NCF Nation: Louis Nzegwu
Away we go ...
Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
- The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
- No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
- New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
- Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
- The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
- Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
- The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
- Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
- Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
- Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
- The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
- Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.
Here we go:
2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.
3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.
4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.
6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.
7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.
8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.
9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.
10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.
Plenty of evidence would support that conclusion. Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl has a team averaged as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards as Badgers defenders often hopelessly chased from behind.
Wisconsin players bristled at the notion that they couldn't run with Oregon, and not surprisingly. They've heard the too-slow critique for years and have won enough games to disprove much of it. They preferred to blame Monday's defensive performance on things like "gap accountability," missed assignments and just plain brain cramps.
"I think we lost our mind on some plays," defensive end Louis Nzegwu said.
Fans and media are often guilty of not thinking clearly when trying to explain a team's losses. Wisconsin has now dropped two straight Rose Bowls by the thinnest of margins, and there will be those who try to diagnose why the program "can't win the big one." It's the same stuff Oregon heard until late Monday evening. Never mind that the Ducks lost close games in their last two BCS losses, or that the Badgers might be celebrating a second straight Rose win if just a couple of plays had gone differently.
Yet if there's anything the past two Rose Bowls have taught us -- and especially this one -- it's that Wisconsin needs more difference-makers on defense.
That doesn't necessarily mean more speed, though that wouldn't hurt. Even though De'Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James spent a lot of time gliding down the field alone or with a friendly escort, the Badgers didn't come away thinking they couldn't keep up with the Ducks.
"I thought they were fast, but I thought we matched them pretty well," safety Aaron Henry said. "Whenever we did what we were supposed to do, we got off the field. When we allowed them to run through holes without being touched, they took advantage of it."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used the month of preparation to simulate Oregon's accelerated pace as much as possible. The defense faced two scout-team offenses at once during practice and went through extra conditioning work to get ready for the up-tempo.
It turned out that didn't play much of a factor. The Ducks often didn't go at warp speed with their snaps. They just scored really quickly. Two examples were particularly galling for Wisconsin.
The Badgers had pinned the ball with a punt on the Oregon 9-yard-line late in the first quarter, only to have Thomas rip off a Rose Bowl-record 91-yard touchdown. On the first series after halftime when adjustments should have been fine-tuned, the Ducks scored in just 33 seconds on a 64-yard Thomas run.
"With a month to prepare, we shouldn't have had problems like that," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Their mixing up of formations and things, they do get you off of your keys. But there's really no excuse for it."
Oregon averaged 8.6 yards per rush -- another Rose record -- and quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 268 yards, his third-highest total of the season. Wisconsin only sacked him twice and did not stop much of anything outside of the Ducks' screen game.
"What hurt us was the play-action pass," Nzegwu said. "We respected their run, and when some of our D-ends hit the edge we couldn't tell whether it was a run or pass. We kept on following the running back, and that kind of hurt our pass rush."
What also hurts is a lack of defenders who can blow up plays on their own. Nzegwu returned a fumble Taylor caused by a hit on Thomas for a touchdown, and Henry came up with an interception. But there were too few other impact plays. Oregon has lost under coach Chip Kelly when it has faced teams with a standout defensive line and other disruptive presences, like Nick Fairley of Auburn or Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. The Badgers have many good defensive players -- Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland were All-Big Ten selections -- but not enough stars or blue-chip NFL prospects.
The program has shown it can produce those types of players. Defensive end J.J. Watt won the Lott Trophy last year and just wrapped up a strong rookie regular season for the Houston Texans. Even with Watt last year, though, Wisconsin struggled to contain TCU's skill players in a 21-19 Rose Bowl loss.
Wisconsin is known for offensive studs like quarterback Russell Wilson and Montee Ball and those NFL offensive linemen; Bielema's next challenge is to attract and develop similarly elite talent on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin may have to rely more on its defense next year without Wilson, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and most likely Ball.
It's true that Oregon will make a lot of teams look slow when its offense is clicking. But it's also true that teams don't win many BCS games by giving up 621 yards and 45 points.
"We didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scores, and nobody can win doing that," Bielema said.
The Badgers were just a couple plays short of winning every game they played this season, so a major overhaul is not in order. A few more defensive difference-makers, however, could have changed those outcomes.
Turning point: With the score tied at 21, Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor came free on a blitz and buckled the arm of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. Teammate Louis Nzegwu was in the right place to scoop it up, and he rumbled 33 yards for the defensive score. In a game in which the offenses are dominating, any defensive reversal like that looms large.
Stat of the half: Oregon has 28 points on 29 plays, averaging 11.8 yards per play. Wisconsin is averaging an even 7 yards per play. The two teams have combined for 636 total yards.
What Wisconsin needs to do: Keep hanging around. The Badgers are moving the ball nearly at will, but it's going to be tough to keep up with Oregon if the Ducks keep scoring at this pace. If Wisconsin can keep it close in the second half, it can put pressure on the Ducks' offense and hope for another mistake like the Thomas fumble. The Badgers have been very good in the third quarter all season and have made excellent second-half adjustments.
What Oregon needs to do: Take away something defensively. Montee Ball has more than 100 yards, and Russell Wilson is carving up the defense on play-action rollouts. That balance is what makes the Badgers so difficult to stop, but Oregon needs to make at least one of those facets more difficult, as it did with a fourth-down sack of Wilson in the second quarter.
Record performances: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas ran 91 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter. That was the longest touchdown run in Rose Bowl history. Ball tied Barry Sanders' FBS scoring record with his 39th touchdown on the season with a 3-yard plunge into the end zone in the second quarter. The two teams combined for a Rose Bowl record 56 points in the first half, 11 more than the previous high.
Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.
This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.
2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.
3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.
4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.
5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.
6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.
7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.
8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.
9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.
10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.
Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.
The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.
Let's take a look:
2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.
3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.
4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.
5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.
7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.
8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.
9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.
10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.
11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
I thought about setting the bar at 10 sacks or more, but eight seems more appropriate. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan was the only Big Ten player to rack up eight or more sacks in 2010, finishing with 12.5. Five players eclipsed eight sacks in 2009: Kerrigan, Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield, Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, Michigan DE Brandon Graham and Michigan State LB Greg Jones.
Let's look at the likeliest candidates to reach eight sacks or more this fall.
2. Northwestern DE Vince Browne: Browne has put up numbers throughout his career, tying for second in the Big Ten in sacks with seven last fall. The senior can rack up stats in bunches, especially in nonconference play. If he can become just as effective against Big Ten squads, he should have a very strong season and contend for all-conference honors.
3. Purdue DT Kawann Short: Overshadowed by Kerrigan last season, Short quietly put together an extremely impressive season for an interior lineman, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Although Kerrigan's presence clearly helped Short make plays in 2010, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior has made strides and should once again wreak havoc.
4. Ohio State DEs Nathan Williams or John Simon: Williams recorded 4.5 sacks in 2010 and gives Ohio State a speed-rusher on the edge. I expect him to take a big step forward this fall. The same goes for Simon, who can play both line spots but likely will spend more time on the outside. Ohio State has extremely high hopes for the brutally strong Simon, and he could become a star this fall. While I'd be surprised if both players reach eight sacks, one seems likely to do so.
5. Iowa DT Mike Daniels: Daniels put up some nice numbers last season -- 11 tackles for loss, four sacks -- and should be more productive as he takes the lead with the Hawkeyes' defensive line this fall. After starting eight games in 2010, Daniels will see an increased role as Iowa tries to replace standout linemen Karl Klug, Clayborn and Christian Ballard.
6. Nebraska LB Lavonte David: Don't count out Big Ten linebackers from recording eight sacks or more, and Nebraska's David certainly seems capable of reaching the milestone. David had six tackles, 15 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries in 2010. Nebraska isn't afraid to blitz him, and he'll do some damage in opposing backfields this fall.
7. A Michigan defensive lineman: The switch to the 4-3 and Greg Mattison's arrival as coordinator should spark Michigan's pass rush this fall. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and tackle Mike Martin are two players I could see reaching eight sacks this fall. Van Bergen will have to double his total and Martin must make an even bigger jump, but both men should benefit from the offseason changes.
Also keep an eye on these potential Big Ten sack-masters:
- Indiana DE Darius Johnson
- Michigan State DEs William Gholston and Tyler Hoover
- Penn State DT Devon Still
- Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy
- Wisconsin DE Louis Nzegwu
- Nebraska DE Cameron Meredith
We'll continue the series Tuesday with a look at the Big Ten's 3,000-yard passers in 2011.
Let's take a closer look:
Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.
Quotable: "We were without four, possibly five, offensive starters, so the continuity of that group was thrown off a little bit. I really like the offensive line depth we've been able to develop. On the back end, the defensive side, I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there." -- coach Bret Bielema
- It was a rough day for Wisconsin's quarterback position both on and off the field. The Badgers' top three signal-callers -- junior Jon Budmayr, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave -- combined to complete just 22 of 61 pass attempts (36.1 percent) for 241 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense failed to reach the end zone and managed only one scoring drive, resulting in a field goal. Budmayr, the front-runner to be the starter this season, completed 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. "The three guys that got the majority of the reps today aren't anywhere where we need them to be for us to be a competitive team in the fall," Bielema said. "They need to continue to move forward." Bielema revealed after the game that quarterback Curt Phillips, a potential challenger to Budmayr, will miss the 2011 season following his third knee surgery.
- Although the offense played without several starters, the top defense turned in an encouraging performance. The pass rush was solid as ends David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both recorded two tackles for loss and a sack. "Our D-line, we're winning," Gilbert said. "As long as we're winning, that’s what matters." Linebacker Marcus Trotter finished an impressive spring with five tackles and a forced fumble, and starting cornerback Devin Smith had an interception and four tackles.
- The run game averaged only 2.6 yards per attempt, although Wisconsin's top two backs had their moments. James White led the way with 47 rush yards on eight carries, including gains of 22 yards and 17 yards. Montee Ball finished with 33 rush yards on eight carries, while third-stringer Zach Brown also had 33 rush yards. "Today probably wasn’t the best performance but we'll be even better come fall," White said. "We have a lot of confidence as an offense. We have a few people banged up and that can mess with things but we're still getting better."
- Kicker Philip Welch had a mixed performance in the game. He went 8-for-8 during two separate kicking segments on attempts between 27-61 yards, hitting from 58 and 61 yards out. But during the team portion of the game, Welch missed attempts from 38, 49 and 52 yards. "He's got to be able to handle the pressure, he's got to be consistent with where we're at," Bielema said.
Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
- Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
- I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
- Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
- Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
- Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
- The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
- For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.
Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
- Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
- Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19
What to watch:
- Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
- Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
- Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
- Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
- Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
- Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
- Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
- Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9
What to watch:
- Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
- The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
- The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
- New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
- Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.
As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.
Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.
Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.
Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.
Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.
Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.
Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.
Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.
Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.
Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.
Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.
Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.
Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.
Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.
Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.
Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.
Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.
Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.
Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)
- Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
- Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
- Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
- Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
- Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
- Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
- Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.
Now here's a quick look at Week 12.
Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.
No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.
Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.
No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.
The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.
Let's get it started with the defensive line.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.
2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.
3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.
4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.
5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.
Up next: Linebackers
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
- Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
- Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.
Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
- End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
- Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
- Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
- Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.
Spring practice starts: March 14
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
- Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
- Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.
Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
- Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
- Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.
Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
- The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
- Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
- Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
- Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
- Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
- Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.
Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
- Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
- Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
- Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
- The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
- Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
- The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Who needs to step up for each team?
Donsay Hardeman, S, Illinois -- Neck surgery sounds pretty scary, but Hardeman likely will return to the field this fall after undergoing the procedure during the offseason. He can provide experience at the all-important safety spot after recording 44 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last fall.
Deonte Mack, DT, Indiana -- Any number of players could fit in this spot for the injury-plagued Hoosiers, but Mack, who missed spring ball following hip surgery, must provide leadership at an extremely thin position. Pass-rushers Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew will only be effective if opponents have to worry about the interior line.
Tony Moeaki, TE, Iowa -- It's hard not to pull for Moeaki, a heralded prospect who has endured injury after injury with the Hawkeyes and was on crutches during spring ball. He's expected to return this summer and possibly fill a key role after Iowa lost first-team All-Big Ten tight end Brandon Myers.
Jonas Mouton, LB, Michigan -- Michigan's improvement on defense must start with the linebackers, and Mouton returns to the mix after shoulder surgery kept him off the field this spring. Mouton finished second on the team in tackles last fall (76) and could form a solid linebacker tandem with Obi Ezeh.
Jeremy Ware, CB, Michigan State -- One of several contributors in the Spartans' secondary to miss spring ball with injuries, Ware will be a key name to monitor during the summer. He emerged nicely last season, recording an interception and six pass breakups.
Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota -- Decker wasn't hurt this spring, but he spent the time playing center field for the Gophers' baseball team. There's little doubt he's one of the nation's best receivers, but he must absorb a new offensive system installed this spring and re-establish rhythm with quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray.
Corey Wootton, DE, Northwestern -- How Wootton recovers from ACL surgery could shape Northwestern's defense this fall. The All-Big Ten selection missed spring ball but is ahead of schedule on his recovery and expects to practice this summer. With questions on offense, the Wildcats need Wootton to return to top form.
Dane Sanzenbacher ,WR, Ohio State -- A projected starter in the slot, Sanzenbacher missed the latter part of spring practice with a high ankle sprain. He might be Terrelle Pryor's most dependable target heading into the fall, so a strong summer will be vital for the junior.
A.J. Wallace, CB, Penn State -- The secondary remains the biggest question mark for Penn State, and Wallace can ease some of head coach Joe Paterno's concerns with a strong preseason camp performance. Hamstring problems once again slowed Wallace this spring, but the Lions sorely need his speed in pass coverage.
Jaycen Taylor, RB, Purdue -- Taylor has by far the most experience of any Boilermakers running back, so his return this summer from a torn ACL looms large. Ralph Bolden put himself in the mix for the starting job with a stellar spring, but Taylor gives new head coach Danny Hope with a proven ball-carrying option.
Louis Nzegwu, DE, Wisconsin -- Unlike a year ago, the Badgers avoided many major injuries this spring, but they'll certainly be watching Nzegwu during the coming months. The immensely gifted sophomore improved his body and impressed the coaches early on during spring ball until sustaining a torn MCL on March 31.