NCF Nation: Ken Plue

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

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

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

Let's take a look.

CENTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

TACKLE

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

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

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

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

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

GUARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's get to the rundown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.

Nuggets from Purdue practice

August, 27, 2010
8/27/10
5:49
PM ET
I've had the chance to review the Big Ten Network's preview of Purdue, as Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith visited Boilermakers' practice last week.

Here are some quick notes and observations:
  • DiNardo raved about the changes head coach Danny Hope has brought to Purdue, particularly from a recruiting standpoint. Although he called the Boilers a "developmental team" through the first half of the year, he's really excited about the future. And the schedule works in Purdue's favor, as the team opens with a big game at Notre Dame before facing several manageable foes. "This schedule is their best friend," DiNardo said.
  • It was hard not to come away extremely impressed with quarterback Robert Marve. The Miami transfer has a big-time arm, and he showcased it on several throws. He fired a bullet to Antavian Edison in team drills and also threaded a pass to former quarterback Justin Siller. The BTN crew all talked about his good body language, and it's clear that Marve is having a great time so far at Purdue. "I love the spread offense," said Marve, who has cut his hair since Big Ten media days. "I love throwing the ball 40 times a game."
  • Marve ran the offense extremely well during team drills. It was interesting to see Purdue operate exclusively with a silent cadence, but there weren't many penalties. "Danny Hope talks about discipline a lot, and it’s evident that it’s worked," DiNardo said.
  • Now-ineligible quarterback Caleb TerBush was still practicing at the time of the BTN's visit, but DiNardo noted that he might not be the team's No. 2 quarterback. "Rob Henry got a lot of reps today," Griffith said. That's a good sign because Henry is now Marve's backup.
  • Offensive line, running back and defensive back are Purdue's three main areas of concern, and the line clearly stood out in this practice. Mammoth guard Ken Plue seems to be moving better at a svelte 333 pounds, and DiNardo listed tackle Nick Mondek, a converted defensive lineman, as his under-the-radar player this fall. "They’ve closed the gap more than any other position," DiNardo said. "This is the unit that's furthest along out of the three that needed to be rebuilt."
  • The defensive backs had their ups and downs, but the picture is beginning to take shape. Revsine noted that Albert Evans and Logan Link likely will enter the fall as the starting safeties, and freshman cornerback Ricardo Allen has made an immediate impression. Allen defended wideout Gary Bush well in one drill, and drew praise from both Griffith and head coach Danny Hope. Junior college transfer Mike Eargle also should see time at corner, and DiNardo likes Charlton Williams.
  • DiNardo was down on the running backs, and for good reason. Ralph Bolden will miss at least part of the season and possibly all of it, and Al-Terek McBurse practiced with his lower left leg wrapped. True freshman Reggie Pegram impressed the BTN crew, aside from a near fumble in team drills, and has taken advantage of increased opportunities. Pegram has nice size at 5-11, 222. "He would be the starter or [the backup] if McBurse was [healthy]," DiNardo said. It's also worth nothing that Purdue will incorporate the fullback more this year in the offense.
  • As expected, Keith Smith and the other wide receivers looked good. Smith is a superb route runner, Siller seems to be catching on well and Edison looked very impressive, hauling in a tipped pass during one drill and sitting down nicely in the zone in another. Edison should contribute at slot receiver. "No one's going to be able to double-cover anyone," Smith said.
  • DiNardo didn't feel the defensive line or linebackers were overly physical. Star end Ryan Kerrigan beat Mondek on several plays, and freshman tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. made a good impression on the BTN crew. "He’s a big, physical guy," DiNardo said. "He's just once example of how Danny Hope is changing the talent level on defense." Middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford stood out the most among that group.
  • Hope talked about the upgrade in team speed, saying that 18 players have 4.5 speed or better, as opposed to only about six when his staff first arrived. He expects to play quite a few freshmen as well as the juco arrivals. "We could have as many as 10 new faces on the field this year," he said.

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