NCF Nation: Leveon Bell

Iowa running back Mark Weisman has been a very busy man.

Last Saturday, he carried the ball 35 times in Iowa's 27-21 win against Iowa State. According to the school, only five Hawkeyes ball-carriers have heard their number called more often in a game. Weisman's workload came a week after he logged 30 carries, then a career high, in a win against Missouri State.

Just three games into the season, Weisman has 85 carries, 10 more than any other FBS player (Boston College's Andre Williams has 75) and 21 more than any Big Ten back (Ohio State's Jordan Hall has 64). If Weisman continues this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 340 carries, which would break Sedrick Shaw's team record of 316, set in 1995.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesMark Weisman made 35 carries against Iowa State. Workhorse running backs are still typical throughout the Big Ten.
If Iowa reaches a bowl game, that number goes up to 368.

Take that, AIRBHG!

"John McKay's quote comes to mind, 'The ball's not that heavy,'" Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, referring to the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

Weisman's workload might be unique in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. A Big Ten back -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell -- led the nation in carries last season with 382, and another, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, was third with 356. Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead both ranked in the top 10 nationally in carries in 2011.

The Big Ten has had at least one player rank in the top 10 in carries in eight of the past nine seasons. Michigan State's Javon Ringer led the nation with 390 totes in 2008, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun topped the chart with 348 in 2005.

The league's continued emphasis on the run game and power football contributes to the trend. You see more big, burly ball-carriers in the Big Ten than other leagues.

Bell, who played last season at about 240 pounds, certainly fits the description. The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman came to Iowa as a fullback and has the frame to take a pounding.

"It takes a special guy to run the ball 390 times, like Le'Veon did," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can do it game to game 25 times, but that guy's got to get hot. They're plenty durable enough to do that."

Ferentz has had several bell-cow backs at Iowa, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who ranked fifth nationally with 307 carries in 2008.

"It's not easy for anybody who's playing a lot of plays," Ferentz said. "They've really got to take care of themselves and they've got to be mentally tough, too, because anybody who's playing college football, most of them are sore by now."

Ferentz credits Weisman for staying in "phenomenal shape," but he also doesn't want to overwork the junior.

"It's really important that we utilize the whole group and really bring them along," Ferentz said, "so Mark can be at his best the whole season."

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

In the coming days, we'll make our predictions on the Big Ten's statistical leaders in 2013. Today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing this season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten loses its top three rushers from 2012 -- Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell and Denard Robinson -- but returns the next seven best ground gainers. That group of seven includes two pairs of teammates in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah. Although any of the four could lead the league in rushing, it's possible that they'll cancel each other out and take away the carries needed to top the chart. Northwestern's Venric Mark also is in the mix, but like the others, he shares carries with a quarterback (Kain Colter) and should have a deeper group of running backs around him this fall. Penn State's Zach Zwinak hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2012, but he'll be pushed for carries by Bill Belton and dynamic redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe power of RB Carlos Hyde is expected to be put to the test often for Ohio State in 2013.
Wisconsin has a similar situation with its run game as James White and Melvin Gordon will enter the season as 1a and 1b. Of the two, Gordon projects a little bit better as a true featured back, but White is a talented senior who should be a big part of the mix as well. Iowa's Mark Weisman is part of the discussion, too, as he showed the ability to put up monster numbers when healthy in 2012, even for a bad offense. Michigan is on the lookout for a featured back, and while the Wolverines have some question marks along the offensive line, Fitzgerald Toussaint or Derrick Green could be a good wild-card pick.

Bottom line: this isn't an easy decision. Ultimately, I'm going with the guy running behind the league's best offensive line at Ohio State. Hyde will emerge as the Big Ten's leading rusher, edging out Mark, Gordon and Weisman for the title. Ohio State will rely less on Miller to carry the rushing load and use a more traditional power attack behind Hyde, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns in only 10 games last fall. Hyde has the power-size combination to thrive as a featured back, and he should get a bigger carries load as a senior, not just in the red zone but everywhere on the field.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

The race for the rushing title should shape up as the most exciting individual battle in the Big Ten this season. The league always produces great runners, and as Adam noted, many of the top ball carriers are back in 2013. In fact, some of the best competitions for rushing yards will happen in the same backfields, as several teams are capable of fielding two 1,000-yard rushers this season.

Hyde is a good choice, especially if he can replicate what he did down the stretch last year for a full season. But Braxton Miller will still run the ball a lot, too, and Ohio State also has the improving Rod Smith, youngsters Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn, plus Jordan Hall and possibly Dontre Wilson. That's a lot of studs who need to be fed.

I'm tempted to take one of the Wisconsin backs, because you can never really go wrong there. But I can envision a scenario where both White and Gordon both put up over 1,000 yards but neither leads the league. Instead, I'm going to go out on an ever-so-slight limb and predict that Nebraska's Abdullah finishes as the Big Ten rushing champ.

Abdullah ran for 1,137 yards last year, and he began the season as Rex Burkhead's backup. He also split carries when Burkhead returned from a knee injury late in the season. Abdullah improved greatly from his freshman to his sophomore year and should be even better as a junior. Though Martinez will take his share of carries, Abdullah really only has one other player -- Imani Cross -- to split time with. The Huskers' offense plays at a fast pace and should get lots of snaps, especially against a pretty soft early schedule. Defenses also can't key on Abdullah because of the presence of Martinez and a talented receiving corps.

Abdullah received 226 carries in 14 games last year, an average of just 16 per game. Assuming he's fully healed from a minor spring knee injury, I could easily see him averaging more like 20-to-22 carries per contest in 2013. If he can improve his five yards per carry average from 2012, Abdullah should make a run at over 1,500 yards and possibly bring the rushing title home to Lincoln.
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.
Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."
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.
Michigan State's Nick Hill has dealt with the labels for years.

Too small. Scat back. Not every-down material. The fact he's trying to replace one of the biggest, baddest and most productive backs in the country, Le'Veon Bell, certainly doesn't make the size questions go away.

"I've been hearing that for a long time," Hill told ESPN.com earlier this week. "I think that's making me a better player, people saying that me being small, I might not be an every-down back. I look at it as a challenge."

[+] EnlargeNick Hill
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State running back Nick Hill hopes to see his role on offense expand in 2013.
The 5-foot-8 Hill knows he's not Bell, who has 6 inches and about 40 pounds on him. Bell logged more carries (382) than any FBS back in 2012, rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He eclipsed 25 carries nine times and surpassed 30 carries seven times, doing so in each of Michigan State's last four games. Not surprisingly, Bell opted to skip his final season in East Lansing and enter the NFL draft.

The epitome of a power back, Bell racked up 922 rush yards after contact, the most in the FBS. Hill, who backed up Bell along with Larry Caper but had just 21 rushes for 48 yards and a touchdown, admits it wasn't easy to get on the field.

"They put me in some different packages here and there like jet sweeps," Hill said, "or if [Bell] came out, I went in. He was the best back we had, so it was tough, but I competed every day."

Hill is competing these days for the top running back spot. He opened the spring as the starter and has been sharing first-team reps with Jeremy Langford through the first few practices. Nick Tompkins also is in the mix, and the race likely will spill into preseason camp, as three freshmen arrive on campus.

"I look at it as competition, guys looking to be the best we can be," Hill said. "At the same time, I'm No. 1 on the chart."

Hill's speed has never been an issue -- he has been MSU's primary kick returner the past two seasons and also returned 13 punts -- but he made power a priority in the offseason, mindful of the increased carries load he hopes to have. He put on 10 pounds, checking in at around 195.

Michigan State strength coach Ken Mannie and Hill put together a power plan for Hill's winter workouts. The results: Hill increased his squat to 615 pounds and his bench press to 420.

"By me gaining more muscle and more power in my legs, and more weight," Hill said, "it will allow me to drive through the linebackers and through the hole."

While some view Hill's size as a disadvantage -- Hill thinks it turned off some teams during his college recruitment -- the Spartans junior thinks it can give him an edge, even in a league like the Big Ten. In fact, some of Michigan State's defenders have told him they struggle to locate him after he takes the handoff.

"Offensive linemen are about 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, and I'm 5-8," he said, "so hiding behind them and using my speed and my quickness to make cuts, they have a hard time [finding me].

"And by that time, I'm already at the next level."

Michigan State has a history of big backs, from Lorenzo White in the 1980s to more recently T.J. Duckett, Jehuu Caulcrick and Bell. But Javon Ringer also starred as a featured back for the Spartans despite his 5-9, 202-pound frame. Ringer led the nation in carries (390) in 2008 and earned All-America honors.

Hill occasionally exchanges text messages with Ringer, who has told him: When people on defense underestimate you, make ‘em pay.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio described Hill as "confident" so far this spring. But there's still a lot to prove, as Hill needs to show speed, power, shiftiness, durability and ball security, which has been a bit of an issue for him on returns.

"I can do a lot of things Le'Veon can do," Hill said. "The difference is, obviously, he's 6-2 and I'm 5-8. But other than that, I think I can bring a lot of good qualities to the table with my speed, pass pro, catching the ball out of the backfield and helping the team win."
Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar undoubtedly absorbed the brunt of the criticism for the unit's struggles in 2012.

But starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell wasn't far behind.

Seemingly the perfect successor to Kirk Cousins, both in skill set and personality, Maxwell traveled a bumpy road in his first season at the controls. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing (200.5 yards per game) but completed just 52.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdown strikes and nine interceptions. His quarterback rating of 107.1 didn't rank among the top 100 passers nationally.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDespite coming off an underwhelming season, Andrew Maxwell enters spring practice as the Spartans' starter.
Although the junior started all 13 games for the Spartans, he was replaced by Connor Cook in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. When Michigan State revamped the offensive staff following Roushar's departure to the New Orleans Saints, a quarterback competition this spring would seem to be a logical step as the unit tries to get back on track.

There will be competition, head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com on Thursday, but Maxwell will enter spring practice, which kicks off Tuesday, as the starter. One other thing: Dantonio remains very much in Maxwell's corner.

"He's our No. 1 quarterback based on his leadership, based on his experience," Dantonio said. "He's a proven commodity in terms of his value as a person. His leadership value, getting us into the right play, knowledge of the system. He needs to just create more when things break down. That's the next step. But he's a great person.

"We're all going to have some storms we've got to beat and work through."

Maxwell will compete with Cook and Tyler O'Connor this spring. Highly touted incoming freshman Damion Terry arrives this summer for preseason camp.

Getting the quarterbacks more help is a priority this spring as Michigan State loses its top two offensive weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- to the NFL draft. Three players will compete this spring at running back -- Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins -- and Michigan State returns its entire receiving corps, an oft-criticized group in 2012. Dantonio also is excited about the potential of the offensive line, calling it "one of the strengths of our team."

The coach reiterated that while quarterbacks take the brunt of the blame when things don't go well, there are other factors involved.

"Obviously, we need to get better," he said. "But I'll stand beside [Maxwell]."
Michigan State officially announced the hiring of Jim Bollman on Monday as co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. But he will not serve as the Spartans' main playcaller.

That responsibility will belong to Dave Warner, who had been the team's quarterbacks coach the past six seasons. A team spokesman confirmed that Warner will take the lead on game days.

That's part of some major shuffling of the offensive staff by Mark Dantonio. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Warner will now also handle the running backs. Brad Salem, who had overseen the Michigan State running backs the past three years, now will take over the quarterbacks. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will now have the additional title of assistant head coach.

Here's what Dantonio had to say about Warner:
"Dave has been an important figure in our offense for the past six years – both the successes as well as the setbacks. There’s power in all of that information, so it’s a great advantage for him to assume the role of co-offensive coordinator as we move forward. I’ve been impressed with his organizational and time management skills. In addition, Dave has displayed the ability to make quick decisions."

Warner has been a coordinator before, at UConn from 1999-2000. Now he'll be paired with a longtime veteran in Bollman. When news of Bollman's hiring leaked last week, it didn't exactly fire up Michigan State's fan base, since he was often criticized for being too conservative as Ohio State's OC. But it's also true that Dantonio wasn't going to completely overhaul his offensive system and that he trusts Bollman.
"This is the fourth time in my career that I’ve had an opportunity to work with Jim Bollman, so there’s definitely a comfort level there," Dantonio said in the school's official release. “He has a tremendous amount of football knowledge, especially on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Jim will coach the tight ends, and he spent three years coaching that position in the NFL. He also has long-standing recruiting ties in Ohio. We’re excited about having Jim and his family back in the MSU community.

"Jim has been an offensive coordinator for 11 of the last 12 years. During his tenure in Columbus, Ohio State won six Big Ten championships, a national championship and played in two other BCS National Championship Games. He has performed under pressure at the highest level and on the biggest stage. With pressure comes experience, and Jim has been rock solid in those situations. He’s respected for his development as well as treatment of his players. He’s simply a ball coach.”

The Michigan State offense merely needs to be competent if the team's defense continues to play at a high level under Narduzzi, who has more than earned his assistant head coach title.
"No one has officially held that position before on my staff, but in Pat Narduzzi’s case, it’s certainly warranted," Dantonio said. "Pat is a great leader on the defensive side of the football, who has forged strong relationships with his players, and he’s also an outstanding recruiter. Over the last six years, he has helped build one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, and over the last two years, Michigan State has become one of the nation’s elite units, ranking among the NCAA’s Top 10 in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

"I also appreciate his loyalty because Pat has been approached by several programs over the last few years and he’s elected to remain a Spartan. I know he doesn’t take this position lightly. When I’m not in the office, Pat takes control of the day-to-day operation. He’s held those duties for the last two years, but without the formal title."

Warner and Salem also have a lot of work to do with their new position responsibilities. Salem needs to get Andrew Maxwell on track and work with young contenders for the quarterback job in Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry. Warner will have to groom the replacement for Le'Veon Bell and may have to turn to some true freshmen to help get the job done there.

Last year's offense excelled only at producing squeamishness. Time will tell if these changes help rectify matters.
"We might simplify some things, yet become more diversified as an offense," said Dantonio. "Throughout the spring, things will be added and subtracted from the offense. Changes aren’t being made for the sake of change; changes are being made with a purpose. With that mindset, we can create different opportunities for our playmakers."
Denard RobinsonAP Photo/Dave MartinMichigan's Denard Robinson impressed with his speed at the combine.

Michigan's Denard Robinson boasted last year that he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash.

If that's true, than the Olympic sprint champion wouldn't be one of the fastest 10 men in this year's NFL draft. While Robinson's claim might have been too bold, he still put up a predictably fast time in the 40 during NFL combine workouts on Sunday. The former Wolverine ran an official 4.43-second 40 in Indianapolis, tying him for ninth among all players who have worked out so far. Bolt might need to worry more about Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a 4.27.

There are always some interesting finds in the combine numbers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the creator of the Le'Veon Leap, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, would record the same number on the vertical jump (31.5 inches) as Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner? The same Wagner who was listed at 317 pounds this season for the Badgers. Strange but true.

The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists have all had their turn under the microscope at the combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out today, with defensive backs wrapping things up on Tuesday.

Let's take a look at how Big Ten players rank among the top overall performers so far:

  • Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, not surprisingly, tested well in several areas. The Huskers running back was fifth overall in the vertical leap at 39 inches, tied for 8th in the broad jump at 10 feet, five inches, was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.09 seconds, 14th in the three-cone drill at 6.85 seconds and 14th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.51 seconds.
  • In addition to his 40 time, Robinson tied for 13th in vertical jump at 36.5 inches.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence is third in the bench press so far at 37 reps at 225 pounds.
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Reid Fragel is ninth in the bench press with 33 reps.
  • Michigan State's Bell is ninth in the three-cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Bell, by the way, weighed in at 230 pounds.
  • Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner tied for 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.5 seconds.

Now let's examine the position groups and see how Big Ten players stacked among their peers at their positions:

Quarterbacks

  • Iowa's James Vandenberg was third among quarterbacks in the vertical jump at 32 inches, second in the three-cone drill, fourth in the broad jump at 116 inches, seventh with a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash, and tied for 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Minnesota's MarQueis Gray was fourth with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash, seventh in vertical jump at 30 inches, tied for in the ninth broad jump (111 inches ), 10th in three-cone drill and tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle.
Running backs

  • Who was the fastest among big-time Big Ten backs? Bell ran a 4.60, just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 4.66, while Burkhead posted a 4.73.
  • Bell was also ninth in the 225-pound bench press at 24 reps, third in the three-cone drill and 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Burkhead was behind only Texas A&M's Christine Michael in vertical jump, tied for second in broad jump, placed fourth in the three-cone drill, second in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the 60-yard shuttle. He tied for 13th with 22 reps on the bench press.
  • Ball talked last week about not being known for doing any one thing great. His combine numbers were a reflection of that. His 40 time was 19th among running backs, and his only Top 15 finish in any workout was his seventh-place showing in the three-cone drill.
  • Ohio State fullback Zach Boren tied for seventh in bench press at 25 reps.
Receivers

  • Robinson was the only Big Ten player to be invited as a receiver. In addition to his numbers mentioned earlier, Robinson tied for 10th among wideouts in the broad jump at 123 inches and tied for 12th in the 20-yard shuttle.
Tight ends

  • Michigan State's Dion Sims tied for third among tight ends in the bench press at 22 reps, was third in the vertical leap (35 inches) and finished second in both the three-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills. He was 12th in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds and 12th in broad jump at 112 inches.
  • Ohio State's Stoneburner was third among tight ends in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. He was fifth in vertical leap (34.5 inches), tied for fourth in the broad jump (116 inches) and sixth in the three-cone drill. He placed ninth in bench at 18 reps.
Offensive line

  • Ohio State's Fragel was fourth among offensive linemen with 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He was fifth in vertical leap at 30 inches and third in the broad jump at 113 inches.
  • Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner was third in the vertical jump at 31.5 inches. He did 20 reps on the bench press and ran a 5.17 40-yard time.
  • Badgers center Travis Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard time and did 21 reps on the bench press.
  • Illinois' Hugh Thornton was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle drill. His 40 time was 5.11 seconds, and he did 27 reps on the bench.
  • Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch did 27 reps on the bench and ran a ran a 5.43 in the 40.

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.
Michigan State fans would understandably disagree, but the Big Ten overall wasn't hit that hard by early departures to the NFL draft this year. Only six Big Ten underclassmen declared for the draft (Note: Purdue linebacker Dwayne Beckford already had been dismissed from the team).

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.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan State will certainly miss the production of running back Le'Veon Bell.
2. Biggest loser: Michigan State. The Big Ten had a smaller than normal group of early NFL departures, but Michigan State accounted for 50 percent (3-of-6) as running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston all made the jump. None of the early exits comes as a major surprise, as Bell led the nation in carries (382) and ranked third in rushing average (137.9), Sims flashed next-level potential and Gholston clearly has the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. But the departures of both Bell and Sims really sting an offense that lacked consistently productive players. Bell accounted for 92.3 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards and 38.4 percent of MSU's total yards, while Sims had 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite missing time with an ankle injury. A Spartans offense that struggled mightily for most of the season enters the offseason with even more question marks.

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.

Big Ten's best moments from 2012

January, 14, 2013
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The Big Ten had a mostly forgettable season in 2012, and most are anxious to turn the page to 2013. But the fall did provide some memorable moments around the league.

Here are a few …

Miller's mastery: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller put himself on the Heisman Trophy radar with dazzling moves and long runs, but his most memorable play covered only a yard. Facing third-and-goal, Miller looked like he would be stopped on a zone-read play, but he executed a video game-like juke, scooted past Penn State All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges and leaped into the end zone for the touchdown. The score gave Ohio State a 21-10 lead, and the Buckeyes went on to win 35-23.

Barry's back: After Bret Bielema surprisingly left Wisconsin for Arkansas three days after winning the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers needed a coach for the Rose Bowl, and the seniors knew where to turn. They asked former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez to lead the team, and Alvarez quickly agreed. Alvarez provided several great moments during his month as coach, including a ridiculously entertaining news conference in which he delivered the quote of the year in the Big Ten: "I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me." The return tour culminated with Alvarez strolling the sideline at the Rose Bowl, just like old times.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell's hurdle was one of the few bright spots in Michigan State's season.
Penn State punctuates season: Few expected much from Penn State after a turbulent summer that brought severe NCAA sanctions and a mini exodus that included star running back Silas Redd. But first-year coach Bill O'Brien and a steadfast senior class kept the team on track. Following an 0-2 start, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish in second place in the Leaders division. The season culminated in an emotion-charged senior day in State College, as Penn State honored the seniors on the stadium facade and the Lions outlasted Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime. Fittingly, kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles led to Penn State's Week 2 loss at Virginia, hit the game-winning field goal from 37 yards out.

Roundtree to the rescue: Michigan found itself in serious danger of dropping its first home game under coach Brady Hoke as it took possession at its own 38-yard line with no timeouts and 18 seconds left. Needing a field goal to tie Northwestern, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved the ball downfield toward senior receiver Roy Roundtree, who amazingly faced only single coverage. The pass appeared to be too far, but Roundtree battled defensive back Daniel Jones, tipped the ball in the air and then made an amazing catch at the Northwestern 9-yard line. Michigan went on to win in overtime and keep alive its hopes for a Legends division title.

Buckeye backups rise: Ohio State recorded the sixth undefeated, untied season in team history, but it wouldn't have happened without some huge performances from little-used players against Purdue. The Buckeyes were on the ropes, trailing Purdue 22-14 with 47 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at their own 39-yard line. Quarterback Miller was in the hospital getting his neck examined. Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the offense downfield and found a diving Chris Fields for a touchdown with three seconds left. Fields' first touchdown grab set up a 2-point conversion, and Ohio State went on to win in overtime.

Ball becomes touchdown king: Montee Ball's senior season didn't start off well, as the Wisconsin star was the victim of an assault this summer and struggled in September. But Ball provided his typical late-season surge and put up excellent numbers in Big Ten play (1,168 rush yards, 16 TDs). He set several records down the stretch, none more significant than the NCAA's all-time touchdowns record, which he secured on a first-quarter scoring run Nov. 24 at Penn State. Although he didn't make it back to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.

Osborne leads Nebraska out of tunnel: Tom Osborne announced his retirement as Nebraska's athletic director in September, and the team honored its living legend before its final home game Nov. 17 against Minnesota. Osborne, who coached the Huskers from 1973-97, joined the team for its famous tunnel walk and led the Huskers onto the field before an adoring crowd at Memorial Stadium. Although Osborne certainly isn't going anyway, the emotional tribute allowed Nebraska fans to recognize him one final time.

Northwestern's bowl bonanza: Bowl games are no longer rarities for Northwestern, but the program's inability to win a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl cast a shadow over its recent accomplishments. The Wildcats finally got the bowl monkey off of their backs by thumping Mississippi State 34-20 on Jan. 1, setting off an emotional celebration for Pat Fitzgerald and his players. In a jubilant locker room the team tore apart the stuffed monkey that had symbolized its postseason futility. The victory gave Northwestern just its third 10-win season in team history, and made Fitzgerald the program's all-time winningest coach (50 victories).

Bo knows: After Ohio State humbled his Nebraska team Oct. 6 in Columbus, coach Bo Pelini calmly delivered a statement that would carry the Huskers to a Legends division title. "We need to win out," Pelini said. "We have six weeks. And we need to win the next six football games. Get to Indianapolis." And indeed they did, as Nebraska shook off the blowout loss and became Team Comeback, rallying to beat Northwestern and Michigan State on the road and Penn State at home. The Huskers embraced the urgency of the situation and made it to Indianapolis for the league title game.

Le'Veon's leap: Michigan State didn't have many memorable moments, and neither did the Big Ten during nonleague play, but Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell provided one in the season opener against Boise State. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound junior hurdled a Boise State defender on Michigan State's third play from scrimmage, delighting the Spartan Stadium crowd. It became somewhat of a signature move for Bell, who racked up 266 yards on a whopping 44 carries against the Broncos in the first of many workhorse-like performances this season. Michigan State won the game 17-13, giving the Big Ten one of few solid nonleague victories.

Iowa's Weis-man: Like Michigan State, Iowa fell short of expectations this season and struggled to generate offense. And like the Spartans, the Hawkeyes could hang their hat on a big, bruising ball-carrier, although one few anticipated would do much this season. Fullback Mark Weisman, a walk-on who transferred from Air Force, announced himself with a 113-yard, three-touchdown performance in a Week 3 win against Northern Iowa. Weisman racked up 623 rush yards and eight touchdowns during a brilliant four-week stretch before being slowed by injuries.
As we continue to put a bow on the Big Ten's bowl season, here are some superlatives from the league's seven postseason contests:

Best game: I picked the Outback Bowl as my favorite matchup before the postseason began, and Michigan and South Carolina showed why. The game featured all kinds of big plays and four lead changes in the final 15:02. The Gamecocks won 33-28 thanks to a 32-yard pass from their backup quarterback with 11 seconds to go. And Jadeveon Clowney made the play of bowl season with his thundering hit on Vincent Smith and one-handed grab of the loose ball.

Worst game: Purdue insisted it would be ready to surprise Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Instead, the only surprise was just how badly the Boilermakers played. They fell behind 45-0 before eventually losing 58-14, turning the ball over five times and allowing 524 yards. It was the largest margin of defeat in any bowl game.

Best moment: They should have called it the Curseslayer.com Gator Bowl. Seeing Northwestern break its 63-year bowl drought was emotional for its fans, players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "This was the one last negative we needed to erase," Fitzgerald said on the field after his Wildcats defeated Mississippi State in Jacksonville.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan, South Carolina and especially Jadeveon Clowney put on a show in the Outback Bowl.
Best finish: Michigan State spent most of the season coming up short at the end of close games. So it was good to see the Spartans reverse that against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Backup quarterback Connor Cook drove the team down the field for Dan Conroy's game-winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left, a nice redemption for Conroy's shaky season. And the defense held on in the final seconds to preserve the 17-16 victory.

Worst finish: Minnesota led Texas Tech 31-24 with a little more than 70 seconds left in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. But Seth Doege hit Eric Ward for a 35-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. The Gophers' Philip Nelson then threw an interception on a deep ball on third-and-7 from his own 33 that D.J. Johnson returned 41 yards. That set up the Red Raiders' winning field goal on the game's final play. Should Minnesota simply have played for overtime after Texas Tech's touchdown pass? Jerry Kill defended his aggressiveness. "We were in a two-minute offense and trying to win the game," Kill said. "We had a minute left on the clock, we were indoors, our kicker [Jordan Wettstein] has a chance to kick 50 yards and we were on the 35-yard line. We make two or three passes and kick a field goal and win the game."

Craziest sequence: The Capital One Bowl between Nebraska and Georgia provided plenty of points and entertainment value, especially during a wild first quarter. Midway through the quarter, the teams combined for three touchdowns on four plays from scrimmage (not counting PATs). After a Taylor Martinez touchdown strike to Jamal Turner, Nebraska's Will Compton picked off a second-down pass from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and returned the ball 24 yards for a touchdown. Murray responded on the next Georgia play, finding Tavarres King for a 75-yard touchdown pass. The teams combined for 30 first-quarter points.

Best quarterback impersonation: As if Le'Veon Bell hadn't done enough for Michigan State this season, he completed a 29-yard pass from the Wildcat on third-and-2 in the third quarter to set up the Spartans' first score. He finished with more passing yards than starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell. That was enough for us to forgive his awful attempt at a throwback pass to Maxwell early in the game on a terrible-looking trick play.

Best running back impersonation: What position will Denard Robinson play in the NFL? Who knows? But we wouldn't bet against him at whatever he tries. In his final collegiate game, Robinson ran 23 times for 100 yards while lining up primarily at tailback. In doing so, he set the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback, even though he technically didn't play the position in his final few games. No one ever said Robinson was conventional.

Best season microcosm: (Tie) Wisconsin and Nebraska. Sometimes, teams can reverse their tendencies in bowls after a month-long layoff. Not so much for the Badgers and Cornhuskers. Wisconsin showed that the Big Ten title game win was the aberration in their season, as their 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford was a near carbon-copy of their previous five defeats in 2012. The lack of a strong passing game and the inability to close out games once again cost them. It was a similar story for Nebraska, which showed the ability to score points and move the ball at will against a talented Georgia defense. But the Huskers' problems with ball security (three turnovers) and defensive lapses turned a 31-31 game into a 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss.

Strangest moment: Michigan gambled on a fake field goal on a fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, and Floyd Simmons appeared to come up just short. The officials called for a measurement, and the ball was clearly short of the first down marker by a full chain length. Yet referee Jeff Maconaghy signaled first down for the Wolverines, sending Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier into a rage. "We felt like he was pointing the wrong way," Spurrier said later. "I asked if he meant that way. He wasn't going to change his mind." After one of the oddest calls we've ever seen, Clowney exacted his own form of justice with the hit of the year on Smith.

Goofiest moment: You knew Stanford's irreverent band wouldn't miss an opportunity to make a big splash at the Rose Bowl. At halftime, the Cardinal band presented an ode to cheese in deference -- or mockery -- of one of Wisconsin's chief products. The show was full of often painful cheese puns, with the band spelling out "Homage" on the field and then changing it to "Fromage," and a voice over the P.A. system saying things like "Leave us prov-alone." Wisconsin fans didn't like it very much and booed the performance. I thought it was pretty funny, or "punny" as the band spelled out at one point.

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