NCF Nation: Kawann Short

There will be a point this season when we'll know whether Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis has turned a corner.

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."

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsCarl Davis' size and strength have Iowa's staff optimistic on the defensive tackle's future.
Davis appeared in 11 games as a reserve in 2012, recording 14 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, to go along with a forced fumble. Hawkeyes defensive line coach Reese Morgan said the experience, even during a rough 4-8 season, bolstered Davis' confidence that he's built to last.

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."
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's reputation for producing great quarterbacks is recognized throughout college football, as names like Brees, Griese, Herrmann, Dawson and Everett are linked to the program.

But there's another position where Purdue has put together a similar track record of excellence: defensive end. The Boilers' D-end tradition isn't as well-known as its quarterback heritage, but consider the names who have come through the program in the past two decades: Roosevelt Colvin, Chike Okeafor, Akin Ayodele, Shaun Phillips, Ray Edwards, Rob Ninkovich, Cliff Avril, Anthony Spencer and Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American.

All nine players went on to the NFL, and several like Kerrigan and Spencer are in starring roles. Purdue has called itself the Cradle of Quarterbacks for years. It now also uses the label Den of Defensive Ends.

Boilers junior defensive end Ryan Russell needs no education on the subject.

[+] EnlargeRyan Russell
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaRyan Russell hopes to be next in the long line of disruptive defensive linemen developed at Purdue.
"Very aware," Russell told ESPN.com. "A lot of those guys come back, Roosevelt Colvin, I had a chance to talk to Cliff Avril when we went to the Little Caesars [Pizza] Bowl in Detroit. I knew Ryan Kerrigan and he came back and talked to us.

"It's a big tradition, and I'm hoping definitely to uphold it."

After losing defensive tackle Kawann Short, a second-round pick in last month's NFL draft, Purdue is looking for the next star to emerge along a line that underperformed in 2012. The Boilers finished 78th nationally in both rush yards allowed (182.3 YPG) and sacks recorded (1.69 per game).

Along with veteran defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Russell is viewed as a potential major contributor up front this fall. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior will enter his third season as a starter and his first under Purdue's new coaching staff. After recording 33 tackles and making 11 starts as a redshirt freshman in 2011, Russell had 37 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and four sacks, last season.

"He’s got a power-to-speed ratio that's good for him to be a factor," defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. "He can play the run, but he's got that end build and speed where he can also affect the passer.

"He's got that prototype look and ability."

Russell might look the part, but like many of his teammates, he needs to get stronger. His speed and lower-body strength are in good shape, and he has fully recovered from knee and ankle injuries, but his upper body "isn’t really where I would like it to be."

After practicing alongside Kerrigan as a true freshman in 2010, Russell understands the gains he needs to make.

"Ryan Kerrigan was one of the strongest people I've ever met," Russell said, "so when that's the standard with the Big Ten, Purdue defensive linemen and defensive ends, we definitely and myself personally have a long way to go."

Kerrigan led the country in tackles for loss (26) in 2010, finished third in sacks (12.5) and tied for second in forced fumbles (5). Russell observed firsthand the relentless motor that drove the Boilers' star.

When one pass-rush move didn't work, Kerrigan would simply move to the next and the next until the whistle blew.

"Pass-rushing a lot of the time is a mentality, going 110 percent, outworking somebody all the time, every play," Russell said. "[Defensive line coach Rubin Carter] always says, 'If you're not going to make the play, they will.' So just always having that mentality that you’re going to get there is a big thing.

"Your get-off and your motor is the engine that runs the train."

Russell is taking well to the new staff, the faster practice pace and the new defensive scheme under Hudson. He has worked extensively with Carter, a former longtime NFL assistant, on using his hands more effectively to fend off offensive linemen.

Hudson, who last season had a front-row seat for one of the nation's best defensive lines as a Florida State defensive assistant, shapes his system around Russell and the other down linemen.

"We will do things to turn him loose," Hudson said. "We cater to the D-line. We're going to make sure they know what’s going on, there's no confusion and they're happy. And when the ball's snapped, we say, 'Take off, break off.'

"That's what we want them to do."

Russell continues to follow Kerrigan with the Washington Redskins, and he also studies the other Purdue greats he has met like Avril (Seattle Seahawks), Ninkovich (New England Patriots) and Spencer (Dallas Cowboys).

"You have a common ground," Russell said. "They started the same place you started, and what they're doing is the goal, so you’re trying to see what they're doing to get to the goal you all share."
Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

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):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    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.
  • 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.

(Read full post)

Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

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?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

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?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

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.
The NFL draft begins a week from today, with the first round taking center stage next Thursday night. But will the Big Ten have any players celebrating before Friday's second round?

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.
The NFL scouting combine is in the books and pro days at all the Big Ten schools will take place in the coming weeks. There's still time for the Big Ten's NFL draft hopefuls to boost their stock before the selections are made April 25-27.

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 Insider 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. Insider
  • 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
Neither Hankins nor Short appear among the top five defensive tackles.

Big Ten's top NFL combine storylines

February, 20, 2013
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The first group of players arrives in Indianapolis today to start the 2013 NFL combine. The event begins with interviews, and the first on-field workouts begin Saturday with the tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists.

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?
It's awards season in Hollywood, as the film industry lines up to congratulate itself again and again until we're all sick of it before the Oscars.

But, hey, some performances do need recognition. With that in mind, we're listing the Top 10 individual performances by Big Ten players from the 2012 season today. Degree of difficulty is a factor here, so we'll reward those players who shined against tough opponents over those who piled up stats vs. cupcakes. And, ideally, the performance came in a victory for the player's team.

Enough with the intro. A drum roll, please, for our Top 10:

10. Penn State's Michael Mauti vs. Illinois: Mauti was very vocal with his displeasure at Illinois' attempt to poach Nittany Lions players last summer. The senior linebacker backed up his words with six tackles and a pair of interceptions, including a 99-yard return to end the first half. He came up inches short of a touchdown on that pick but definitely proved his point.

9. Ohio State's John Simon vs. Wisconsin: In what would turn out to be his final college game, the Buckeyes defensive end went out with a bang against the Badgers in Madison. He had four sacks, which set a school record and were the most by a Big Ten player since Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan registered four vs. Michigan in 2010.

8. Ohio State's Braxton Miller vs. Michigan State: Miller had better statistical days than the one he turned in against the Spartans, but none were grittier. Hit over and over again, he somehow kept answering the bell and finished with 136 hard-earned rushing yards and 179 passing yards in Ohio State's 17-16 road win. Teammates said after the game that their quarterback was in a tremendous amount of pain, but he earned he even more respect from them.

7. Northwestern's Kain Colter vs. Indiana: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald sprung a surprise on the Hoosiers by repeatedly lining Colter up at receiver. Colter caught nine passes for 131 yards and also ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries.

6. Penn State's Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson vs. Indiana: We're cheating a bit here by including both players, but it's hard to separate the two from this record-setting performance. McGloin shredded the Hoosiers' defense for 395 passing yards and four touchdowns, while Robinson was as usual the main recipient of his throws. The sophomore grabbed 10 catches for 197 yards and three scores in the best day for a Big Ten receiver in 2012.

5. Michigan's Denard Robinson vs. Air Force: How's this for an individual feat: Robinson accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offense vs. the Falcons, a statistical oddity we may not see again any time soon. He totaled 426 yards -- 218 rushing, 208 passing -- while a couple of late kneel downs left Michigan's team total for the day at 422. Robinson also scored four touchdowns in the 31-25 win.

4. Michigan's Devin Gardner vs. Iowa: In just his second start at quarterback, Gardner wrote his name in the Michigan record books. He accounted for six touchdowns -- three passing, three rushing -- in becoming the first Wolverines quarterback to do that since Steve Smith in 1983. He also threw for 314 yards and let everyone know Robinson wasn't getting his old job back.

3. Wisconsin's Montee Ball vs. Purdue: Ball finished his career with all sorts of NCAA and school records, but he never had as many rushing yards as he did in West Lafayette this fall. He ran for 247 yards on 29 carries and and scored three times to establish himself as the Big Ten's all-time leader in touchdowns.

2. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez vs. Northwestern: Martinez's best statistical showing came in the opener against Southern Miss (354 passing yards, five TDs), but that was against a team that finished 0-12. His signature performance was in the comeback win at Northwestern. He threw for 342 yards and three scores and ran for another touchdown while leading two 75-plus yard scoring drives in the final six minutes. Of course, he also threw two passes in the fourth quarter that should have been intercepted, but that's just part of the ride with Martinez.

1. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell vs. Boise State: In just the second game of the season featuring a Big Ten team, Bell set a bar that could not be cleared. He was Superman against the Broncos, rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries and catching six passes for 55 yards. The unbelievable 50 touches in the opener was both a testament to Bell's strength and a flashing red warning sign of Michigan State's dearth of playmakers.

Honorable mention: Bell vs. Minnesota and TCU; Miller vs. California; Ball and James White vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten title game; Robinson vs. Purdue; Ohio State's Ryan Shazier vs. Penn State; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde vs. Nebraska; Indiana's Cody Latimer vs. Iowa; Penn State's Jordan Hill vs. Wisconsin; Northwestern's Venric Mark vs. Minnesota; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon vs. South Carolina; Iowa's Mark Weisman vs. Central Michigan; Minnesota's Michael Carter vs. Purdue and Texas Tech; Purdue's Kawann Short vs. Notre Dame.
Maybe it's a reflection of a lousy Big Ten season, but the league sent a smaller-than-normal contingent to the Senior Bowl. The group already has been reduced by three as injuries have prevented Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Ohio State offensive tackle Reid Fragel and Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon from participating.

As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues Insider with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.

Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.

We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.

Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.
Montee Ball's decision to return to Wisconsin for his senior season raised an eyebrow or two after the running back turned in a record-setting junior season in 2011. Ball returned in large part because he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee.

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 Insider 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 Insider.

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
What we learned from the seven Big Ten bowl games:

1. Need for speed (and skill): The narrative about the Big Ten being slow is tiresome and oversimplified. But the bowls showed it's not entirely inaccurate. Whether it was Michigan struggling to contain South Carolina's Ace Sanders, Minnesota getting burned by Texas Tech's passing game, Wisconsin desperately lacking a game-breaker versus Stanford or whatever it was Purdue attempted to do against Oklahoma State, the bowl games exposed a need for several teams to increase their overall athleticism at the skill positions. Big Ten teams came close to winning in four of the league's five postseason losses. The difference in those games often comes down to one or two playmakers, and the league could use a few more.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsIs there more success in store for Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald ? He said he'll have his fastest team ever in 2013.
2. Northwestern has become a complete team: The Wildcats have often brought good offenses into their bowl games. They usually have not been as good on defense or suffered from special-teams problems. Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 because Pat Fitzgerald finally crafted a complete team this season. The defense limited Mississippi State to just 106 passing yards and intercepted Tyler Russell four times in a 34-20 victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The offense featured a balanced attack between its rushing and passing games, and Northwestern had one of the best punt returners (Venric Mark) and field goal kickers (Jeff Budzien) in the business. In a season when many Big Ten teams lacked essential elements (defense at Nebraska, running game at Michigan, passing game at Michigan State, etc.), the Wildcats managed to put it all together for the league's best bowl win.

3. Quarterback competitions are on for Spartans, Badgers: The biggest surprise of the league's bowl season might have been that Connor Cook led Michigan State's game-winning drive against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cook, a redshirt freshman, hadn't played since Week 2, and it appeared that Andrew Maxwell had the quarterback job locked down despite an inconsistent season. But after a poor performance by Maxwell and the spark provided by Cook, the Spartans now have an open competition at quarterback that will be fascinating to watch this offseason. The competition is also on at Wisconsin, where Curt Phillips is expected to get a sixth year from the NCAA and battle with sophomore Joel Stave, who appeared for two plays in the Rose Bowl after breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. Stave is a better passer, while Phillips showed some good wheels versus Stanford. There's a new coaching staff in place to give each a clean slate. Who wins at each school is important, because both the Spartans and Badgers need to improve their passing attacks to contend for division titles in 2013.

4. Minnesota is on the way up: The Gophers suffered a heartbreaking loss against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, where they led 31-24 with less than 90 seconds to play but somehow lost 34-31. Yet the overall takeaway remains a positive one for Jerry Kill's team. After struggling mightily to move the ball down the stretch of the Big Ten season, Minnesota pounded the Red Raiders for 222 rushing yards, while freshman Philip Nelson threw two touchdown passes. Kill must find and develop more wide receivers, but Minnesota showed the physical style the team is capable of when its offensive line is healthy. The Legends Division will be deep in 2013, but the Gophers should continue to make gains.

5. Darrell Hazell and Bo Pelini need to focus on defense: New Purdue coach Hazell saw just how much work awaits him in the Boilermakers' 58-14 thrashing by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Purdue gave up at least 34 points seven times in 2012 and loses its best player in defensive tackle Kawann Short. There's no doubt where Hazell's focus must be in his first spring in West Lafayette. The same goes for Nebraska, which surrendered 115 points in its final two games and a staggering average of 53.5 points in its four losses. Pelini will replace eight defensive starters and is optimistic that some young, athletic players will step into those roles and restore the Blackshirts' honor. The Huskers -- which scored 31 points in a little more than three quarters against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl -- should again field one of the most prolific offenses in the country next season. It won't matter if that defense doesn't figure out some answers.
The 2012 college football season is barely on ice and we're already heating up for the 2013 campaign with a way-too-early version of the Big Ten power rankings. This is a snapshot of how the league looks at this point in time, not knowing all the personnel/coaching changes that will be in place for next season. As a reminder, these can and will change during the next eight months.

Ohio State is on top, and quite frankly, the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Other teams such as Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan certainly belong in the league's lead pack, while Michigan State and Penn State both have talent as well as question marks. We don't see a whole lot separating Nos. 2-6.

Here we go ...

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes made the most of their sanctioned season, running the table to post just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Urban Meyer's crew now takes aim at a Big Ten title and perhaps even a national title, its first since 2002. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller leads a potentially explosive offense, but Ohio State needs its young defenders to grow up in a hurry as there are depth and experience questions on that side of the ball.

2. Northwestern: The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 with a young team most projected to win no more than seven. Northwestern returns a very strong nucleus, led by running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, and loses only a few key seniors. Most of the Wildcats' talent can be found in their younger classes. The schedule gets tougher in 2013 -- Northwestern opens Big Ten play with Ohio State and Wisconsin -- but the Wildcats should be a major factor in the Legends Division if they can shore up their offensive line and continue to make strides on defense.

3. Nebraska: There's no doubt Nebraska will have one of the nation’s top offenses in 2013. Fourth-year starter Taylor Martinez returns at quarterback and has the Big Ten's largest arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The big concerns are on defense after Nebraska hemorrhaged points and yards in its four losses this past season and loses a group of seniors. Bo Pelini needs to get his defense back on track and hope the offense can limit turnovers, a huge problem throughout this season.

4. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen hardly inherits a bare cupboard in Madison. His predecessor, Bret Bielema, actually pointed to the 2013 team as potentially his best with the Badgers. The coaching transition could create some speed bumps, but Wisconsin returns two dynamic running backs in James White and Melvin Gordon, multiple quarterbacks with experience and a good defensive front seven led by Chris Borland. There are concerns in the secondary (three starters gone) and at wide receiver (not enough playmakers), but Wisconsin should push Ohio State in the Leaders Division.

5. Michigan: The Denard Robinson era is over and Michigan needs offensive playmakers to replace its record-setting quarterback and surround new signal-caller Devin Gardner. A bigger concern, though, is an offensive line that struggled at times in 2012 and must replace most of its starting lineup. Coach Brady Hoke should see some of his strong early recruiting efforts pay off in Year 3, although Michigan might not have the depth to challenge for a league title until 2014. Linebacker Jake Ryan leads a defense that has improved the past two seasons but must measure up to elite competition.

6. Michigan State: Pat Narduzzi's defense should once again be one of the nation's best, especially with All-Big Ten standout Max Bullough once again leading the unit at middle linebacker. But the NFL departures of Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims could hamper an offense that had no other consistent weapons in 2012. The schedule definitely favors MSU, but how will the Spartans score points? MSU's quarterback competition between Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell will be one of the top storylines of spring practice.

7. Penn State: Bill O'Brien had a lot to do with Penn State's success in 2012, but so did a senior class featuring several NFL players on defense who certainly will be missed. O'Brien's next challenge is developing a capable quarterback, whether it's Steven Bench, junior college arrival Tyler Ferguson or, just maybe, heralded incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg. Penn State could feel the sting of the sanctions more from a depth standpoint in 2013, but O'Brien's Lions have defied the odds so far.

8. Minnesota: The Gophers doubled their win total in Jerry Kill’s second season, and Kill's track record at previous stops suggests another boost could be on the way in Year 3. Quarterback Philip Nelson looked good in the bowl game after some late-season struggles, but Minnesota still needs more weapons to develop around him as well as continued progress from the offensive line. Senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leads a unit looking to fill gaps at linebacker and cornerback.

9. Indiana: The arrow is pointed up in Bloomington despite a poor finish to the regular season, and with eight home games on the slate in 2013, Indiana should expect to go bowling. Third-year coach Kevin Wilson has three quarterbacks with experience -- Tre Roberson, Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld -- at his disposal, as well as other weapons such as running back Stephen Houston and receiver Cody Latimer. IU's defense once again is a major question mark, but recruiting efforts have picked up on that side of the ball.

10. Purdue: If the Heart of Dallas Bowl was any indication, new Boilers coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work ahead in Year 1. Purdue loses its top two quarterbacks (Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush), its top defender in Kawann Short and other key contributors on both sides of the ball. Hazell's predecessor, Danny Hope, signed a bunch of quarterbacks in his recent recruiting classes, and it will be interesting to see who rises to the top. Hazell should be able to clean up some of Purdue's sloppy play, but the Boilers have quite a few question marks after a disappointing 2012 campaign.

11. Iowa: After taking a significant step back in 2012, Iowa might have a tough time turning things around in a loaded Legends Division in 2013. The Hawkeyes welcome in a new quarterback (Jake Rudock) and need playmakers to emerge around him to generate much better results in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. The defensive front seven could be solid as Iowa boasts a strong linebacking corps, but the Hawkeyes must plug a few holes in the secondary and get back to their traditionally stout play on D.

12. Illinois: Coach Tim Beckman needs to show significant signs of progress in Year 2 after a disastrous first season, and he might not have the personnel to do so. The Illini once again lose several defenders to the NFL draft and need to fill holes along the defensive line and in the secondary. Their bigger concerns are on the offensive side, as they had fewer playmakers than any Big Ten team in 2012. Veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns, but Illinois needs a much better plan on offense and the personnel to get things done. An influx of junior college players must step up in a make-or-break year for Beckman.

Heart of Dallas Bowl keys: Purdue

December, 30, 2012
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Three keys for Purdue in Tuesday's Heart of Dallas Bowl against Oklahoma State:

1. Dominate the trenches: Purdue's strength this season was supposed to be its defensive line, led by All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short. When Short and others dealt with injuries in the middle of the season, the Boilermakers got steamrolled in league play. Not coincidentally, the team won its final three games after those guys started to get healthy, and a month-long break should have the defensive line in its best shape since early September. The 315-pound Short can change a game when he's blowing up the middle of the line of scrimmage, and fellow tackle Bruce Gaston is an underrated force. Ryan Russell is a promising young pass-rusher who has also healed from some bumps and bruises. Purdue absolutely must disrupt the timing and rhythm of Oklahoma State's high-powered offense while keeping running back Joseph Randle in check. If they can do that, the Boilers will have a chance.

2. Run, run, run the ball: Akeem Shavers was the MVP of last year's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with 149 rushing yards. While Oklahoma State's defense is much better than Western Michigan's was a year ago, Shavers ended this season with 225 rushing yards in his final two games. Ralph Bolden is also expected back following a late-season hamstring injury, and Akeem Hunt gives the team a home run hitter with his sprinter's speed. Purdue has to get its running game charged up to help out quarterback Robert Marve and, more importantly, keep the Cowboys' offense on the sidelines.

3. Stay clean: One of the reasons Danny Hope didn't make it to this bowl game is that the Boilers often played sloppily under their former head coach. Penalties, turnovers and special teams blunders always seemed to rear their heads at the wrong times. That can't happen in a game like this, in which Purdue is such a huge underdog. Marve gave the team a spark when he was thrust into the starting lineup, but he still has a tendency to force throws into coverage. He and the Boilers can't afford to give Oklahoma State extra possessions, and Purdue has to maximize opportunities in the kicking game to win the field-position battle. This team has enough talent to pull off the upset, especially against an Oklahoma State squad that might be overlooking this game. But the Boilermakers can only put themselves in that position if they first avoid beating themselves.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 28, 2012
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Big Ten bowl season is finally here. How ya feeling?

Jones from Omaha, Neb., writes: I was originally opposed to additional B1G expansion (Maryland, Rutgers) on grounds of brand dilution. They don't seem to bring nearly as much to the table as the Huskers. I'm warming to the brave new world. Now that even more expansion is likely and divisions must be realigned, I'm for Old B1G vs. New B1G. As a Husker fan this will give us exposure in far away lands, plus we've already given up all of our old traditional matchups by leaving Big 12. Bring on NC, Duke, Rutgers, Maryland, Virginia, and whoever else might be an expansion target.

Adam Rittenberg: Jones, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to create a much easier path to the Big Ten championship game for your beloved Huskers. Being in a division with all of those ACC teams certainly looks more favorable than having to beat the likes of Michigan each year. I disagree with this view, as Nebraska has a better chance to build rivalries with teams closer to its campus. Geography will be a bigger factor in the next division alignment, and if Wisconsin is moved to the "West" division, Nebraska would have annual games with both Wisconsin and Iowa. These games could turn into truly great rivalries that Husker fans will value. I think Nebraska needs to be paired with at least one of the other major name-brand teams -- Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State -- but it makes more sense to divide things geographically if the Big Ten's next additions are on the East Coast.


Pat from Detroit writes: Not even a quick blurb about the passing of Reggie Garnett? I know i was over the holidays, but c'mon! The far too soon passing of an early 90s big ten stud could've at least made the lunch links. RIP Reggie.

Adam Rittenberg: Apologies, Pat, as I've been working on something outside the blog for most of the week and Brian has been busy with bowl assignments as well. It was sad to hear about Garnett's passing -- he was only 38. Check out some links about Garnett here and here and here. Coach Mark Dantonio released a statement about Garnett on Wednesday night. It reads: "We were very saddened to hear about the passing of Reggie Garnett yesterday. A four-year starter in the mid-1990s, Reggie was a tremendous player and a true Spartan. More importantly, he had remained connected to the MSU football program, returning to campus for reunions and games. Reggie was an outstanding young man, who will be missed by all of us. We’d like to express our deepest sympathy to his family as well as his extended Spartan family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, teammates and friends."


Russ from Bloomington, Ill., writes: It sounds like there are going to be lots of openings for NFL head coaches starting next week. Is Kirk Ferentz still considered a good coach in those circles? And given that Iowa is going to be lucky to go 4-8 next year, could he finally be tempted to make the leap and spare us Hawkeye fans more one yard pass plays on 3rd and 3?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Russ. The Ferentz-to-NFL rumors seem to be an annual thing, and I doubt this year will be an exception, despite his recent struggles at Iowa. The job to watch is Kansas City, as Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and Ferentz are close from their time with the Cleveland Browns. Pioli thinks very highly of Ferentz, but Pioli's own job should could be in jeopardy. My sense is that Ferentz doesn't want to leave Iowa on such a down note and would be likelier to make a jump when the program is in a bit better shape. His youngest son, Steve, just finished his freshman year on the team, and some think Ferentz, 57, wants to stay at Iowa until all of his children have graduated. Money clearly isn't a problem for Ferentz, although it's hard to resist the pull of the NFL.


John from New York writes: I understand Bennett's logic about a healthy D line and your loyalty to the Big Ten but there is no possible way he thinks the score of Purdue-Oklahoma State will be 31-27. Ok St scored 30 against Kansas State, 36 against Texas, and 48 against Oklahoma. Purdue gave up 41 to Marshall, 44 to Michigan, and 44 to Minnesota, they have no coach and not to mention they won't have a fan within 1000 miles of the stadium... Either you're required to show some sort of confidence in the league or he needs to be checked into a hospital. That game will be closer to 70-27

Adam Rittenberg: John, Oklahoma State certainly has the ability to light up Purdue's defense. But Kawann Short is a potential first-round pick at defensive tackle and played much of the season with a bum wheel. The Boilers' cornerbacks also will challenge the Cowboys receivers, but it really comes down to the defensive line and what type of pressure it can apply on the Pokes. Purdue's defense needs its best effort of the season to keep Oklahoma State's offense in check, but it's also important for Purdue to control the ball on offense and keep the Pokes offense off of the field. Could we see a 70-27 game? Sure. Oklahoma State has that type of firepower. But how much do the Pokes really want to be in this game? Purdue has an interim coach, but I really think the Boilers will be more motivated than Okie State.


Nick from Marion, Ohio, writes: Like most level-headed and educated realignment prognosticators, you believe the ACC is the most likely conference to supply the Big Ten with its next expansion targets. What happens if Maryland isn't able to wiggle out of its $50 million buyout; are Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech still the likely looks? Also, give us three non-ACC schools you could see joining the ranks of the B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I definitely think the outcome of the Maryland-ACC dispute about the buyout will be a major factor in any additional defections from the league. If Maryland indeed has to pay the full $50 million, it might discourage other schools from leaving, although the Big Ten long-term future revenue projections suggest it still might be smart to make the move. I firmly believe when the Big Ten expands again, it will once again look to the ACC. Georgia Tech is definitely on the radar. Virginia could be an attractive candidate and North Carolina is the grand prize, although UNC might not be realistic. We'll see. Outside the ACC, I don't see many realistic candidates. Maybe Kansas, although the Big Ten made a big deal about wanting to have a greater East Coast presence, and Kansas isn't there. Connecticut needs to become an AAU member to gain serious consideration.


Gabriel from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: 1st round pick Lewan vs. Future 1st round pick Clowney: Who wins on Jan. 1st????

Adam Rittenberg: Gabriel, it should be a tremendous matchup in Tampa. It's hard to pick against Clowney, who has been so dominant this season as just a true sophomore. Lewan had some nice moments as well, but as he told me earlier this month, he hasn't seen a pass-rusher quite like Clowney. Michigan's offensive line has struggled at times to generate push in the run game, but it has protected the pocket well, allowing only 15 sacks in 12 games. I think Clowney records at least one sack in the game but doesn't dominate Lewan. I'm really interested to see what coordinator Al Borges has brainstormed for Michigan, which will need a creative game plan against such an athletic Gamecocks defense.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Troy Stoudemire is very close to breaking the NCAA kick return record. Will he get drafted as a kick returner considering the NFL's kick return rules? Is he the top kick returner in the country? in the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Craig, I think Stoudermire has a chance to play at the next level because of his versatility. He has played cornerback and receiver with the Gophers and obviously has talent as a return man, although his production has gone down since the 2008 season. He'll have to show well in the postseason all-star games, the NFL combine and any other pre-draft events, but he has a chance.

Purdue embraces underdog role

December, 27, 2012
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If any team can play the "nobody-believed-in-us" card this bowl season, it's Purdue.

The Boilermakers are the biggest underdog in the 35 bowls, according to the oddsmakers, in their matchup against Oklahoma State in the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl. It's the kind of thing players say they don't pay attention to, except that they do.

"I don't really look at that stuff," senior defensive tackle Kawann Short told ESPN.com. "But a lot of people around here have told me that the spread is highest in the bowls. So it's on us to go out there and make a statement. We feel like we can play with any team in the nation right now."

People are understandably low on the Boilermakers, who had to win their final three games just to finish 6-6. Even that wasn't enough to save the job of head coach Danny Hope, who was fired one day after the regular-season finale. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins is coaching the bowl game before turning the program over to Darrell Hazell.

Purdue also got blasted in some big games this year, losing 44-13 to Michigan, 38-14 to Wisconsin, 44-28 to Minnesota and 34-9 to Penn State. No wonder, then, that Oklahoma State is a big favorite with an offense that averages 44.7 points per game.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
But there are a couple of reasons to maybe believe in the Boilers. They only lost by a field goal on the road to Notre Dame, now the nation's No. 1 team, in September. And they had undefeated Ohio State on the ropes in Columbus before the Buckeyes made a miracle comeback in the final minute and won in overtime. So this team has some experience rising to the occasion.

And Purdue has something going for it now that was absent during its five-game losing streak in the middle of the season: health on the defensive line. That unit was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten but didn't play like it when several key members of the group were banged up in midseason.

"Kawann and Bruce Gaston are two of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten; I'd still argue that," said defensive end Ryan Russell, who was a member of the walking wounded. "As a whole, the D-line prided ourselves on having lot of depth this year, and when those injuries happened, there wasn't as much depth. So I'm glad we finally got an opportunity to rest, heal up and show what we're really about."

Short, an all-Big Ten performer and potential first-round pick next April, dealt with a high ankle sprain in the middle of the year. By the Minnesota game, he said, he was "not even 80 percent." He battled through it though and said quarterback Robert Marve -- who played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament without undergoing surgery -- jokingly gave him a hard time whenever Short tried to complain about his ankle.

Short regained his effectiveness toward the end of the season, and with a month off to heal expects to be fully healthy for the bowl game. He was dominant against Notre Dame and is a difference-making force inside when right.

"I'm very excited that a lot of people are back and healthy," Short said. "We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder. Things didn't go our way this season, but right now I feel like we can bring a lot of stuff to the table."

Purdue's best chance of slowing down the Cowboys' spread offense -- which gained nearly 550 yards per game this season, fifth-best in the country -- is probably to disrupt its timing right at the line of scrimmage.

"You have to get lined up and know your assignments quick and fast," Russell said. "They definitely have a lot of weapons. It's about matching their pace and enforcing your will, instead of going with the flow and letting them do what they love to do."

And while Oklahoma State has a prolific offense, the Cowboys went just 7-5 and lost their last two games of the regular season. Purdue players don't quite see why they're being painted as giant underdogs to an opponent whose best victories came against Texas Tech and Iowa State.

"People are not respecting us very much," offensive lineman Trevor Foy said. "I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that, because I know they're going to look over us and we're going to come after them."

And if the Boilermakers do pull off the upset, they can correctly make the "nobody-believed-in-us" claim.

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