-action pass game and reached the end zone 63 times. Most important, Wisconsin didn't beat itself, leading the nation in fewest turnovers (9) and fewest penalties per game (2.92).

Although the Badgers didn't cough up the ball, they committed a season-high six penalties. They also allowed two sacks and seven tackles for loss, above their season averages.

"There's three things we did really well this year: assignment sound, low penalties and low turnovers," left tackle Gabe Carimi said. "Those first two, we didn't do as well as we have been in the past."

Wisconsin reached TCU territory on each of its first five possessions but had only 13 points to show for it. Field position certainly played a role, and Wisconsin struggled to make big plays outside of its first and last drives.

Although the Badgers ran the ball more than twice as many times (46) as they passed it (21), they went to the air at some curious times, like on first-and-10 from their own 3-yard line late in the third quarter. Wisconsin had benefited from shaking things up at times this season; it ran four consecutive pass plays against Ohio State during a fourth-quarter scoring drive in a 31-18 win.

But TCU never consistently stopped Ball, Clay and James White between the tackles.

What the Horned Frogs did was keep Wisconsin out of the end zone.

"You realize that you only have so many opportunities," Moffitt said. "And every drive that doesn't end in the score is a missed opportunity. We missed a lot of opportunities today."

It's what made the loss so tough to take.

"The shame of it is we left opportunities on the field," Tolzien said. "You don't want to live games and you don't want to live life with regrets. We had some of those today."
LOS ANGELES -- At some point on the night of April 28, Gabe Carimi will hear his name called in New York's Radio City Music Hall.

Carimi will collect a bunch of money, a new address and countless other perks that go along with being a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireGabe Carimi anchors Wisconsin's stellar offensive line.
But he'll also lose something that night. Carimi will never be a part of an offensive line like the one he anchors at Wisconsin.

"It won’t happen again," he said. "I was guaranteed to be with these people for five years. How it is with the next level, people get traded and stuff, so I'll never have that tight bond that we have here."

Like all great offensive lines, Wisconsin's group aces the chemistry test. The Badgers' linemen not only have worked together for years on the field, but they enjoy each other's company away from it.

The physical gifts are also there. Wisconsin's size up front is well documented -- its top six linemen average 319.7 pounds; center Peter Konz is the runt at 313 -- and the line's athleticism is significantly underrated.

But the line's best trait is its work ethic. Rarely does a unit enter the season tagged as the nation's best and exit the season with the same label. Preseason hype and offensive linemen mix about as well as garden salad and offensive linemen, but Wisconsin's players were well aware of the expectations.

But the talk didn't deter them from the action it took to be great.

"It comes down to the performance on the field," Badgers O-line coach Bob Bostad said. "It comes down to your work ethic, how hard you’re straining. Are you doing those things? Are you executing?

"Talking and all those things, that's great, but go out there and do it on the field."

Wisconsin's offensive line made its biggest statements between the lines in helping the team reach the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

No offensive line in America has credentials like Wisconsin's:

  • The line blocked for three 800-yard running backs, the most in the nation this season.
  • Wisconsin ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring (T-4th, 43.3 ppg); red zone touchdowns (2nd, 80 percent); fewest penalties (1st, 2.9 per game); fifth in red zone scoring (5th, 90.8 percent); third-down conversions (8th, 50.8 percent); possession time (7th, 32:39 average); rushing touchdowns (2nd, 46); and rush yards per carry (8th, 5.52 ypc).
  • The Badgers averaged 45.2 points in Big Ten play, the second-highest mark in league history.
  • Wisconsin attempted just one pass after halftime against Michigan and finished off a 48-28 win with 29 consecutive run plays (not counting two kneel-downs) that racked up 171 yards.

"We all kind of expected them to do great things this year because they didn't talk, they were doers and they worked and worked and worked," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "We knew we had a lot of guys coming back on the line, but that's all on paper.

"We're where we are today because of them."

Wisconsin returned all five starters up front this season and welcomed back valuable lineman Bill Nagy, who missed all but three games last season after suffering several incidents in a moped accident. The Badgers boasted depth, talent and experience up front, but the line didn't surge out of the gate.

"It was like trying to start an engine," Bostad said. "We were winning, but I just didn’t think we were where we needed to be."

Bostad didn't think the linemen got caught up in their hype, but they needed a jolt. Unfortunately for the Badgers, one arrived Oct. 2 in the Big Ten opener at Michigan State.

The Spartans limited damage from Wisconsin's run game and flustered Tolzien, who completed only 11 of 25 passes in a 34-24 loss.

Bostad called the setback "an eye-opener." He could have called it a "hole opener" because that's all the Badgers' line did the rest of the regular season.

"A couple times I've stutter-stepped just because the holes are so big," running back John Clay said. "I didn’t know if it was real or not."

Two weeks after the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin upset top-ranked Ohio State in a game clearly won at the line of scrimmage. Cameron Heyward and the celebrated Buckeyes' defense was no match for Carimi, John Moffitt & Co., as the line created huge lanes and racked up 184 rush yards and three touchdowns.

The best part?

"We didn't do a damn thing different," Bostad said. "We jumped out ahead of them and kept moving. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to do that or be committed to that. Either they’re intimidated by it, they don’t believe in it, they just don’t feel kids can dominate like that anymore."

Wisconsin's offensive line has clear leadership in the senior triumvirate of Carimi, Moffitt and Nagy, who each bring their own style.

Carimi is the natural, the Outland Trophy winner, the future first-round pick. He doesn't say much because he doesn't need to. Others can learn simply watch and learn.

Moffitt is the vocal one, providing superb sound bites away from the field but words of inspiration during practices and games. His speech before Wisconsin's road win against Iowa still resonates.

Nagy has provided versatility, filling in at center, both guard spots and even tight end, where he started two games in Wisconsin's jumbo personnel package.

"Gabe is very talented, Moffitt’s very tough and Bill Nagy’s selfless," Bostad said. "Those are three great things to have."

The ingredients have helped Wisconsin's line fuel the push to Pasadena.

"The coolest part about it is they’ve put in the work," Tolzien said. "It's not something just given to them and it’s not just based on natural talent. It's based on how hard they’ve worked, the scheme that was put together and guys buying in and just doing their jobs."

Video: Wisconsin OL John Moffitt

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
2:15
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Adam Rittenberg talks with Wisconsin OL John Moffitt.

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Big Ten team

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
10:30
AM ET
It's time to reveal my All-Big Ten team. As always, there were some tough decisions, and several deserving players don't appear on the rundown below.

For your reference, the official All-Big Ten teams and my preseason all-conference squad.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: David Molk, Michigan
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: Mike Adams, Ohio State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
DT: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DL: Corey Liuget, Illinois
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
DB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
DB: Tyler Sash, Iowa
DB: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
DB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Selections by team: Ohio State (5), Wisconsin (4), Michigan State (4), Illinois (4), Michigan (2) Purdue (2), Iowa (2), Northwestern (1), Penn State (1), Minnesota (1)

Five players are repeat selections from 2009: Wisniewski, Carimi, Clayborn, Jones and Sash.
Wisconsin's offense isn't new. It's just better. A lot better.

The Badgers have been rooted in the same offensive principles for years: the power run, bruising line play, an effective play-action game, efficient quarterbacking, tight ends and receivers who catch (passes) and throw (blocks).

"When we go recruit these guys, they know who we are," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst told me this week. "We haven't changed."

What has changed this season are the results. Wisconsin's offense has gone from pretty good to virtually unstoppable.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe efficient play of Scott Tolzien is one reason the Wisconsin offense has been on a roll this season.
The numbers don't lie (thanks to the Wisconsin sports info staff for these notes):

  • Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally in scoring at 40.9 points per game. The Badgers will easily eclipse the team single-season scoring record of 34.3 points per game set in 2005.
  • The Badgers are even more potent in Big Ten play, averaging 41.7 points. Since 1936, only four Big Ten teams have averaged at least 40 points per game for an entire conference season. Wisconsin has scored on 45 of 71 possessions (63.4 percent) in league play, not including five possessions on which it ran out the clock to end the half or a game.
  • During its current six-game winning streak, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents by more than 22 points per game (44.7-22). The Badgers have averaged 240.7 yards on the ground, while quarterback Scott Tolzien has completed 78.6 percent of his passes. Wisconsin has converted 54.1 percent of its third downs (33-of-61) and scored touchdowns on 83.9 percent of its red zone opportunities (26-of-31).
  • Wisconsin ranks second nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (79.3 percent). In Big Ten play, the Badgers have converted 28 of their 33 red zone trips into touchdowns (84.8 percent). Wisconsin ranks ninth nationally in red zone scoring (91.4 percent) and has gone 41-for-42 in its last eight games.
  • The Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 10th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (51.3).
  • Wisconsin already has set a team record with 41 rushing touchdowns

How has this happened? Here are three reasons.

1. Experience and depth


The Badgers aren't lacking in any area of their offense.

They have three senior starters along the offensive line in left tackle Gabe Carimi, left guard John Moffitt and center Bill Nagy. Carimi, an Outland Trophy finalist, and Moffitt have combined to start 87 games in their careers.

The receiving corps also boasts experience with tight end Lance Kendricks, a fifth-year senior, as well as receivers David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, who have combined for 67 starts.

Top running back John Clay has started for two seasons. Same goes for Tolzien.

The Badgers also have had plenty of players step up when others go down, whether it's running back Montee Ball, receiver Jared Abbrederis or tight ends Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen.

"The neat thing about it is it takes everyone to be a part of it," Chryst said. "Everyone can really take ownership for what's happening."

2. Running back depth

Most teams would be in trouble if they lost the league's offensive player of the year for a few games. Not Wisconsin.

Clay's knee injury hasn't slowed down the Badgers' run game one bit. In fact, Wisconsin is putting up even better numbers without him -- not a knock against Clay, just a fact -- by rushing for 695 yards and 12 touchdowns in wins against Indiana and Michigan.

Wisconsin is the only FBS team to have three backs with at least 600 rushing yards: Clay (929), freshman James White (895) and Ball (686). All three players have recorded 13 rushing touchdowns this season.

While White has emerged as the Big Ten freshman of the year front-runner, Ball has provided the biggest lift. An afterthought in the first half of the season, Ball stepped in after injuries to both Clay and White and has 467 rush yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games.

"Montee was a big part of what we were doing in the second half of last season, and Montee has continued to improve," Chryst said. "You've got to give him a ton of credit for not getting caught up where he is on the depth chart and keeping his focus."

3. Scott Tolzien

Wisconsin has mass-produced elite offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends in recent years, but the quarterback position has been more of a headache.

Tolzien came out of nowhere to win the starting job in 2009, and he has taken his game to another level this fall. The senior leads the nation in completion percentage (73.9) -- he completed 24 consecutive passes before an interception last Saturday -- and has completed 78.6 percent of his passes during the current win streak.

Tolzien is on pace to set team records for career pass efficiency (151.2 rating) and career completion percentage (68.2). He has done his best work in clutch situations, completing 23 of 27 passes with 12 touchdowns and only one interception in the red zone, and completing 40 of 57 passes for 492 yards on third down (rating of 150.8).

"He's playing his position as good as anybody in college football," head coach Bret Bielema said. "What he's done in the red zone, it's just unbelievable. And ball-security wise, being able to come through in clutch situations, has been really unparalleled by anything I've ever witnessed."

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