NCF Nation: Johnathan Hankins
It won't be after he mauls a quarterback or fills a rushing lane with his 6-foot-5, 313-pound frame. Davis already has shown flashes of being a dominant interior lineman. When Penn State guard John Urschel was asked on an ESPN.com chat last month to name the toughest lineman he blocked last year, he picked Davis, a backup for the Hawkeyes, ahead of players like Purdue's Kawann Short and Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, both second-round picks in April's NFL draft.
Davis can deliver a great play or two. But the true gauge for the Hawkeyes junior will come when opposing offenses sustain drives. Davis will be on the field for Play 1 or Play 2. If he's still there for Play 8 or Play 9, Iowa will be a lot better off.
"I believe my best football is ahead of me," Davis recently told ESPN.com. "I had some problems with my knee, I had some mental work being an every-play guy, and I'm still working on that. You've got to do it every day. You can't come out here like, I had a good practice today,' and then slack off tomorrow. You try to put days back to back to back."
After being limited by a wobbly kneecap early in his career, Davis attacked conditioning and strength training during the offseason. He hang-cleaned 395 pounds -- a Hawkeyes defensive tackle record -- and boosted his squat max by 100 pounds.
Davis also shaved one-tenth of a second off of his 10-yard dash time, going from 1.7 seconds in 2012 to 1.6. He came into camp a little heavy at 313 pounds -- "I'm paying for it right now," he said with a laugh -- but hopes to get down to 310 before the season kicks off Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois.
"He developed a lot of strength and confidence with the records, the work ethic," Morgan said. "Being a big guy, sometimes they're worried about running out of gas and pushing themselves to get out of their comfort zone. Carl started doing that a little bit in the spring, worked hard through the summer, really did some diligent preparation."
Head coach Kirk Ferentz describes Davis as an "Iowa guy," meaning Davis didn't walk onto campus game-ready but has developed himself into a position to contribute significantly as an upperclassman. What stands out about Davis is his size. Iowa's recent defensive tackle standouts -- Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Karl Klug, Mike Daniels -- all played around 280 pounds. Only Christian Ballard (297 pounds) approached the 300-pound mark. Davis, meanwhile, was 295 when he signed with Iowa in 2010 and quickly went north of 300.
"We haven't had many guys like him," Ferentz said. "Colin Cole was never as big with us as Carl is currently. Carl's a guy who has a great attitude, he’s got good ability, good size. We’re all confident this is going to be his time to really step up and play well."
Cole is the gold standard for Iowa defensive tackles. He earned first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America honors for Iowa's 2002 co-Big Ten champion team, recording ridiculous numbers for a defensive tackle: 85 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and two fumbles recovered.
If Davis comes anywhere close to those totals, Iowa's line will be much improved.
"I want to have at least 40 tackles and eight to 10 sacks," he said. "If you shoot high, you see where you fall, and you might not be disappointed."
Davis is a big man with big goals. One of his challenges, somewhat ironically, is to use his size more to his advantage.
"He's a big guy who thinks he's a finesse guy, instead of being a physical guy," said Morgan, who attributes Davis' approach in part to his background as a basketball player. "Now he’s starting to become physical. That's really what you like about Carl, understanding that assignment. He's really a caring, solid person. As a player, he's really grown a lot, and we’re excited to see what he's going to do this fall."
A Sterling Heights, Mich., native, Davis grew up a Michigan fan and wanted to play for Lloyd Carr but didn't attract much interest. He actually became sold on Iowa after attending the Hawkeyes' 30-28 win against Michigan in 2009 under the lights at a geared-up Kinnick Stadium.
When Davis arrived, Iowa was enjoying arguably the most successful run of defensive linemen in team history (three were drafted after the 2010 season, and another followed after 2011). Daniels took Davis under his wing, and Davis admired the power Daniels generated despite being a smaller interior lineman (6-1, 280).
Davis still reviews practice clips from Daniels, Ballard and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
"I want to be one of those guys that can be the next name that pops up," Davis said. "Only time will tell, and I've got to put in the work."
While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.
But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.
The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.
You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.
This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.
Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):
- Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.[+] EnlargeGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
- The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
- Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
- Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
- Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
- An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
- As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.
Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.
What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:
Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.
But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?
I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.
What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?
Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?
Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.
Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?
Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.
You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?
Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.
Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.
Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?
Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.
Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.
The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?
Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.
You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.
This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?
Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.
What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?
Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.
And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Prospects for that are starting to look slim, at least according to our ESPN.com draft experts.
Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board , which ranks the top 25 overall players in the draft, does not contain a single Big Ten product. His Grade A draft , in which he presents the best pick for every team, has Wisconsin's Montee Ball as the first league player taken, at No. 37 overall. Todd McShay's most recent mock draft likewise does not include any Big Ten players in the first round.
How rare would this be? The Big Ten has produced at least one first-round draft pick in every year since the NFL-AFL merger. The league had four first-round picks last year, though the first one didn't arrive until No. 23 (Iowa's Riley Reiff).
Of course, predicting the draft -- especially the back end of the first round -- is no exact science, and it only takes one team to like a Big Ten player enough to ensure that the league's first-round streak survives. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, Purdue's Kawann Short, Wisconsin's Ball and Travis Frederick and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell all have a chance at cracking the first 32 overall picks.
McShay has a list of draft talent tiers at each position, which gives you an idea of where the Big Ten draft entrants stand. The list includes seven tiers and 109 total players. Here's where the Big Ten checked in on McShay's scale:
Tier 5 -- Value picks early in Round 2 should they fall out of Round 1.
No. 32 overall: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
Tier 6 -- Worthy of mid-to-late-second-round consideration.
No. 56: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 64: Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
Tier 7 -- Solid third-round prospects.
No 68: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
No. 77: Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
No. 84: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 94: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
No. 96: Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
No. 98: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 106: Hugh Thornton, OT, Illinois
We'll see if the experts are right, and had Michigan's Taylor Lewan not surprised everybody by returning to school, there would be no doubt about the Big Ten's first-round status. Still, next Thursday night is shaping up as potentially a quiet one for the league.
Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.
"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."
But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.
"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."
Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.
"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."
Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.
"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."
Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."
The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.
"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."
Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.
"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."
Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.
"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."
Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.
"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.
"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."
It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
If Urban Meyer had placed a banner with the words "The Chase" in Ohio State's indoor practice facility last spring, he might have been asked, "For what?"
Sure, football players are always chasing something, as Meyer noted Tuesday when asked about the big, bold banner now hanging at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That "something" can be localized: a starting job, a bigger role in the offense or defense, a scholarship, a coach's approval.
But Ohio State couldn't chase many tangible team goals last spring. The Buckeyes couldn't chase a Big Ten championship or a national championship because of NCAA sanctions. They only found out in September that they could chase a Leaders Division title. Undoubtedly their greatest attribute was an ability to chase the grandest goal they could -- a perfect 12-0 regular season, capped by a win against archrival Michigan -- and achieve it.
The banner makes much more sense now. Ohio State has emerged from the shadow of postseason probation and can chase whatever it wants, including the crystal football that has eluded the Scarlet and Gray -- and the rest of the Big Ten -- for more than a decade.
Meyer and his players can stop there for now. They should, as it's only spring practice. But "The Chase" will be a theme throughout Ohio State's offseason as bigger, broader goals are back on the table.
"Everybody’s got big dreams," Meyer said, "and we as a football team have some dreams."
Ohio State can dream big primarily because of an offense that transformed in 2012, rising from 81st nationally in scoring to 21st and from 107th in total yards to 47th. Quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed in Meyer's system, racking up a team-record 3,310 yards of offense, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller, who spent part of his winter break working with noted quarterback instructor George Whitfield in California, leads a unit that returns nine starters, including four linemen. Ohio State also regains the services of versatile running back Jordan Hall, who missed most of last season because of injury and turned heads during Tuesday's practice.
After delivering scathing -- and accurate -- critiques of Miller, the receivers and the entire offense last spring, Meyer has a much rosier outlook these days. Tuesday, he called Miller's footwork "outstanding" and praised Hall and several other skill players.
"Last year, who knew what as going to happen," the coach said. "I think the appropriate term was 'clown show' at this time. I don't feel like [it's] a clown show."
If Miller makes strides as a passer, Ohio State should have its most potent offense since the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes played for the national championship (coincidentally against Meyer's Florida Gators). The key to the spring -- and to the season, really -- is whether Ohio State produces a typical Ohio State defense. Otherwise, Meyer says, any discussion about "those two words that we don’t use very often" is pointless.
The spring spotlight shines brightest on the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost all four starting linemen from 2012, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and massive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a possible first-round draft pick. Talented young linemen such as Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence got a taste last fall, and Meyer's staff has recruited extremely well up front, but others must emerge to fill out the rotation. Meyer on Tuesday challenged players such as Steve Miller and Chris Carter to do so.
All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier returns at linebacker, but depth remains a major concern for a group that needed fullback Zach Boren to fill a starting role midway through the 2012 season.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won’t. It's pretty simple."
There's also a leadership void to fill this spring. Players such as Simon and Boren made sure the Buckeyes kept up the chase in 2012. Meyer expressed concern last spring at how the team would handle its first brush with failure. Thanks to the seniors, it never happened as Ohio State recorded only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.
The torch has passed to players like Miller, a quiet kid from a quiet family whose voice must be heard more in 2013.
"He needs to be a better leader," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month.
Other likely leaders include Shazier and dynamic cornerback Bradley Roby, a big talker who almost always backs it up on the field. Their challenge differs from that of their predecessors, who kept the team focused in spite of the bowl ban, yet did so under measured expectations.
The expectations are back to Tressel-era levels, and perhaps even higher because of the perfect season and Meyer's recruiting success. Anything less than a celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis -- and perhaps another Jan. 6 in Pasadena -- will be considered disappointing.
"The chase," Meyer said, "is on."
But at the very top of the draft -- the first round, in particular -- things are looking rather bleak for the Big Ten, according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.
Kiper's post-combine Big Board features zero Big Ten players among the list of 25. Several Big Ten players have been included on previous Big Boards, including Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short. If Michigan LT Taylor Lewan had skipped his final college season and entered the draft, he likely would be in Kiper's top 15.
Few would be surprised to see Hankins drafted in the first round, but his combine performance didn't exactly jump out. Short is another intriguing prospect, and Wisconsin center Travis Frederick also could sneak into the first round.
But if Kiper's forecast plays out, the Big Ten once again could be waiting a while before one of its players is drafted in April. The league didn't have a player selected in the 2012 draft until the Detroit Lions selected Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff with the No. 23 overall pick. The Big Ten hasn't produced a top 10 draft pick since Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft (Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, played his entire career in the Big 12).
Here's a look at the Big Ten's recent highest draft picks:
2012: No. 23, Iowa LT Riley Reiff (Detroit)
2011: No. 11, Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt (Houston)
2010: No. 13, Michigan DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia)
2009: No. 11, Penn State DE Aaron Maybin (Buffalo)
2008: No. 1, Michigan LT Jake Long (Miami)
2007: No. 3, Wisconsin LT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
2006: No. 5, Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay)
2005: No. 3, Michigan WR Braylon Edwards (Cleveland)
2004: No. 2, Iowa LT Robert Gallery (Oakland)
2003: No. 2, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers (Detroit)
2002: No. 12, Wisconsin DT Wendell Bryant (Arizona)
So after six straight years of top-5 picks (2003-2008), the Big Ten likely will go five straight years without a top 10 pick. Not good.
Several Big Ten players appear on Kiper's latest top-5 lists by position.
- Wisconsin's Montee Ball is the No. 2 running back
- Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
- Wisconsin's Frederick is the No. 1 center
- Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
The Big Ten is sending 32 players to the combine this year. Here are some of the top storylines to watch when the league's contingent auditions for pro scouts:
- Denard Robinson presents arguably the most intriguing case of the Big Ten players, if not the the entire combine. The former Michigan quarterback should put up some of the best numbers around in the 40-yard dash -- remember, he once said he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40. But will that be enough to convince teams to take him as a wide receiver prospect? He'll have to display better hands than he did in the Senior Bowl, but Robinson has had a few more weeks to practice since then. It only takes one team to fall in love with his potential.
- Three of the most productive running backs in college football will represent the Big Ten at the combine, but where will they land? Wisconsin's Montee Ball already knows he probably won't wow scouts with his workout numbers or physicality, but all he did was score more touchdowns than any other FBS player in history. Meanwhile, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will have to answer questions about his speed, which he could begin to do with solid times in the 40-yard dash and other drills. It will be interesting to see at what weight Bell, who was officially listed at 237 pounds last season, tips the scales in Indy. And what about Rex Burkhead? The Nebraska star has always been a better athlete than casual observers realize and could turn some heads at the combine if his knee, which caused him to miss the senior all-star games, is fully healed.
- Some excellent defensive tackle prospects from the league will be at the combine, but they do come with question marks attached. Johnathan Hankins has been projected as an early first-round pick but will have to back up the hype with a strong showing in Indy. Hankins and Purdue's Kawann Short will be scrutinized both for their conditioning and their motors. Short has first-round talent if he can prove that he doesn't take plays off. No one would accuse Penn State's Jordan Hill of lacking energy, but scouts wonder if he can hold up in the NFL at a listed 294 pounds. He'll need to prove his strength on the bench press. Illinois' Akeem Spence skipped his senior year despite a lack of buzz about his performances, but he could make an impression this week with his athleticism.
- How will scouts view Ohio State's John Simon? The Buckeyes defensive end was the Big Ten defensive player of the year but will likely be asked to move to outside linebacker because of his size. Simon has always been known as a workout warrior, so he could put up some explosive numbers on the bench press and elsewhere if his shoulder, which caused him to miss the season finale and the Senior Bowl, is back in full working order. Urban Meyer praised Simon's leadership skills to anyone who would listen, but will those traits come out this week?
- Speaking of leadership skills, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti will be limited in the physical workouts because of the knee injury he suffered late in the year. But Mauti -- who wrote a letter to every NFL GM about his love for the game -- should shine in the interview sessions. Teams will want extensive information on his knees before they consider drafting him. He'll have a lot of people rooting for him to make it.
- Michigan State's William Gholston didn't dominate on the field as much as general managers would like, but his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame will certainly have scouts leaning forward in their seats. Gholston will need to show explosion out of his stance and answer questions about his work ethic. But his freakish physical skills could see him rise up draft boards.
- Speaking of physical freaks, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is another interesting draft candidate. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he can fill a lot of different roles, and he played both quarterback and receiver for the Gophers. He's officially grouped with the quarterbacks at the combine, but some teams may see him as a receiver or even tight end.
- Michigan State's Johnny Adams was viewed as a possible first-round pick coming into the season but saw his draft stock drop during an up-and-down senior year. He missed the Spartans' bowl game and the Senior Bowl while dealing with a case of turf toe. Can he get back on track with a strong combine showing?
Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.
1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.
3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.
4. The replacements
- Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
- The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
- Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
- Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.
If ESPN's Mel Kiper turns out to be right, Ball's decision will be labeled a wise one.
Kiper came out with his first mock draft for 2013 on Wednesday, and Ball is listed as a first-round pick, going No. 21 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. Ball didn't appear on Kiper's Big Board this season, but made a strong push late in Big Ten play. Kiper writes that Ball would be an excellent fit for the Bengals' system.
Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is the only other Big Ten player in the mock draft, going at No. 15 to the New Orleans Saints. Kiper likes Hankins' ability to beat interior blockers to the backfield and eat up double teams.
It would have been interesting to see where Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan would have ended up on Kiper's list if he decided to skip his final season with the Wolverines. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, a projected first-rounder for much of the season, reportedly just missed the cut.
The deadline for early entries to the NFL draft has come and gone, and Kiper has issued his top 5 prospects at each position .
Here's who made it from the Big Ten:
- Wisconsin's Ball is the No. 2 running back
- Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
- Michigan State's Dion Sims, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 4 tight end
- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 1 center
- Hankins is the No. 3 defensive tackle
- Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
Roby, a draft-eligible redshirt sophomore, told The Dispatch's Tim May that although his draft stock is in a good place after a strong season, he has "unfinished business" with the Buckeyes. He earned All-Big Ten honors after tying for the Big Ten lead in passes defended with 19 (17 pass breakups, 2 interceptions). Roby had a fumble recovery and a blocked kick and scored three touchdowns for Ohio State this fall.
Colleague Austin Ward weighs in on Roby's decision here.
"We should really be playing in the national championship [game] but we weren’t able to, so I really felt like if I come back we'd have a better chance, " he told The Dispatch. "Also, I haven't finished what I came to Ohio State to do, which was to become one of the best corners to come out of Ohio State. I don't think I've accomplished that yet. I know the NFL is there, the money’s there, but you always have another opportunity for that. I just talked this over with my family and feel like this is the best thing for me to do."
Ohio State has lost several key pieces from its defense to graduation or early NFL draft entry (DT Johnathan Hankins), so Roby's return, while not a huge surprise, is important. He's a terrific cornerback and one of the most quotable players in the Big Ten, so expect to hear a lot from him as the Buckeyes chase the crystal football in 2013.
Ohio State fans hope for the same decision from junior running back Carlos Hyde, who is considering a jump to the NFL after rushing for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
Spence had 72 tackles and seven tackles for loss in 2012 following a sophomore year in which he had 69 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 305-pounder has been viewed as an NFL prospect for some time because of his size and strength.
He was one of the few bright spots for the Illini during a miserable 2-10 season in 2012. But even with him and other playmakers like defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown, Illinois finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game. Head coach Tim Beckman will have to replace Spence, Buchanan and Glenn Foster as starters on the defensive line next season.
ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Spence rated as the 10th-best defensive tackle and the 45th best overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. That could translate into second-round status, and you can't blame Spence for not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding process in Champaign next year. He's the second high-profile junior from the Big Ten to declare early for the draft. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, also a defensive tackle, announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft.
Several other draft-eligible underclassmen from the Big Ten will have to weigh their options in the coming days and weeks, though not all have as clear-cut a call as Hankins did. We'll never begrudge a player for wanting to make a living and support his family. But we're offering our unsolicited advice from a pure football perspective on which players should stay in school and which ones should start collecting paychecks.
Here are the underclassmen we see as most likely to wrestle with their NFL decisions:
Illinois DT Akeem Spence
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell
Michigan State TE Dion Sims
Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Michigan State DE William Gholston
Michigan State DB Darqueze Dennard
Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Wisconsin C Travis Frederick
And what we think they should do:
Go pro: Spence, Lewan, Bell
Lewan is a likely first-round pick -- possibly the second tackle off of the board -- and Michigan's offensive line around him would be very young next year. He should bolt. Bell has 350 carries this year before the bowl game; running backs have short shelf lives, so he needs to get to the NFL before his body shows too much wear and tear. Spence is much less of a sure thing, but he's got an NFL build, has been on scouts' radar for a long time and probably doesn't want to suffer through what could be another long Illini season in 2013.
Go pro if ... : Sims, Gholston, Roby
All three could benefit from another year in college. Yet if they are projected in the top two rounds of the draft, they would probably be wise to strike while the iron is hot. Sims is an impressive physical specimen, but he's really only had one productive year and was hurt for large parts of it. Gholston has as much physical potential as anyone in the league but lacks consistency and could use some more seasoning and maturity. Roby, a redshirt sophomore, had a terrific season but still lacks much game experience. He may want to come back and help lead Ohio State on a potential BCS title run.
Stay in school: Bullough, Dennard, Hageman, Frederick
While all four of these guys would certainly draw some major NFL interest, each probably should spend another year on campus for various reasons. Bullough would have the chance to play alongside his younger brother, Riley, who could push for a starting job in '13. Dennard emerged from the shadow of teammate Johnny Adams this year and doesn't want to see his stock fall like Adams' might have. But he could probably also use a year as Michigan State's true No. 1 corner. Hageman finally lived up to his potential this season and has an NFL body, but the draft is loaded with defensive linemen, and he could use another year of seasoning. Frederick is an outstanding student who only has one full year at center under his belt.
But some NFL draft decisions are made for you. And when you're a virtual lock in the top 15 of the draft, you make the jump, no questions asked.
Hankins surprised no one Monday in announcing he'll forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. The Ohio State junior defensive tackle boosted his stock this season, eating up space and ball-carriers in the middle of the Buckeyes' defensive line. Many NFL draft prognosticators, including our own Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, have Hankins as the first Big Ten player off the board in April.
Hankins won't help Ohio State try to win a national title in 2013, but he undoubtedly made the right call.
"I will always be grateful for the family I have gained here at Ohio State," Hankins said in a prepared statement. "I want to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, coach [Mike] Vrabel and strength coach [Mickey] Marotti for bringing the best out of me as a football player and person, and for their constant support. I also want to thank coach [Jim] Tressel and coach [Jim] Heacock for recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to be a part of this great school and great program."
Hankins added that he intends to finish his degree at Ohio State, which is great to hear. He started every game the past two seasons and finishes his career with 138 tackles (58 solo, 80 assists), including 16.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Although Ohio State expected Hankins to leave, his departure underscores some potential depth issues the team will have up front in 2013. Defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, moves on along with nose tackle Garrett Goebel and defensive end Nathan Williams.
The good news is Urban Meyer has recruited very well at defensive line, securing blue chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington in his first class (both played this fall). Linemen like Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale all should see increased roles in 2013. Ohio State also is bringing in several standout D-line recruits like ESPN 300 selections Joey Bosa and Michael Hill.
Ohio State has a lot of young talent along the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need those players to grow up in a hurry if they want to take another step forward on defense.