NCF Nation: Ndamukong Suh

Offensive players dominated the list of top individual seasons at Big 12 schools in ESPN.com’s The Season, with Texas’ Vince Young and Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders advancing to Wednesday's semifinal round.

Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib is the lone Big 12-era defender who landed on the list as an honorable mention for the Jayhawks. Talib earned consensus All-American honors while helping the Jayhawks go 11-1, including a 24-21 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in 2007.

Several Big 12 defenders have had stellar seasons since the conference was born in 1996. Here’s a look at other exceptional individual seasons for defenders during the Big 12 era.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Patrick Green/Icon SMIVon Miller was too much to handle in 2009, posting 17 sacks.
Lawrence Flugence, Texas Tech linebacker, 2002: The sheer numbers land Flugence a spot on this list. He had 193 total tackles, including 124 solo stops in 14 games during the 2002 season. The Mike Leach-led Red Raiders finished 9-5 with Flugence anchoring the defense and Kliff Kingsbury triggering the offense.

Derrick Johnson, Texas linebacker, 2004: The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner, Johnson made plays from sideline to sideline for the Longhorns during the 2004 season. He finished with 130 tackles (70 solo stops), including 19 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, nine forced fumbles and two sacks.

Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma linebacker, 2007: Lofton was exceptional during the 2007 season, earning All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He had 157 tackles including 10.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions in 14 games for the Sooners. He was the anchor of a defense that allowed 20.3 points per game and 4.98 yards per play as OU finished 11-2 with a Big 12 championship.

Von Miller, Texas A&M defensive end, 2009: The future NFL Pro Bowler was relentless and dominant during the 2007 season. He finished with 17 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in 13 games. He accounted for 47.2 percent of the Aggies’ sack total (36) during a 6-7 season. His 17 sacks remain the highest single season total in the Big 12 era.

Terence Newman, Kansas State cornerback, 2002: Newman was a nightmare for opponents during the 2002 season, locking down receivers on defense and putting fear into the hearts of defenders on special teams and offense. He won the Thorpe Award and was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Even as offenses avoided him, Newman finished with 44 tackles, 14 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Shaun Rogers, Texas defensive tackle, 1999: The junior was a disruptive force in the middle for the Longhorns, finishing with 27 tackles for loss, the highest total from any Big 12 defender since the conference was born in 1996. He joined teammate Casey Hampton to give UT the Big 12’s top defensive tackle duo that season.

Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska defensive tackle, 2009: The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Suh’s 2009 season was second to none during the Big 12 era. Offenses focused on keeping Suh from dominating games yet he still dominated on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, Lombardi Award and a lengthy list of individual accolades. He finished with 85 tackles including 24 for loss and 12 sacks.

Earl Thomas, Texas safety, 2009: Thomas proved he was NFL ready with a incredible redshirt sophomore campaign. He was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award while earning all-american honors with 77 tackles, five tackles for loss, 16 pass breakups and eight interceptions. He helped UT finish No. 1 nationally in interceptions (35) and forced turnovers (37).

Roy Williams, Oklahoma defensive back, 2001: The Jim Thorpe Award winner, Williams left a lasting legacy with his “Superman” play against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, forcing a Chris Simms’ fumble that sealed an OU win. He finished with 107 tackles including 14 tackles for loss, 22 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Grant Wistrom, Nebraska defensive end, 1997: He had a stellar 1996 season but his 1997 campaign should be considered even better. As the returning Big 12 defensive player of the year, Wistrom had 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback hurries on his way to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season. He also earned the Lombardi Trophy in 1997.
Red GrangeAP PhotoRed Grange (Illinois) had one of the Big Ten's four signature seasons that took place before 1940.
What constitutes a signature season in the Big Ten? We're not talking about good or very good or even great. These are the single best individual seasons in college football history.

And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.

My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.

The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.

The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.

None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.

The full list:

Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999

The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.

Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.

Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.

The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).

I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?

The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.

But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.

Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.

And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?

It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.

Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.

The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.

But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.

Big 12 all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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After 16 years, the BCS era is finally over. Next season, college football will have a playoff instead.

With the BCS done, we've come up with our Big 12 all-BCS era team (1998-2013) below:

Offense

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Scott Clarke/Getty ImagesWith Vince Young at the helm, Texas won a national title and Rose Bowl.
QB: Vince Young, Texas (2003-05) -- Young led Texas to its first national title in 35 years with an unforgettable performance in the Rose Bowl against USC. The Heisman runner-up also became the first QB in college football history to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season.

RB: Ricky Williams, Texas (1998) -- Williams was part of the BCS era for only one season, but what a season it was. He rushed for 2,327 yards and won the Heisman Trophy going away. Only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne has more career rushing yards than Williams (6,279).

RB: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004-06) -- Despite battling injuries throughout his career, Peterson still was a beast in college. After rushing for 1,925 yards while leading the Sooners to the national title game, he finished second in the ’04 Heisman voting, even though there was still a stigma then in voting for a freshman.

WR: Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech (2007-08) -- Crabtree became the first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. In '08, he and QB Graham Harrell led the Red Raiders to an upset of Texas and a No. 2 ranking in the polls.

WR: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (2009-11) -- Blackmon became the second and only other two-time winner of the Biletnikoff. In his final two seasons, he finished with 233 receptions, 3,304 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns, and he helped propel the Cowboys to their first Big 12 title in '11.

TE: Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08) -- Coffman had a monster statistical college career for a tight end with 247 catches for 2,659 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns. He won the ’08 Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. Missouri won 37 games during the four years Coffman was in the lineup.

OT: Jammal Brown, Oklahoma (2001-04) -- Brown was a unanimous All-American and a three-time All-Big 12 selection. He became the fifth Sooner to win the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top interior lineman.

OT: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State (2007-09) -- In Okung’s final two seasons, Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in rushing yards. The Cowboys were also third in the country in ’07 in fewest sacks allowed with Okung at left tackle. He was a unanimous All-American and Outland finalist in ’09 and became the sixth overall pick in the ’10 NFL draft.

OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor (2010-13) -- Richardson became Baylor’s seventh all-time unanimous All-American. The Outland finalist was also a key piece on the nation’s highest-scoring offense this season.

OG: Justin Blalock, Texas (2003-06) -- Though a guard in the NFL, Blalock actually started 50 games for Texas, most coming at right tackle. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a consensus All-American in 2006.

C: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- Raiola was the inaugural winner of the Rimington Award, named after former Nebraska center Dave Rimington, which recognizes the best center in college football. He was an Outland finalist and a consensus All-American.

APB: Darren Sproles, Kansas State (2001-04) -- One of the most prolific all-purpose performers in college football history, Sproles finished his career with 6,812 all-purpose yards. Among his 39 consecutive starts, his most memorable performance came in the ’03 Big 12 championship, when he had 235 yards rushing and 88 receiving, as K-State upset top-ranked Oklahoma 35-7.

Defense

DE: Brian Orakpo, Texas (2005-08) -- Orakpo captured the ’08 Nagurski Award as the most outstanding defensive player in the country, and the Lombardi Award, given to the best college lineman or linebacker. He also was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American while piling up 11 sacks his senior year.

DE: Von Miller, Texas A&M (2007-10) -- Out of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, Miller led the nation with 17 sacks in ’09. He was a two-time All-American and won the Butkus Award in ’10 as the nation’s top linebacker.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- There was no more dominant defensive player in college football during the BCS era. Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in ’09 and won several national awards, including the Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski (most outstanding defensive player)and Bednarik (defensive player of the year). He was also a unanimous All-American and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

DT: Tommie Harris, Oklahoma (2001-03) -- Harris was a force from the beginning as a freshman on the OU defensive line. He won the Lombardi his junior year, and he was a two-time consensus All-American, garnering unanimous honors in ’03.

LB: Derrick Johnson, Texas (2001-04) -- Johnson was a menacing linebacker for the Longhorns, earning consensus All-American honors in ’03 and unanimous honors in ’04. He was also a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection, and won the Butkus (best linebacker) and Nagurski awards as a senior. Johnson finished his career with 458 tackles.

LB: Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma (1998-2001) -- Calmus played a major role in OU’s resurgence under Bob Stoops. He won the Butkus in ’01 and was a finalist for the Nagurski and Bednarik. A three-time All-Big 12 pick, Calmus led the Sooners in tackles in all three of those seasons.

LB: Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma (2000-03) -- Lehman too won the Butkus, beating out Johnson for the award in ’03. He also was Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, captured the Bednarik, was a unanimous All-American and played in two national championship games.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWest Virginia receiver and returner Tavon Austin had a huge 2012 season.
CB: Terence Newman, Kansas State (1999-2002) -- Newman was a solid player for Bill Snyder his first three seasons, then broke out as a senior. Newman was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American and the Thorpe winner, given to college football’s top defensive back.

CB: Derrick Strait, Oklahoma (2000-03) -- A four-year starter, Strait finished with a school-record 52 career pass breakups. He also won the Thorpe, and was a unanimous All-American.

S: Roy Williams, Oklahoma (1999-2001) -- Nicknamed “Superman,” Williams was the Big 12’s most dominating defensive player until Suh came along. He won the Thorpe and Nagurski in ’01, and was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American the same season. He also famously skied over the Texas offensive line to force the game-clinching interception to earn his moniker.

S: Michael Huff, Texas (2002-05) -- Huff became the first Longhorn to win the Thorpe, and was the leader of the ’05 national championship defense. He was also a unanimous All-American that season.

Special teams

K: Mason Crosby, Colorado (2003-06) -- Crosby was three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection, and twice was a consensus All-American even though he never won the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker. He was also the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year as a junior, and converted 66 field goals in his career.

P: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State (2009-12) -- Sharp became the first three-time All-American in Oklahoma State history, and he earned All-American honors both as a punter and a kicker. He was twice named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year. In his career, he made 50 of 59 field goals, averaged 45.9 yards per punt and missed only one extra point.

KR: Tavon Austin, West Virginia (2012) -- Austin was in the Big 12 only one season, but he was unstoppable that one season. On top of being one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country, Austin had 1,289 yards receiving and 643 rushing, and finished second in the country in all-purpose yards.

PR: Ryan Broyles Oklahoma (2008-11) -- On top of being a prolific punt returner, Broyles was one of the most efficient receivers in college football history. He finished his career with an FBS-record 349 receptions, and was a two-time consensus All-American before a knee injury cut his senior season short.
Bo Pelini does not throw around comparisons to Ndamukong Suh lightly. So it was notable this week when the Nebraska head coach mentioned his former all-world defensive tackle in the same breath as sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory.

"I’m not throwing him into Suh’s category yet," Pelini said Monday, "but I think he can have that type of impact on our program down the line."

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory leads the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss.
While Gregory still has room to grow, he's already having a major impact for the Cornhuskers, who host Michigan State in Saturday's crucial Legends Division showdown.

The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder has been Nebraska's top defensive playmaker and one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten. He leads the league in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11.5) and turned in his biggest game during last week's 17-13 win at Michigan. Gregory had three sacks, including his chase-down of a scrambling Devin Gardner with a little more than a minute to play.

The obvious question, and one Big Ten schools must be asking themselves, is where did this guy come from?

Gregory was a modest recruit out of high school in Fishers, Ind. ESPN.com ranked him as only the 238th best defensive end in the Class of 2011. He committed to Purdue and had offers from schools like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, but few elite programs came calling on the skinny prospect who never made the summer camp circuit.

"The schools who did offer me saw my athleticism and potential," he said. "But I think everybody else just saw a scrawny, 190-pound kid that could do a few things but needed to hit the weight room a little more."

What they might not have known was Gregory's lifelong connection and passion with the sport.

His father, Kenneth, played linebacker and defensive line for Northwestern in the early 1980s. When Randy was six, his parents drove past a park at night where lights were shining on a pee wee football game. Randy begged his parents to play but found out he was a year too young to sign up. He cried the rest of the night.

Later, he'd star at running back and linebacker. His last two years of high school, Gregory played both defensive tackle and wide receiver. But he neglected his studies and failed to qualify academically.

So Gregory headed off to play junior college football at Arizona Western. From there, his reputation grew quickly.

"Some people might say that he blossomed," Kenneth Gregory said. "I think that the player you see today is really what he always has been. If I had to describe him, it's endless motor and highly disruptive."

Gregory showed that as a freshman at Arizona Western, registering ridiculous numbers: 82 tackles, nine sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He helped lead his team to the junior college national title game.

"We knew he was going to special when he got here." Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said. "He was coming off blocks, exploding into guy and chasing kids down. He was running kids down from the backside and making plays that make you say, 'This guy's unbelievable.'"

Gregory was so dominant as a freshman that Minnick changed his defense the following winter to a 3-4 so he could move his top pass rusher into a variety of positions. But Gregory broke his ankle in the first game of 2012.

Looking back, Gregory calls the injury "a blessing in disguise." He moved back to his parents' home in Michigan for the spring semester, taking online courses and focusing on adding weight. He put on nearly 35 pounds by eating a diet heavy in salmon, flank steak and yogurt.

"We almost went bankrupt feeding him," Kenneth Gregory joked.

The injury also gave Gregory an extra year of eligibility for four-year schools and a chance to shore up his academics.

"Randy's a very, very smart kid," Minnick said. "He can write an 'A' paper in 40 minutes. But we always said he has to be challenged real quick, to get in four- and five-week classes. He gets bored, I think, with stuff after a while."

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGregory took a longer path to Nebraska, but is now a cornerstone of Bo Pelini's defense.
He remained committed to Purdue while taking other visits. But Gregory -- who grew up an Ohio State fan and always wanted to play in the Big Ten because of his dad -- was blown away by a trip to Nebraska last October, sitting in the stands when the Cornhuskers beat Michigan. When the Boilermakers fired coach Danny Hope a few weeks later, his decision was sealed.

"I was a really big fan of coach Hope," he said. "When he left, that made it really difficult for me to go there and play for a new coaching staff."

Gregory is still raw in a lot of ways, as you'd expect for someone who's played less than a year at the FBS level. But he makes up for that with his physical gifts and work ethic.

"A lot of people think of me as a real good pass rusher, and I think I am," Gregory said. "But if you sit in our meeting rooms or talk to [defensive line] coach [Rick] Kaczenski, he'll tell you I have a lot of things I need to work on. My instincts are pretty good, but as far as technique and things like that, I need to get a lot better."

He's pretty good right now, and his play is a big reason why Nebraska has turned things around defensively in the past six quarters -- the Huskers have allowed just one touchdown on their opponents' last 25 drives. Minnick compares Gregory to the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and predicts that "he'll be a top NFL draft pick when it's all said and done." Pelini said Gregory "has a chance to be a force in college football for the next couple years."

Maybe just like another former famous Husker.

"Any time you're mentioned in the same category with Suh, it’s a pretty big deal," Gregory said. "But I don’t want to just settle for that."
Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.
Ndamukong SuhChristopher Hanewincke/US PresswireNdamukong Suh, the former Nebraska defensive tackle, wins the Big Ten blog's players tournament.
Unfortunately for us, Ndamukong Suh and Ron Dayne never met on a college football field. If they had, the Richter scale would have had to be functioning correctly.

Alas, Suh and Dayne could only match up in our fictional Big Ten players tournament, which included stars from the past 15 seasons from the 12 current members of the conference. Suh, the former Nebraska defensive tackle, and Dayne, the record-setting former Wisconsin running back, reached the tournament championship last week. Voting took place the past three-plus days, and the verdict was convincing: Suh in a landslide. Arguably the most dominant defensive player in the past decade received a whopping 67 percent of the vote with about 8,500 votes cast.

Many have stated the obvious about Suh: he didn't play in the Big Ten. So why did we include him in the players tournament? We weren't going to exclude Nebraska and its fans from the fun, just like we didn't in last year's champions tournament, which also went the Huskers' way. If Big Ten fans had such a problem with Suh's inclusion, they should have rallied around Dayne in the voting, which they clearly didn't. Nebraska's fan base brings it like none other, but Big Red could have been toppled by the rest of the league's fans.

Here's more from those who voted:
AShap from Phoenix: Both are fantastic and deserving, but I voted Suh because his level of dominance versus competition was greater than Dayne's. Dayne was great and is an all-timer, but Suh's teams were undermanned and he still, sometimes single-handedly, kept that Nebraska D as top ten in the nation.

Tony from Merrimack, N.H.: I voted Suh over Dayne because as great as Dayne was, he never made me think "he's redefining what great football looks like." Suh did that from a position that usually doesn't get noticed, hence he's the #1 "Big Ten" player to me.

Brian from Milwaukee: One incredible fact about Ron Dayne that is often overlooked is that he ran for over 2000 yards his freshman year (including bowl game), and he didn't even start until the fifth game of the season. And this was back when the season was only 11 games long, plus the bowl game. He also broke 2000 yards again his senior year, when everybody and their brother was keying on him every single game. In between, he had two pretty outstanding seasons as well, and it all culminated in the Heisman Trophy. But two 2,000-yard seasons (if you include the bowl game, which you should...It makes no sense that the NCAA started counting bowl stats at some point but doesn't go back and count bowl stats before that point. Can someone explain the logic behind that?) is incredible. Dayne's all-time rushing record, which still stands whether you count bowls or not, was a little underplayed at the time because Ricky Williams had just broken the same record the season before, but Dayne is the most dominant college running back since Herschel Walker. His combination of size, speed and agility were amazing. Suh will no doubt win the poll since Nebraska fans clearly take these things seriously, and he was an outstanding college player, but my vote goes to Dayne.

Matt from Rockford, Ill.: Suh ate Heisman finalists for breakfast for two years. If even 15 percent of past heisman winners were defensive players Suh deservedly takes it home. I lost a degree of respect for the heisman trophy as a result of the voting that year. Anything with that heavy a bias lacks legitimacy. So to answer why did i vote for Suh over a Ron Dayne? If Suh would've won the heisman as a defensive lineman who would you be casting your vote for? I rest my case.

Geoff from Omaha: As a Nebraska fan (and Suh fan) it's hard for me to not vote for Suh. With that said, I voted for Ron Dayne. Nebraska has had many incredible running backs over the years, but none that have been as productive over four years. The shear brilliance that Ron Dayne performed on the field, week in and week out, over his entire career, notably the Rose Bowls, is just too much, in my mind, for Suh to overcome. Not only did Suh NOT play in the B1G, but he had a lackluster career before Pelini arrived in Lincoln. As incredible as Suh was, Dayne earned my vote.

Dan from Dallas: There is no doubt that Suh was a truly dominant player, but the reason he's leading this poll is more a testament to the Husker faithful and short-term memory than anything else. I mean, Ron Dayne ran for more yards than anyone (anyone!) in college football history. Ever. Let that sink in. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have carried a football in the sport over the past 130 years, Ron Dayne topped them all. Suh was great, but he can't make such a strong argument for being the greatest at his position ever.

Thanks again to all who voted throughout the players tournament. Next March, it'll be back in some form or another.
The NFL scouting combine is in the books and pro days at all the Big Ten schools will take place in the coming weeks. There's still time for the Big Ten's NFL draft hopefuls to boost their stock before the selections are made April 25-27.

But at the very top of the draft -- the first round, in particular -- things are looking rather bleak for the Big Ten, according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.

Kiper's post-combine Big Board Insider features zero Big Ten players among the list of 25. Several Big Ten players have been included on previous Big Boards, including Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short. If Michigan LT Taylor Lewan had skipped his final college season and entered the draft, he likely would be in Kiper's top 15.

Few would be surprised to see Hankins drafted in the first round, but his combine performance didn't exactly jump out. Short is another intriguing prospect, and Wisconsin center Travis Frederick also could sneak into the first round.

But if Kiper's forecast plays out, the Big Ten once again could be waiting a while before one of its players is drafted in April. The league didn't have a player selected in the 2012 draft until the Detroit Lions selected Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff with the No. 23 overall pick. The Big Ten hasn't produced a top 10 draft pick since Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft (Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, played his entire career in the Big 12).

Here's a look at the Big Ten's recent highest draft picks:

2012: No. 23, Iowa LT Riley Reiff (Detroit)
2011: No. 11, Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt (Houston)
2010: No. 13, Michigan DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia)
2009: No. 11, Penn State DE Aaron Maybin (Buffalo)
2008: No. 1, Michigan LT Jake Long (Miami)
2007: No. 3, Wisconsin LT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
2006: No. 5, Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay)
2005: No. 3, Michigan WR Braylon Edwards (Cleveland)
2004: No. 2, Iowa LT Robert Gallery (Oakland)
2003: No. 2, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers (Detroit)
2002: No. 12, Wisconsin DT Wendell Bryant (Arizona)

So after six straight years of top-5 picks (2003-2008), the Big Ten likely will go five straight years without a top 10 pick. Not good.

Several Big Ten players appear on Kiper's latest top-5 lists by position. Insider
  • Wisconsin's Montee Ball is the No. 2 running back
  • Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
  • Wisconsin's Frederick is the No. 1 center
  • Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
Neither Hankins nor Short appear among the top five defensive tackles.

Hugh Green looks at the evolution of football over time and cannot feign surprise when seeing that no exclusively defensive player has ever walked away with the college game's most prized individual award. But that doesn't mean he thinks it's right.

From spread offense variations to wider definitions of "unnecessary roughness," from 7-on-7 passing leagues all the way back to the legalization of the forward pass, Green sees one common theme as the sport has progressed.

"They have not made a rule change where offenses have the opportunity to score less points," said Green, the former Pitt and later Buccaneers and Dolphins star defensive end. "They always have rule changes that hamper the defense so that the offense can score more points. Like everything else that happens over the decades with that, defenses adjust. They make the offenses come up with another rule, which is the formula of why a defensive player is so important and why he should be characterized into that major award."

That major award is the Heisman Trophy, which will be given Saturday night to one of three finalists: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Manti Te'o has already garnered several awards, but can he add the Heisman to his trophy case?
No solely defensive player has notched the Heisman, with Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson being the lone winner (1997) who played mostly defense, though he also took reps at receiver and on special teams.

Green's 1980 season -- which featured 123 tackles, 17 sacks and four fumble recoveries -- earned him a second-place finish in 1980 behind South Carolina running back George Rogers. Green is closest to accept the famous stiff-arming trophy soley as a defender. (Iowa tackle Alex Karras finished second in 1957, too.)

That could change if Te'o's name is called this weekend at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square.

"I think first and foremost, for me it would be a great honor for my team," Te'o said. "Without my team, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. If we weren't 120, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. So without my team and their help, I wouldn't be going to New York. But definitely if I were to win and representing my school and my team and my family and defensive players in general, it would definitely be a great step for all of us.

"If it doesn't happen, then whoever does win it is truly deserving of the award. Anything, whatever happens, it's going to be good."

Manziel is considered the front-runner following an SEC-record 4,600 yards of total offense for the 10-2 Aggies. The redshirt freshman has the catchy nickname ("Johnny Football") and signature moment (last month's upset of then-No. 1 and defending champion Alabama) that have been Heisman hallmarks, based on history.

Working in Te'o's favor are nine takeaways (seven picks, two fumble recoveries), which are tied for the national lead, along with 103 tackles and the label of best player on the nation's No. 1 and only bowl-eligible undefeated team. Notre Dame's seven Heisman winners are tied with Ohio State for most of all time.

"People characterize what a defensive player does and doesn't do, which is score points," Green said. "I thought each and every time, [Te'o's] interceptions either prevented a touchdown or put his offense in position to score a touchdown or kick field goals. So it can be warranted that he does score points."

Te'o also has the character element, an often-overlooked part of the Heisman Trust mission statement, and something he has embodied in overcoming the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend within hours of each other earlier this season.

"There are so many superlatives that you can use about players throughout the country," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "He's a college football player. He loves the game. He's passionate about the game. He's 21 years old and he acts like that. When he walks into a room, there's an energy and a passion for what he does.

"He raises the level of accountability amongst his teammates, and when you have that kind of energy and that kind of personality, it rubs off on everybody. He's a college football player that loves the game and he elevates the play of others around him."

Still, Te'o faces an uphill climb. Only seven defensive players have even been invited to the Heisman ceremony since players first began attending in 1981, the most recent being LSU fifth-place finisher Tyrann Mathieu last year. The Honey Badger, like Woodson, also made a big special teams impact and, like Manziel, also boasted the catchy nickname.

Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh's invite to New York following his monstrous 2009 campaign -- 85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 26 hurries, three blocked kicks -- marked the first top-five finish by a defense-only player in 18 years.

That history was not lost on Suh, who was reminded of it everywhere he went after a Big 12 title game loss to Texas in which he notched seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two hurries. He felt he had a decent shot at winning, but he also knew that the crowded field that year could create some unpredictability, as he was joined in New York by a past winner (Tim Tebow) and two players who would face off in the national title game (Colt McCoy and winner Mark Ingram), along with Toby Gerhart.

"It's unfortunate that defensive guys don't get a better look," said Suh, who finished fourth and is now with the Lions. "I'm happy for Manti Te'o. I'll definitely be rooting for him. If I could vote for him, I'd definitely vote for him.

"I only saw one game of him playing, when he played against Oklahoma, but he seemed like a very dominant defensive player and I wish him the best, especially since I'm on the same side of the ball as him."
Taylor Martinez/Montee BallUS PresswireNebraska's Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin's Montee Ball both have experience playing in title games.
After the different -- but equally painful -- ways in which Nebraska lost Big 12 title games in 2009 and 2010, you wouldn't have blamed the Huskers for clamming up this week.

Their league championship memories aren't exactly rosy ones.

"We've kind of seen everything but a victory," senior tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com.

But Cotton and other Huskers veterans have been more than willing to rehash the past in recent days. They use their failings as fuel as they prepare for the third league title game in their careers Saturday night, when they face Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

Nebraska players don't need to be reminded of the last time their storied program captured a conference title. And they hope to party like it's 1999 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Me and [fellow tight end] Kyler Reed, we were talking, and in our opinion, we should have one or two rings on our hand already, and we let 'em slip away," Cotton said. "As a senior group, as the leaders of this team and as a team as a whole, we're going to do everything that we can to scratch and claw our way to that victory on Saturday."

They'll have to claw past a Wisconsin team that also is no stranger to the title game stage. Although the Big Ten championship is in just its second year, Wisconsin played in the inaugural event last December, outlasting Michigan State 42-39.

Michigan State outplayed Wisconsin for much of the game, but the Badgers did enough to win and earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.

"I remember it being a lot of fun, being down there in Indy, but the game itself was a dogfight," Badgers center Travis Frederick recalled.

While Frederick downplays Wisconsin's previous title game experience, his teammates see benefits.

"It's important," Badgers junior linebacker Chris Borland said. "It'll calm guys' nerves a little bit, understanding we’ve been there before. It's almost like a bowl game atmosphere in a lot of ways. So guys will be able to deal with it well, and the older guys will help the younger guys who weren't there last year, who didn't contribute last year.

"Last year's experience is going to a long way to help us be comfortable come game time."

Although this year's title game isn't generating as much attention as its predecessor -- in large part because Wisconsin didn't win its division and has five losses -- the stakes haven't changed. The winning team punches its ticket to Pasadena.

"The environment was incredible -- the whole lights and cameras and just the fans screaming," said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who had 137 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus a receiving touchdown, in the 2011 championship game. "It was something that was very special. Just the energy we had on our sideline was great, and I'm really hoping that the same thing happens this weekend."

While Ball and the Badgers happily recall their title game appearance, the burn remains for Big Red. In 2009, the Huskers seemingly had No. 3 Texas beaten in the 2009 title game, thanks to one of the most dominant performances by a defender (Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) in recent college football history.

Nebraska appeared to secure a 12-10 win when the clock ran out following a Colt McCoy incompletion. But officials put one second back on the clock and Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal to give Texas the 13-12 victory.

"We tasted what it was like to win a championship for a few seconds there," Nebraska senior linebacker Will Compton said.

Cotton added that Nebraska "could've, should've, would've had that game."

The heartbreaking loss spurred the Huskers in a dominant performance in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the offseason, according to Cotton. It's what made the second title game loss even tougher to deal with.

Nebraska built a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma but watched it vanish in a flurry of mistakes as the Sooners rallied for a 23-20 victory.

"That one was a little more emotional for me because we got up on them and we just weren’t able to finish," Cotton said.

Nebraska has finished games much better this season, four times rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half to win. Since 1996, only one team (NC State in 2000) has recorded more double-digit second-half rallies in a season.

Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was instrumental in this season's comebacks. He's looking to atone for a rough performance in the 2010 Big 12 title game, where he threw an interception in the end zone, lost a fumble and was sacked seven times.

"It's very motivating for our team and for the whole state of Nebraska," Martinez said this week. "They haven't had a conference championship since 1999, and we're really excited to go out there and play for a third one in the past four years. ...

"Hopefully, we can bring this one home."
What if Ndamukong Suh had not been so fast?

What if Nebraska's all-everything tackle had been a split-second slower in pursuit of Colt McCoy on the second-to-last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game?

That would have made Suh's pursuit of McCoy the last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game. And if Suh's pursuit of McCoy had been the last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game, McCoy's throw away to the near sideline would have hit the ground after the clock inside Jerry's World struck zero, making Nebraska 12-10 winners over Texas.

And if Nebraska had been 12-10 winners over Texas, the Cornhuskers would have been storming the field in celebration before lifting up the hardware after the second-to-last Big 12 title game. And the dejected Longhorns would have been walking off the field after their first loss of the season, assuring them a drop from their No. 3 ranking.

That would have ruined Texas' chances of moving up a spot after No. 1 Florida fell earlier in the day to No. 2 Alabama in the SEC title game. And if No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Texas had both lost on Dec. 5, 2009, the Crimson Tide would have needed a new opponent on Jan. 7, 2010 in Pasadena, Calif.

And, wouldn't you know it, just hours earlier on the final regular-season Saturday of 2009, there was No. 5 Cincinnati, completing a 21-point comeback at Pittsburgh and scoring the winning touchdown with 33 seconds left in the de facto Big East title game, escaping as 45-44 victors.

You know where the Bearcats landed in the next day's BCS rankings? Third.

You know where they would have landed had Texas lost to Nebraska? Second.

You know who would have been playing Alabama at the Rose Bowl in that scenario? Cincinnati, coached by Brian Kelly.

And if Kelly had been preparing a team for the BCS title game three years ago, well, he may have had a much more difficult time accepting a job offer from Notre Dame around the same time.

Instead, Suh was too quick in his pursuit of McCoy on the second-to-last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game, forcing McCoy to throw the ball away to the near sideline a split-second too soon.

Nebraska stormed the field in celebration, but the Cornhuskers didn't lift up any hardware. Officials reviewed their ruling, they concluded that McCoy's pass had, in fact, hit the ground just before the clock inside Jerry's World struck zero, and they allowed Hunter Lawrence to come on with one second left, before he drilled a 46-yard field goal to make Texas 13-12 winners over Nebraska.

The Longhorns went to Pasadena, Cincinnati went to New Orleans, Kelly went to South Bend.

Three years later, Kelly has brought Notre Dame back to the top of the college football world, one win away from a national title game appearance.

Absurd to think about the alternative? Probably. But it also illustrates the thin line between fate and circumstance, between cause and effect.

A late throw here, a missed field goal there -- all of it conspires to doom one team or another, sooner or later.

One team's misfortune is another team's gain. Few groups these last 20 years have experienced the pain of that more than Notre Dame. And amidst a season of close calls for the nation's new No. 1 team, the turning point can come in the oddest of places.

Perhaps even three years earlier, in Suh's motor.
Bielema/PeliniUS PresswireDo Bret Bielema, left, and Bo Pelini have what it takes to get their programs to an elite level?
There's a theory out there, one you've probably heard on the airwaves, about how the Big Ten will look in the near future.

The gist: it'll look a lot like the distant past.

Although nine different Big Ten teams have won or shared the league title since the 2000 season, the perception held by many college football analysts and observers is that the league soon will revert back to the Big Two -- Ohio State and Michigan -- and everyone else. Both programs have stabilized under good coaches (Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke) who are recruiting at nationally elite levels, and many believe it's only a matter of time before they separate from the rest of the league.

Could the theory prove true? Absolutely. But as I've written before, I don't think it's a guarantee. Programs like Michigan State and Wisconsin likely aren't going to go away. Moreover, I've written that the Big Ten isn't better off with only two dominant programs to challenge the best of the best. The Big Ten will start competing better with the SEC when it has the same type of top-end depth as the SEC. Depth means more than two programs.

Yet after the events of this weekend -- and the past year or so -- it's worth questioning whether the Big Ten ever will have enough truly great teams.

Wisconsin, which has won 32 games the past three seasons and represented the Big Ten in the past two Rose Bowls, lost to Oregon State in stunning fashion. A program that has set offensive records the past two seasons needed more than 58 minutes to score and finished with 35 net rush yards. In Wisconsin, it goes beer, cheese, snow and a punishing run game. The Badgers' inefficiency despite boasting multiple standout backs, including 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, and a group of massive linemen is baffling, so much so that head coach Bret Bielema, in an unprecedented move, dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson on Sunday.

Other than Ohio State and Michigan, Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's most consistently solid program in the past two decades. And despite the loss of six assistant coaches and several key players, the Badgers had been projected to keep the wins coming and cruise to a Leaders Division title. Two games into the season, Wisconsin looks shaky at best. And after coming up short in the past two Rose Bowls, it's fair to wonder when Wisconsin will be back -- and if it can take that next step from really good to elite.

Nebraska was supposed to give the Big Ten another dog in the national championship fight, but Bo Pelini's program isn't close to that level right now. The Huskers talk a big game -- about winning a national title, about having a superior defensive scheme -- but they've been wildly inconsistent on the field, particularly away from Lincoln. Big Red appeared close to a big breakthrough in 2009, but since Ndamukong Suh left, the progress has stalled.

Iowa was near the top of the college football world after the 2009 season, as it nearly won the Big Ten and claimed the Orange Bowl championship. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi delivered his famous "love it or leave it" line after the Orange Bowl triumph, but the Hawkeyes have promptly left the ranks of the elite. Iowa won just eight games in 2010 despite a roster filled with NFL players. Kirk Ferentz's program since has slipped further into mediocrity, bottoming out Saturday with its second consecutive loss to Iowa State in a game where it failed to score a touchdown on its home field.

The staying power doesn't appear to be there for Nebraska and Iowa, and while Wisconsin has been good for a long time, it's debatable whether Bielema's Badgers ever will be great.

Michigan State is the other factor here. The Spartans are enjoying their best run in decades, having won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. Mark Dantonio's squad is the Big Ten's best team and the league's only legitimate BCS title contender right now. With stability at the top, upgraded facilities and good recruiting, the arrow definitely points up in East Lansing. Still, there are questions about Michigan State's staying power, given its rocky history since the mid-1960s. Only time will tell if Michigan State can keep this up and take its program to the next level.

The Big Ten has four traditional power programs in Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Penn State faces an extremely murky future because of NCAA sanctions, and Nebraska simply isn't the program it was in the mid-to-late 1990s. Although both Ohio State and Michigan have endured recent struggles, both have the ingredients in place -- tradition, facilities, national recruiting clout, strong coaching staffs, $$$ -- to get back to the top.

Everyone's trying to figure out what's wrong with the Big Ten and what it will take for the league to challenge for national titles again. The depth argument still resonates, but there are questions about whether Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa can reach the upper crust and, more importantly, stay there. And while the Big Ten has seen more diversity at the top since 2000, the league has backslid nationally.

Some folks say the Big Ten was a much better conference when the Big Two ruled the landscape.

We could soon see if they're right.
Ron Dayne US PresswireWisconsin's Ron Dayne capped off his senior season in 1999 earning several national awards.
On Monday we revealed our list of top five individual seasons by a Big Ten player in the past 50 years, and as Brian Bennett explained, the choices weren't easy. We omitted several incredible individual performances, and some of you let us hear about it.

Here's a list of 10 outstanding individual seasons that just missed the cut. As a reminder, these are performances from the past 50 seasons only (1962-2011). Although Nebraska has played only one season as a Big Ten member, we considered Huskers' performances from the time span, as well as those by Penn State players before the 1993 season, when Penn State joined the Big Ten. Again, this is a list of outstanding individual seasons, not individual careers.

Even with this list, we're leaving out many great performances.

Here's the rundown, in alphabetical order:

Brad Banks, QB, Iowa, 2002: Banks played only two seasons in Iowa City, but he left quite an impression in 2002. He led the nation in pass efficiency with a 157.1 rating and had 26 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, to go along with 423 rush yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries. Banks finished second for the Heisman Trophy but took home plenty of awards, including AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien and Big Ten MVP.

Kerry Collins, QB, Penn State, 1994: Penn State is known for producing star running backs, but Collins broke the mold in the team's second Big Ten season with an outstanding performance. He set team records for total offense (2,660), completions (176), passing yardage (2,679), completion percentage (66.7), yards per attempt (10.15) and passing efficiency (172.86). His efficiency mark ranks third in Big Ten history. Collins won the Maxwell and O'Brien awards and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. He led Penn State to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl title.

Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin, 1999: It was a tough call between Dayne's 1999 campaign and his historic freshman year in 1996, but he capped his Badgers career by sweeping the major national awards (Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker). Dayne rumbled for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, as Wisconsin repeated as Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions.

Eddie George, RB, Ohio State, 1995: Like Wisconsin's Montee Ball, who made our top five list from Monday, George was a model of consistency at the running back spot. He eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 consecutive games despite often playing sparingly in the fourth quarter, and he finished the season with 1,927 rush yards and 23 touchdowns. He edged Nebraska's Tommie Frazier for the Heisman Trophy and also won the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker.

Desmond Howard, WR, Michigan, 1991: He's the only Big Ten wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy (Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers played in the Big Eight), and his Heisman pose after a punt return touchdown against Ohio State remains an iconic image. Howard had 62 receptions for 985 yards and 19 touchdowns that year. He averaged 27.5 yards per kick return with a touchdown, 15.7 yards per punt return with a touchdown and had 13 carries for 180 yards and two scores. He still holds the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in Big Ten games (13).

Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State, 2002: Johnson's numbers from 2002 are simply insane, as he averaged 183.1 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry en route to leading the nation in rushing (2,087 yards). His yards total is the second highest in Big Ten history, and he had 54 fewer attempts than Dayne in 1996. Johnson won the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State, 1996: Offensive linemen shouldn't be excluded from a list like this, and Pace was one of the best in recent college football history. He capped his career with an outstanding senior season, finishing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, the best total for a lineman (offense or defense) since 1980. He popularized the term "pancake block" and earned his first Outland Trophy and his second Lombardi Award that year. Pace also earned Big Ten MVP honors.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009: Everyone around the country learned the name and the "Suuuuuuuh!" calls from Huskers fans. Suh turned into one of the more dominant seasons by a defender in college football history, racking up 12 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hurries, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks, a forced fumble and an interception. Suh won several national awards (Bednarik, Rotary Lombardi, Nagurski, Outland) and finished fourth in Heisman voting.

Anthony Thompson, RB, Indiana, 1989: Thompson capped a brilliant career with a flourish, winning the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards in 1989 and earning his second consecutive Big Ten MVP honor. The Hoosiers star rushed for 1,793 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added 35 receptions for 201 yards. He recorded the top single-game rushing total (377 at Wisconsin) and set the Big Ten's career scoring record, which Dayne eclipsed a decade later.

Lorenzo White, RB, Michigan State, 1985: There are several work-horse efforts that could be included in this list, but none is more impressive than White's 1985 campaign. The Walter Camp Award winner set a Big Ten record with 419 carries and became the first Big Ten ball-carrier to eclipse 2,000 yards, piling up 2,066. He also ranks second in Big Ten Conference games in both rushing yards (1,470) and rushing average (183.7 yards per game).
This week, ESPN's "College Football Live" is breaking down the top 50 individual seasons of the past 50 years of college football. We couldn't leave that alone here on the conference blogs, so we're naming the league's top five individual seasons.

The Big 12 is the youngest major league, so I'll keep this list to seasons that occurred in the actual Big 12. That means the season had to come during 1996 or later. Missouri, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Colorado are all in the mix on this list. TCU and West Virginia are not.

This was really, really difficult. I'll be polling the rest of you to pitch your best seasons ever later on this week, but here's my top five for now.

1. Vince Young, QB, Texas, 2005

Young takes home this award, breaking a tough set of ties, for carrying his team to a national title. No player outside the SEC has earned a ring since Young knocked off USC (aka The Greatest Team Ever) on the Trojans' home turf in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. He completed 65 percent of his passes and threw for 3,036 yards with 26 touchdowns. He also added 1,050 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, none bigger than his 8-yard touchdown on fourth-and-5 to beat the Trojans and send Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush home without any championship hardware. Young finished that game with an absurd 267 yards passing and 200 yards rushing, his second game of the season with at least 200 yards of each.

2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009

No defensive player was more destructive during his time on the field. Just ask Colt McCoy. Suh is the most dominant defensive player in the history of the Big 12, and let's just get this out of the way: He should have won the Heisman Trophy in 2009. Instead, Mark Ingram earned Alabama's first Heisman Trophy. Suh, whose name means "House of Spears," became the first defensive player to ever earn the AP Player of the Year honors and became the first defensive tackle invited to the Heisman ceremony since Warren Sapp in 1994. He finished fourth in the voting, but he didn't end the season empty-handed. Anything but. He had 85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups and an interception that changed a season-defining, comeback win at Missouri. For his efforts, he took home the Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award and was a finalist for the Walter Camp Award and Lott Trophy.

3. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas, 1998

Ricky ran and ran and ran. He finished his senior season with 2,124 yards, an average of just under 200 yards a game, becoming the eighth player in NCAA history to top 2,000 yards in a single season. He had two 300-yard rushing games (an NCAA record) and memorably set the NCAA career record for rushing that season with a long touchdown run against Texas A&M. That season, he earned the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award and became the first two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award. Over a decade later, Texas coach Mack Brown still talks about the time Ricky ran for 150 yards to upset No. 7 Nebraska 20-16 and break the Huskers' 47-game home winning streak. Nebraska fans responded by chanting "Heisman" as Williams walked off the field.

4. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma, 2008

Bradford broke out as a sophomore in 2008 and took home just about every piece of hardware imaginable. He threw for 4,720 yards and an absurd 50 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, while completing 328 of 483 passes (67.9 percent). For his work, he earned the Heisman Trophy (Oklahoma's fifth winner), the Davey O'Brien Award and the Sammy Baugh Trophy. Oklahoma won the Big 12 and staked its claim as the highest-scoring offense in the history of college football. The Sooners reached the national title that season but lost to Tim Tebow's Florida Gators.

5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma, 2004

Can you imagine a true freshman leading the nation in rushing and carries, breaking NCAA freshman rushing records along the way, and being named a unanimous All-American. Well, it happened not too long ago. The latter seasons of Peterson's career were marred by injury, but Peterson broke the mold of college football in his first year on the field, steamrolling opponents and finishing second in the Heisman voting as a true freshman back in 2004, which was unthinkable. Back then a sophomore had never even won the greatest individual award in sports. He rushed for 1,860 yards and 15 touchdowns, carrying the Sooners to the national title game. He ran for 100 yards in nine consecutive games and 11 times as a true freshman, both NCAA records. He was also the first freshman finalist for the Doak Walker Award.
Johnathan Hankins has the least creative and most appropriate nickname on Ohio State's team: Big Hank.

The term big has followed Hankins from the moment he set (big) foot on Ohio State's campus. Even though Hankins has slimmed down significantly during his Buckeyes career -- he now checks in at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds -- the junior defensive tackle has a tough time escaping talk about his size. He's a big man with big-time skills.

Entering the 2012 season, he has big expectations placed on his ... very big shoulders.

[+] EnlargeDefensive lineman Johnathan Hankins
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesOhio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, 52, has the potential to be an elite NFL prospect.
When ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., issued his first Big Board for the 2013 NFL draft, Hankins was the first Big Ten player listed, at the No. 11 overall selection. Although Hankins has started just one season for the Buckeyes and didn't earn first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011, his next-level potential is obvious, even to more decorated members of Ohio State's defensive line.

"His ceiling's through the roof," Buckeyes defensive lineman John Simon told ESPN.com. "He's a playmaker for us, a big-time player. You're going to need two guys to take him up. With his ability and his size and how quick he moves for his size, he's a dual threat."

Hankins is flattered by the lofty draft projections from Kiper and others, saying, "it's a big deal to see how far I came from high school."

The NFL is certainly on his radar, although he told reporters last week in Columbus that he wants to win a national title with Ohio State as a senior in 2013.

Time will tell if Hankins' plans change, but he's well aware of the increased burden he'll bear for the Buckeyes this coming season.

"I think I'm ready," Hankins told ESPN.com "With the seniors we have on defense and with [Simon], I feel like I’ve reached a level of being a leader. The more that I play, people follow me. That's one way I lead."

Hankins couldn't have a better model than the man he lines up next to, Simon. The undisputed leader of Ohio State's defense returns for his third season as a starter, and undoubtedly his second as a captain after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and third-team AP All-America honors in 2011.

Last fall, Simon and Hankins combined for 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Hankins led all Buckeyes defensive linemen and finished fourth on the team in tackles (67), and he and Simon were the only players to record double digits in TFLs. They combined for six tackles for loss in a win against Illinois, and Hankins racked up nine TFLs against Big Ten competition.

"He's a major help for me," Hankins said. "I'm just trying to take the characteristics he has and add them to myself so I can become a leader and be a model for the young guys. Become a true Buckeye."

Simon noted that going through a season of starting alongside Hankins helped them improve their communication skills. Hankins' ability to stay on the field -- he set a goal of 60 snaps per game in 2011 -- also helped.

"He's changed a lot of the habits, body-wise," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of Hankins. "He's always been a heck of a football player, but his ability to become stronger, his ability to get his weight in a good position where he can play 60 snaps at 100 percent has been good to see."

Asked if he has a snaps-per-game goal for 2012, Hankins replied, "Until they take me out."

Hankins spent spring practice working with a new line coach, Mike Vrabel, who previously had coached Ohio State's linebackers. Although Vrabel played linebacker in the NFL, he starred as a defensive end for Ohio State, becoming the first player in Big Ten history to twice earn the league's defensive lineman of the year award (1995 and 1996). Hankins called it an "honor" to work with Vrabel and said Vrabel has talked to him a lot about one of Vrabel's former New England Patriots teammates, 325-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

"I watch him, I watch [Haloti] Ngata from Baltimore, I watch B.J. Raji and Ndamukong Suh," Hankins said. "I try to take some of their game and put it into my game."

All four men have met the big expectations that go along with their big frames.

This fall, Hankins hopes to do the same.

B1G combine contingent gets to work

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
10:00
AM ET
The NFL scouting combine kicks off today in Indianapolis, and 45 Big Ten players will be part of the most scrutinized job interview in sports.

Here's the full schedule of events. The first set of interviews take place Wednesday, and position group workouts take place from Friday-Tuesday.

Here are some of the Big Ten storylines at the combine:

    [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
    Chuck Cook/US PresswireRussell Wilson needs to convince teams that his less-than-ideal height won't hold him back at the next level.
  • The quarterbacks are always a story in Indy, and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins will be representing the Big Ten. Wilson's biggest obstacle is his height, and he'll have to show he can throw over the top of massive linemen and make all the throws. He won't lack for motivation. Cousins had a strong showing during Senior Bowl week. He wants to put himself in that second group of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. A strong combine performance could be the difference between being a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder.
  • Can Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy solidify himself in the first round? Worthy has moved around the mock drafts quite a bit during the past few months. There are obvious pluses to his game, namely his brute strength and ability to clog rushing lanes and drop quarterbacks. But some have questioned his motor and whether he takes too many plays off. He'll be under the microscope in Indy, especially from a conditioning standpoint.
  • The combine will be huge for Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his stock drop during Senior Bowl week and missed the game because of a hip injury. Huskers coach Bo Pelini has called Dennard the nation's best cornerback, and he showed shutdown skills at times last season. But he has some work to do to get back in the first-round picture.
  • Remember Jared Crick? I ranked him as the Big Ten's No. 1 player entering the season, but he played in only five games before being sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. Crick needs to show he's healthy and that he can thrive when not playing alongside Ndamukong Suh.
  • It will be interesting to see which Big Ten offensive linemen can boost their stock in Indy. Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff doesn't have much to prove and should be the league's first player drafted in April, but it'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Ohio State center Mike Brewster, Wisconsin tackle Josh Oglesby, Illinois tackle Jeff Allen, Ohio State tackle Mike Adams and others perform. Konz certainly could be the first center drafted, while many project Adams in the first round. Oglesby is among the players trying to prove they can hold up after dealing with several knee injuries with the Badgers. Brewster's stock dropped at the Senior Bowl, and he finished the season as the Big Ten's No. 3 center after entering the fall as a preseason All-American.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker surprised some by declaring for the draft. His production dropped off significantly in 2011, although Michigan State had some issues along the offensive line. Still, Baker needs a big performance in Indy to impress the talent evaluators.
  • Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey appeared in only three games as a senior because of suspension. He has the physical gifts to be an effective pro wideout, but he'll need a strong week before the scouts in Indy. Evaluators also will be trying to assess his character after some off-field missteps at Ohio State.
  • The combine is all about numbers, and Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin might post some huge ones this week. Martin, one of the strongest players in college football, is bench pressing 505 pounds and squatting more than 700. Stephen Paea's combine record of 49 reps of 225 pounds could be in jeopardy. Martin should finish among the leaders in his position group in several categories.

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