NCF Nation: Ryan Kerrigan

Big 12 media days live: Day 2

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
9:40
AM ET
The Big 12 media days continue on Tuesday in Dallas, as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and new Texas coach Charlie Strong each take the stage. Keep this page open throughout the day's proceedings as we bring you the latest from our reporters, who will cover all 10 teams at the event.

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
10:00
AM ET
The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's reputation for producing great quarterbacks is recognized throughout college football, as names like Brees, Griese, Herrmann, Dawson and Everett are linked to the program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You have a common ground," Russell said. "They started the same place you started, and what they're doing is the goal, so you’re trying to see what they're doing to get to the goal you all share."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
4:30
PM ET
Some questions and answers before the weekend. Not surprisingly, a lot of you are weighing in on this story.

CK from Seattle writes: I'm going to call it right now Adam. B1G has a good bowl season (or at least better than recent years -- not saying much I know). Reason being the B1G teams seem to often play higher ranked teams and teams playing close to home. With our poor rankings this year, I imagine we'll have some more even matchups. That said -- Wisconsin has looked terrible, Michigan isn't impressive, MSU struggled against mediocre ND and Nebraska had a laugher in Cali. Verdict is still out on OSU. Well -- after saying that, I feel less confident, but still think we'll get better matchups this year.

Adam Rittenberg: CK, you very well could be correct. It's hard to envision the Big Ten keeping its streak of multiple BCS berths alive. Then again, I've thought the streak would end in the past, and it hasn't, as Big Ten teams and their massive fan bases remain so attractive to the big bowls. The matchups undoubtedly would be better and potentially more appropriate if the Big Ten only sends a team to the Rose Bowl. And if the Big Ten does well, I think the league will get credit because difficulty of bowl lineup doesn't seem to matter much with how leagues are perceived. That said, the Big Ten has to start winning Rose Bowls again. One victory in the past nine is pretty bad.




Dan from Austin, Texas, writes: As a proud PSU alum, it's tough to see the conference in this state. I agree with the premise you are attributing this to, however to understand why the talent pool is low, you have to understand what QBs in other markets are doing all year round. Look at how many Texas QBs are leading D1 programs around the country and starting in the NFL. The reason 7-on-7 leagues that were started about 10 years ago. You now have a generation of Texas QBs who have been able to have 2x to 3x more reps than QBs in the North.

Adam Rittenberg: I think 7-on-7 leagues are a factor, Dan, but spring football in the south might be a bigger one. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller told me that from a talent standpoint, the recruits he landed from Texas and other states weren't way above those from the Midwest. But the fact that the Midwest kids didn't have spring football in high school made them less prepared to play college ball right away. "The southern states are really getting the edge," Tiller told me. "Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren’t necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also noted that some southern states (Texas) have longer regular seasons than those in the Midwest, so players are playing more games before they arrive at college.




Steve from San Francisco writes: I can't agree with Earle Bruce, and not just because I went to Michigan. I think the quarterbacks in the league are not the problem. Look at Alabama. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron have led them to National Championships and they are not NFL caliber quarterbacks. Maybe they will be backups for a while, but they aren't carrying those teams, it is the top-down talent around them -- strong defenses, speedy, large, wide open receivers, and huge, yardage-churning running backs. Go back to UM-Bama to start the season, McCarron's and [Denard] Robinson's numbers were eerily similar, and how close was the final score? McCarron missed a bunch of receivers too, he just happened to also have 3 running backs tearing up the field. The question is: will the Big Ten ever be able to pull enough talent in all schools so that every class has the depth to match the SEC and I think the answer is no. I wanted to go to Michigan, but I grew up in the north. Most of the talent these days is in the south. Why would they ever go to a place that is frozen in the winter when they could be in the sun with girls in bikinis? Yes, you get your one-offs, but it is all positions talent and depth where the Big Ten has lost its prestige.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Steve. Bruce also told me the running back position is down in the Big Ten, and while I don't necessarily agree with him there, the number of elite QB-RB combinations might not be as high as it should be. The wide receiver spot certainly has been down in the league, and I would also look at cornerback as a weakness in recent years. Everyone points to defensive line play and says that's where the SEC has the advantage, but I look at the linemen the Big Ten has produced in recent years -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward, Jared Odrick etc. -- and don't see a massive shortage. Maybe there's not as much depth in the Big Ten as there is in the SEC, but I don't think there's a dearth at defensive line. Your last point is spot on. The issues go beyond just one position, and it's hard for the Big Ten to recruit overall rosters that can match the best teams from the SEC.




Brutus from the Ninth Circle writes: Hey Adam, have a question about Penn State. With the departure of Paul Jones, I'm beginning to think that there are 2 key things going on. First, [coach Bill] O'Brien knows that he has to get the scholarships down to a certain level and he has to "trim the fat," if that's the right phrase. Second, every team has under-performers, so they would be the first to go. It seems to me that BOB is cleaning house to get to the levels that he needs to be at, protecting the core players, and lightening the load with players that are less critical. Jones was the 3rd string quarterback and way down the list on TE. Seems like a good call to let Jones go. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, I don't think O'Brien is running players off from Penn State. I think he's being honest with them about their futures, and he didn't see a future for Jones at quarterback for the Lions. I believe O'Brien when he said he saw Jones as a contributor at tight end, but ultimately Jones wanted to play quarterback, as he tweeted Wednesday night, and he couldn't do that at Penn State. It's probably too soon to how Jones would have fared as a tight end for PSU, and there are quite a few players ahead of him at that spot. While I don't think O'Brien will lie awake at night thinking about how he could have kept Jones in State College, I don't think he's thrilled to see Jones leave. As O'Brien said Thursday night, Jones just needed a fresh start.




Dylan from Nebraska writes: Adam, Is there a Big 10 team that could, with some help, still contend for a national title? Would a 1-loss Nebraska, or Michigan St team make it? Would an undefeated Minny or Northwestern make it?

Adam Rittenberg: It's very hard to envision any Big Ten team taking the field in Miami on Jan. 7. The problem is the Big Ten didn't do much of anything in the first four weeks to justify having a 1-loss team make the title game ahead of comparable squads from other conferences. Between Minnesota and Northwestern, I'd say Northwestern would have the better chance because it has a slightly stronger strength of schedule than the Gophers do. And while I've been impressed at what both teams have done, there's little to believe either squad will run the table, especially in the tougher division (Legends). UCLA, which beat Nebraska, already has a home loss to Oregon State, pretty much eliminating the Huskers. Maybe if Notre Dame runs the table and so does Michigan State, there would be a slight, slight chance. But it's hard to see a national title game without featuring a team from the SEC, which has won the past six championships.




Jesse from Lansing writes: Adam -- Coach Kill seems to be a great fit for Minnesota right now. He doesn't reek of that used car salesman attitude (all talk-no walk) that [Tim] Brewster brought to the U. I am really enjoying his matter-of-fact, tough-love gotcha style and the fact that he's more focused on developing his players than the previous regime. Points also for the consistency brought on by his loyal coaching staff. Say Kill is able to build back this program in the next 3-4 years, what are the chances another BCS program lures away him away? I would like to think he's happy here and would stick around for a while. The U administration has been more than generous in providing him the resources he needs to get the job done as well as the time (7-year contract, I believe). Still, Bill Snyder can't stay at Kansas State forever, and being a native Kansan, that would be another opportunity for him to say retire close to home.

Adam Rittenberg: Jerry Kill might not have been Minnesota's first or second choice, but the guy looks like the right choice for a long-suffering Gophers program. He has definitely paid his dues in coaching at the lower rankings, and he doesn't take this opportunity for granted. That said, he obviously has ties to the Kansas area. Ideally, Kill would build up Minnesota's program enough so a move to Kansas State would be more lateral than an obvious step up. I don't get the sense he's a guy who wants to keep moving around every few years, but I doubt you're the only Gophers fan who made the connection to the K-State situation. Kill won't make any move until he feels like he has built up the program sufficiently, which likely is still a few more years away.




Nick from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Hi Adam. I am a die-hard, but very realistic Iowa Fan. Its probably taboo to make comparisons between the last 4 years of Hayden Fry's dismal career and where Kirk's career currently is. The reality is Hayden Fry recruiting significantly diminished after the Tavian Banks/Tim Dwight era which led to more losses. Ferentz had to completely rebuild Iowa. Over the last few years the talent, development has reduced with the losses increasing. Ferentz use to personally coach special teams and it showed. Since he stopped coaching them they have gone down hill ... quickly. I see him now more as a figure-head like Hayden Fry's last years. Do you see these comparisons as well? The angst is growing in Florida among the Iowa fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I can understand your frustration, and I doubt you're the only one making that comparison. While Iowa's program undoubtedly has lost momentum since 2009, I don't know if there has been a huge drop in talent. Iowa never was talented enough to overcome mistakes like running away from an onside kick or committing a dumb personal foul penalty in the closing seconds of a 2-point game. Most of Ferentz's teams have played smart, fundamentally sound football and often played above their collective talent level to win a lot of games. I don't think the 2012 Hawkeyes fit this description. It's fair to wonder if players are being developed as well as they used to in Iowa's program, but aside from a handful of recruiting classes (i.e. 2005), I haven't seen major differences in the types of players Iowa signs. I'm sure the facilities upgrades will help in recruiting, and I also think Ferentz has a lot left as a coach. But it's definitely a rough situation right now in Hawkeye Country.




Charlie from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, Just listened to your "Game of the Week" talk and noticed you said that Le'Veon Bell is the Big Ten's best running back. I think that's a little presumptuous to proclaim this early in the season. Based on a larger time scale (last year) and his performance in limited time this year, I'd still take Rex Burkhead. Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to pull out the Brian Bennett card and base everything you think, do, and say on "body of work." But, this isn't directly about body of work, it's who you think is best based on all past performances and projected future performances. Although Bell will unquestionably, unless he gets hurt, finish the year with more yards than Burkhead, don't you think Burkhead deserves just as much mention for the Big Ten's best running back?

Adam Rittenberg: Charlie, my comment pertained strictly to this season. No one would argue -- aside from a few Northwestern fans -- that Bell has been the Big Ten's best running back this season. We've barely seen Burkhead, and he could turn out to be the league's top back, but he hasn't been to date this season because of the knee injury. Burkhead's overall career has been more impressive than Bell's, but I think Bell has closed the gap -- more because of what he has done lately, not because of any shortcomings with Rex's game. I will say this: Le'Veon Bell projects better to the NFL than any back in the Big Ten, including Burkhead and Montee Ball. If he keeps this up, he could be a potential first-round pick in next year's draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season.




Dave from Denver writes: Does Schlabach get paid by the SEC too?

Adam Rittenberg: Only in joy.
We asked you Monday to weigh in on the Big Ten offensive player of the year race: specifically, which player had the best chance to challenge the 2011 winner, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. As of noon ET today, it's a close race between Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, with more than 6,300 votes cast.

It'll be interesting to see how the OPOY race unfolds, but I'm more interested in the candidate pool on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten always will be a defense-driven conference -- the league boasted six top-20 defenses in 2011 -- and the 2012 season presents an interesting group of standouts. There's not only a large pool of what I would describe as top contenders, but a nice group of secondary candidates as well. And as we've seen lately, a surprise player could emerge to win the award. Few pegged Penn State DT Devon Still to be the recipient entering the 2011 season.

Let's take a look at the top contenders:

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State, Jr., 6-7, 275


2011 statistics: 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media and coaches)
Making a case: The freakishly athletic Gholston might be the Big Ten's most gifted player, and he appears ready for a huge junior season. Remember how Penn State's Still dominated the bowl game before his breakout 2011 season, which resulted in Big Ten defensive player of the year honors? Gholston delivered a similar performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, tying a team bowl record with five tackles for loss and recording two sacks and a fumble recovery. Don't be surprised if Gholston mirrors Still's route this coming fall. He boasts a unique combination of size and speed, and while he'll surely command more attention this year, he plays on a defense featuring several players who opponents must respect.

John Simon, DE, Ohio State, Sr., 6-2, 260

2011 statistics: 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), third-team AP All-America
Making a case: The term most often associated with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is motor. Kerrigan never took plays off and consistently outworked his opponents. The same holds true for Simon, who had new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calling him "Tebowish" after just a handful of spring practices. Simon's motor never stops, and he makes up for a lack of ideal size with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. Like Gholston, Simon should benefit from the players around him. Pegged as a future superstar by older teammates when he played as a true freshman, Simon is primed to live up to those expectations this fall.

Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 233

2011 statistics: 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Hodges showed last season that when healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. This spring, he looked like the best player on the field during Penn State's practices. He's moving to the strong side, a position where some of Penn State's best linebackers have played during their senior seasons. With Michael Mauti returning from injury, Glenn Carson back and several others in the fold, Penn State could have the league's top linebacking corps in 2012. Expect Hodges to take his game to the next gear, and he could have a season much like Navorro Bowman in 2009.

Kawann Short, DT, Purdue, Sr., 6-3, 310

2011 statistics: 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (media), second-team All-Big Ten (coaches)
Making a case: The Big Ten recently has been a league of dominant defensive tackles, and two of them from Penn State, Jared Odrick and Still, have won defensive player of the year honors in the past three seasons. Purdue's Short looks like the next in line after a superb junior season that seemed to fly under the radar both regionally and nationally. He's consistently disruptive and also makes consistent plays in the backfield. Short has racked up 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, so he has been good for a long time. After turning down a chance to turn pro -- he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board -- Short could have a huge senior season.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, Jr., 5-11, 250


2011 statistics: 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Like Short, Borland has been a consistent playmaker for multiple years with Wisconsin. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year returned from shoulder problems to turn in an incredibly productive 2011 season. Borland moved to middle linebacker last fall but still found ways to get in the backfield. His tackles for loss total marked the most for a middle linebacker in the FBS. Borland always has been strong against the pass and should help Wisconsin in that phase this fall. Along with Mike Taylor, Borland will lead the Wisconsin defense and look to add more numbers to a tremendously productive career.

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 235

2011 statistics: 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media)
Making a case: I put Brown in the same category with Gholston: an elite talent who could become a national superstar this coming season. Like Borland did in 2011, Brown will have to prove he can impact games at middle linebacker the way he did on the outside last season. Like Borland, Brown is an excellent blitzer who can get in a quarterback's face and wreak havoc in the backfield. He'll anchor the linebacking corps for an Illinois defense that should once again be strong in the front seven.

Others to watch
Dark horse candidates

While I can't include everyone at this early stage, there's a large and interesting group in the mix for this award. Should be a great race to watch.
Kawann Short didn't make a rash decision on whether to remain at Purdue for his senior season or enter the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePurdue defensive tackle Kawann Short hopes to improve areas like endurance, flexibility and quickness.
He laid out the pros and cons in the days following Purdue's win in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. He talked extensively with his mom, who like any mother, wants her son to earn his college degree. He also reached out to former Boilermakers teammates and current NFL defensive linemen Ryan Kerrigan and Mike Neal.

Short received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, which didn't disappoint him. He also faced the uncertainty of playing for a new defensive coordinator for the third straight year, as Purdue parted ways with Gary Emanuel after the bowl game.

"Every day is something different, like yeah, should I go, or yeah, should I stay," Short said Friday. "That whole week was pretty interesting."

Ultimately, he decided to return. The desire to boost his draft stock and complete his degree brought him back to Purdue, a team that could make some noise in a wide-open Leaders division in 2012.

The correspondence with both Neal and Kerrigan helped Short during the process. Neal received a fifth-round grade after the 2008 season but opted to return and was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Green Bay Packers.

Kerrigan also finished his career at Purdue, earning unanimous All-America honors as a senior before becoming a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins last April. He starred for the Redskins this past season and made the NFL's all-rookie team.

"Both of their speeches were pretty amazing," Short said.

The big gamble for Short in returning to Purdue is the coordinator change. He excelled in Emanuel's system, earning All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons and recording 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss during the span.

Short asked himself questions like: What's next? What scheme will they bring in? Will it mess me up or benefit the whole team?

Like many, he was caught off guard by Emanuel's departure, which took place while players were on winter break. He found out after teammates started calling and texting.

"I thought everything was good," he said. "A couple days later you find out coach is leaving and a new defensive coordinator [is coming in]."

Short has yet to talk with new Boilers coordinator Tim Tisebar, who comes to Purdue from the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.

"I heard he's a pretty good guy, coming from [strength coach Duane Carlisle]," Short said. "I don't think he’ll steer us in the wrong direction. ... I don't know what type of defense he'll run or what scheme. I just have to step up and face it."

Short wants to become one of the nation's elite defensive linemen in 2012. He aims to become an every-down player and improve areas like endurance, flexibility and quickness. He hopes to become a captain again -- "Hopefully, I'll get re-voted," he said with a laugh.

"The draft can make you or break you," Short said. "There's a lot of stuff I know I need to work on."
The Big Ten announced its 2011 all-conference teams and most individual awards Monday night, but four more awards will be revealed Wednesday afternoon. Before the winners are revealed, we're putting in our endorsements for Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year. We'll agree on some and differ on others.

Here's our second endorsement, for the league's top defensive player in 2011:

Brian Bennett endorses Penn State DT Devon Still

There are three really strong candidates for defensive player of the year in Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David and Penn State's Still. I believe all three of them deserve All-America recognition. But in my view, there was simply not a more dominating, disruptive defensive presence in the Big Ten or the rest of the country than Still. Ever since his big showing in January's Outback Bowl, the senior played like he was on a mission. He had 55 tackles, including 17 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Remember, he was playing a position -- defensive tackle -- that usually doesn't rack up big statistics, and he faced nearly constant double-teams all season long. Yet he always seemed to find a way into an opposing offense's backfield or at least occupy enough attention that his teammates could make a stop. Penn State won this year because of its defense, and Still led the way.

Adam Rittenberg endorses Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus

Brian, I'd even add a fourth candidate to the mix in Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who will be making a lot of money next year if he decides to forgo his senior season. This is a really tough call as all four men have been outstanding for their teams. Penn State's Still has been extremely disruptive, as you point out. But my vote goes to Mercilus, who, like past Defensive Player of the Year winners, shouldn't be punished for his team falling short. From a numbers standpoint, Mercilus blows away the other candidates. He leads the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), the latter mark setting a new Big Ten record. Mercilus has one more sack and three more forced fumbles than any other FBS player this season. He also is tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss (19.5). The junior has added six quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. Yes, Illinois faded down the stretch, but Mercilus never stopped producing. Last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, played for a worse team than Mercilus. The same held true for Michigan's Brandon Graham, the Big Ten's co-MVP in 2009. Mercilus should be viewed in the same way as both Kerrigan and Graham. He deserves the hardware.
Danny Hope took a brief break from entertaining recruits and preparing for Iowa to answer a phone call late Sunday afternoon.

"Sundays are nuts," the Purdue coach told ESPN.com.

What about Saturdays?

"Saturday," Hope said, "is the best day of the week."

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Danny Hope and Purdue need one win to become eligible for a bowl game.
This past Saturday certainly fit the description for Hope and his Purdue Boilermakers. It was their best day of the year. In fact, it might have been the program's best moment since its previous upset of Ohio State in 2009.

After two blowout losses on the road, Purdue returned home Saturday and breathed life into its season and its discouraged fan base with a 26-23 overtime victory against Ohio State. The Boilers outplayed the Buckeyes most of the game, nearly let it go late before making a huge special teams play and then prevailing in the extra session.

Hope's team is one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.

"It was a lot of fun," Hope said. "Sometimes a football team stubs its toe a couple times in a row, and they may not have the substance to bounce back. Our team showed some great mental toughness."

Purdue's resolve showed up in all three phases Saturday.

A defensive line that had surrendered 703 rush yards in losses to Michigan and Wisconsin the previous two weeks held Ohio State's high-powered ground game to 163 yards on 47 carries (3.5 ypc). Defensive tackle Kawann Short led Purdue's effort with three sacks in a performance that resembled Ryan Kerrigan's incredible day against Ohio State two years ago. Like Kerrigan did in 2009, Short earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort against the Buckeyes.

"He has a tremendous upside," Hope said. "He can still play a lot better. He can be a dominant player on the national level. You haven't seen the best of him yet."

"I was really proud of our entire defense and particularly our defensive line and linebackers," Hope continued. "They really had to man-up this weekend."

Perhaps the same can be said for Purdue's offense, which hadn't done much in the previous 10 quarters entering Saturday's game, scoring only 31 points during the span.

The Boilers on Saturday established themselves early, showing good balance on offense in the first half. Although they stalled a bit after halftime, quarterback Robert Marve sparked the unit in overtime, going 3-for-3 on pass attempts and stretching across the goal line for the game-winner.

But the biggest play, the one that might have saved Purdue's season, came on special teams, an area where the Boilers have had their ups and downs. In Week 2, Purdue lost 24-22 to Rice after a 31-yard field-goal attempt -- a chip shot for the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs -- was blocked as time expired. Hope didn't mince words after the game, saying, "It was lost on the field goal."

Purdue also struggled in the kicking game in its 23-18 loss to Penn State, missing two field goal attempts and allowing a long return.

The Boilers redeemed themselves Saturday, as defensive tackle Bruce Gaston blocked a potential game-winning extra-point attempt with 55 seconds left in regulation.

Hope and his coaches had spotted an opening in Ohio State's protection during the game.

"We changed the pressure point a little bit and found some daylight," he said.

But it was more than just scheme recognition.

"Any time they're lining up to kick an extra point or a field goal, on the defensive side you're [ticked] off anyway," he said. "You want to block the [crud] out of the ball.”

Purdue's 2009 win against Ohio State sparked the Boilers down the stretch, as they finished 4-4 in Big Ten play. But Purdue fell a win shy of a bowl game.

The 2011 Boilers hope the victory carries over as they look for back-to-back wins for the first time this season.

Hope can't pinpoint why his team has given Ohio State so much trouble. But he didn't downplay what was at stake for the Boilers on Saturday.

"We had to rise up and play," He said. "We needed to win. I don't think it would have mattered this weekend who [the opponent] was.

"It was meant to be.”
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Friday Q&A: Purdue DT Kawann Short

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
10:30
AM ET
Purdue no longer has Ryan Kerrigan, a first-round NFL draft pick this spring, but the Boilermakers have another star in the making on the defensive line. Junior tackle Kawann Short was named the Big Ten's co-defensive player of the week for his two-sack, 3.5 tackle-for-loss performance last week against Illinois. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder has emerged alongside Devon Still, Jerel Worthy, John Simon and others as a standout interior lineman in this league. I recently caught up with Short on the eve of Purdue's game at Michigan for this week's Friday Q&A:

What has been the key to your success so far this season?

Kawann Short: Just watching film, doing what the coaches tell me to do. I'm trying to be consistent, to not let up in practice and go hard all the time. And it's showing up in the games on Saturday.

Danny Hope said your improved conditioning has been a big key. How has that helped you this season?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKawann Short, Purdue's junior defensive tackle, says the Boilers "must" get to a bowl game this season.
KS: It's been a dramatic change from my freshman year to now. My weight has fluctuated, but it's also about being muscular and just pushing myself, really. As a young guy, you're really not always pushing yourself as hard as you could. As an older guy, I want to set an example for the younger guys.

How many more snaps can you play now with your better conditioning?

KS: I can play a whole game. At Penn State, I played the whole game, and at the end of the day, it wasn't bad. Last year, I could probably play no more than like 50 or 60 snaps. On Saturday [against Illinois], I played like 70 or 80, and I felt pretty good about it.

Are you seeing a lot more double teams now?

KS: Yeah. People told me it was going to happen. Teams see you getting better, and they start focusing on you more. I don't even acknowledge it, just because I've been in that position before. Now it's time for the younger guys to step up and beat the one-on-ones.

What did you learn in playing next to Ryan Kerrigan?

KS: Just as far as his intensity and energy and his drive. I've never seen that man take a play off or even mess up in a game. I'm trying to be like him now, where in meetings you never hear my name except when they say, "Good job here" or "Good job there." Playing next to Ryan gave me that energy, knowing that you've got to go every time you put your hand down in the grass and don't even think about tiredness. That's the biggest thing I learned from him.

Did you feel responsibility to become more of a leader after he left?

KS: Well, Gerald Gooden is the leader and a captain. But we're the two older guys on the line, so we have to set an example. He's doing it for the defensive ends, and I'm doing it for the tackles.

What was it like Saturday when you guys beat a ranked team for the first time since 2009?

KS: It felt great after the win. Holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter was a blessing, and it was great to see the whole team coming together like that. Now we know we're capable of doing it. Every Saturday, any team can be beat and you just have to be ready to play and bring it. We're going to try to do that the rest of these Saturdays in the conference.

You need two more wins, but do you feel like you guys can get to a bowl game for the first time since 2007?

KS: Most definitely. It's a must. We've got to. We've been out too long, and everybody is just hungry. We've been going home for Christmas and watching other teams and players and knowing we could be playing. We're trying not to go home this year.

Would not making a bowl be a disappointment now?

KS: Yeah, just because now we're a whole lot better team. Everybody's mindset is definitely different and we're working hard. That would hurt us. It would be a sharp pain in our stomachs just to know we could have been bowl eligible but we didn't do it.

What are the challenges for a defensive lineman when facing Denard Robinson this weekend?

KS: Just his quickness. You have to stay true to your assignments, because if you have any little mess-up, he can take off. He's a very good quarterback and runner. As far as the D-line, we've got to stay in our gaps. We've got to keep control and keep contain. If we do that, we should be in good shape.

You have four blocked kicks in your career. What's the secret to that?

KS: To be honest, I'm not doing it by myself. The guy next me helps me to get the push. All I'm doing is throwing my arms up and jumping a little bit. Ryan Kerrigan helped me do it a couple times. Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Brandon Taylor, all those guys helped me get one. I can't take all the credit, knowing those guys were with me all the time. All you need is that good push and to throw your hands up.

Is it true you didn't play football until eighth grade?

KS: Yeah. A lot of people were in my head telling me to go play. When I went to high school I wasn't even going to play, but one of the coaches told me to try out. I just stuck with it because it was something I was good at. I was more of a basketball player, but when I learned I could do both, I stuck with it.

And you won an Indiana state title in basketball with former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore as your high school teammate?

KS: It was in 2007, his senior year and my junior year. That was a great year, because it was also the year I committed to Purdue.

What position did you play?

KS: I played center. We had a 6-11 guy, but he played the 4 and the 3. I was going up against guys who were like 6-6, 6-7, but I was handling it pretty well. My big body kept me going.

You must have been a pretty good rebounder.

KS: Yeah, that was where all my points came off of. I was a double-double guy.

When did you know football was your future?

KS: Probably my sophomore year. I was just playing basketball because I really enjoyed myself and I couldn't see myself not playing. It helped me stay in condition and helped me get my footwork and coordination right. So it was definitely a plus.
It's time to take a closer look at the Big Ten's top defensive linemen. We'll start off with the tackles before examining the ends.

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireNebraska's Jared Crick is the best of a strong group of defensive tackles in the Big Ten.
Defensive tackle is arguably the Big Ten's strongest position, along with center and possibly wide receiver. Three teams boast potential first-round draft picks at tackles, and there's no shortage of space eaters throughout the league.

Note: Some players see time at both line spots, but they'll be ranked at the position where I think they'll play more this fall (i.e. Ohio State's John Simon at end).

Here are the top top entering 2011:

1. Jared Crick, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers got a big boost when Crick decided to return for his senior season. He put up monster numbers for a defensive tackle in 2010, leading the team in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17) and finishing with 70 total tackles. A unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection, Crick earned second-team All-America honors and is one of the leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Mike Martin, Michigan, senior: Like Crick, Martin enters his senior season on the NFL radar and could be one of the league's most disruptive defenders. He lacks the stats of some other players on this list, but he creates just as many problems, if not more, for opposing teams. One of the strongest players in the Big Ten, Martin has started the past two seasons at nose tackle and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, junior: The hype machine has cranked up for Worthy, as colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper project the Michigan State junior as a top 10 pick in the 2012 draft. Worthy led Michigan State defensive linemen with 40 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. He boasts both size and tremendous explosiveness inside.

4. Kawann Short, Purdue, junior: Overshadowed by line mate Ryan Kerrigan in 2010, Short should dominate the spotlight this fall after a terrific sophomore season. He led Big Ten defensive tackles in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5), finishing fourth in the league in both categories. Short dropped some weight during the offseason to improve his stamina. He should be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

5. Mike Daniels, Iowa, senior: Like Short, Daniels will take on a more featured role this season following some key personnel losses. He turned in a solid junior season, recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks en route to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Daniels fits the mold of previous Iowa standout tackles -- a bit undersized but strong and disruptive -- and the Hawkeyes need a big season from him.

6. Devon Still, Penn State, senior: Don't be surprised to see Still climb up this list, especially if he picks up where he left off in the Outback Bowl. Still recorded 3.5 tackles for loss against Florida and led Penn State in both sacks (4) and tackles for loss (10). His injury troubles are in the past and he's ready to lead a line that needs to regain its edge this fall.

7. Baker Steinkuhler, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Steinkuhler in his second season as a starter. He earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after recording 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hurries. Steinkuhler should benefit from playing alongside Crick, who will command double teams.

8. Akeem Spence, Illinois, sophomore: Illinois hopes Spence can play a big role in replacing first-round draft pick Corey Liuget. A talented young player with tremendous strength, Spence started all 13 games alongside Liuget in 2010 and recorded 45 tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. He made multiple freshman All-America squads for his efforts.

9. Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State, sophomore: This is a projection pick, but Hankins is a name to know entering the 2011 season. He looked very impressive at times this spring and has the size and strength to dominate inside for Ohio State. With John Simon likely spending more time at defensive end, the Buckeyes will lean on Hankins to shore up the interior. Hankins had 16 tackles and a sack as a reserve in 2010.

10. Patrick Butrym, Wisconsin, senior: Butrym already is taking on a greater leadership role after the departure of All-American J.J. Watt, and his on-field production should increase this fall. He tied for second on the team in quarterback hurries (3), and finished third in sacks (2.5) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (3) last season.

Just missed the cut: Northwestern's Jack DiNardo, Indiana's Adam Replogle, Purdue's Bruce Gaston Jr., Michigan State's Anthony Rashad White.
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

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:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

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.
At long last, polls have arrived for the Big Ten blog. Here's your chance to weigh in on the big questions around the conference, so please take advantage.

Let's kick things off with a look at the most difficult Big Ten player to replace in 2011. Every team loses some key seniors, and seven Big Ten underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. The league had six players selected in the first round of the draft, each of whom could be categorized as irreplaceable.

Then again, while Wisconsin will have a tough time filling in for All-American defensive end J.J. Watt, the No. 11 overall pick in the draft, quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was undrafted, might be tougher to replace. Several Big Ten defenders leave major voids, including All-American Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue and Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget.

The league's toughest player to replace might see the field this season. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor will be eligible to play Oct. 8 against Nebraska, but his presence certainly will be missed during a five-game suspension to begin the fall.

Some teams are in better shape to replace their stars than others, but there are a handful of Big Ten players who definitely will be missed. It's your turn to weigh in.
The Big Ten failed to produce a top-10 NFL draft pick for the third consecutive year, but the league still had a sizable presence in the first round of the draft. Emphasis on size.

Six Big Ten players heard their names called Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, the league's largest first-round contingent since 2007, when it also had six selections. All six players played line in the Big Ten, including five on the defensive front.

New Big Ten member Nebraska also had a first-round pick in cornerback Prince Amukamara, who went No. 19 overall to the New York Giants, whose fans actually seemed pleased to land one of the nation's top defensive backs. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has now coached a defender drafted in the top-20 in each of the past five seasons.

Let's take a quick look at the Big Ten's first-round picks.

J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin, 6-5, 290
Pick:
No. 11 overall
Team:
Houston
Video analysis: Todd McShay
Quotable: "I know Mario Williams is a great defensive end. I can't wait to play on the same defensive line as him because he makes everyone around him look good. Hopefully I am there to take some blocks off him, as well. Wade Phillips has a great defense. I am ready to get to work." -- J.J. Watt
My quick take: As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of Watt, whose evolution from MAC tight end to Wisconsin All-American to first-round pick is extraordinary. He can play either line position and benefits from entering a group that already has a star in Williams. He should flourish in a 3-4 defense, and while he might not record ridiculous sack totals, he helps a team in so many ways.

Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue, 6-4, 267
Pick:
No. 16
Team: Washington
Video analysis: Todd McShay
Quotable: "He's big enough, he’s strong enough, he’s played in the three-point stance before. He can go inside, outside. He’s used to playing with his hand down, so it’s a big plus for us." -- Redskins coach Mike Shanahan
My quick take: Like Watt, Kerrigan should fit in nicely with a 3-4 defense with the Redskins. He brings a tireless work ethic and no drama to a team that has been very dysfunctional in recent years. A Big Ten coach told me Kerrigan and Watt were the league's only two players who required double teams throughout games, so while some knock Kerrigan's speed and athleticism, this guy will make plays for the Redskins.

Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois, 6-2, 298
Pick:
No. 18
Team:
San Diego Quotable: "We were looking for a guy who has an edge. He plays with a lot of passion. He's physical. He's one of those guys we thought could knock people back off the ball. We wanted to get a little more physical up front. We want to bring a little more presence to our front at the end position." -- Chargers director of player personnel Jimmy Raye
My quick take: The Chargers had to be thrilled that Liuget was still available at No. 18. Some forecasted him as a top 10 pick and almost everyone, including Illinois teammate Jeff Allen, thought he wouldn't slip below St. Louis at No. 14. Liuget was the Big Ten's most disruptive interior lineman and fills a need for the Chargers on the interior line. San Diego gets a player who is blossoming and reaching his potential. A very nice pick.

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa, 6-2, 281
Pick:
No. 20
Team: Tampa Bay
Video analysis: Todd McShay
Quotable: “He said he’s going to guide me the right way through this whole thing. It’s nice to have someone helping you that way." -- Clayborn on new teammate Gerald McCoy
My quick take: If Clayborn had entered the draft a year ago, there's no way he would have fallen to No. 20. And if he can reclaim the form he displayed in 2009, Tampa Bay will be thrilled with its newest addition. Clayborn can be a beast on the edge and should feed off McCoy on the inside. There are some concerns about Clayborn's Erb's Palsy, which limits his right arm, but the Iowa star showed impressive strength throughout his college career.

Gabe Carimi, LT, Wisconsin, 6-7, 314
Pick:
No. 29
Team: Chicago
Video analysis: Todd McShay
Quotable: "I converted about 100 Packers fans to Bears fans. I cannot wait to play for [Bears offensive line coach] Mike Tice." -- Carimi, a native of Cottage Grove, Wis.
My quick take: I'm not just writing this because I'm a Bears fan, but this is a huge get for a team that desperately needs new blood along the offensive line. The Bears surrendered a league-high 56 sacks in 2010, and while it will take more than Carimi to ensure Jay Cutler's long-term safety, the Wisconsin star is an excellent start. Few thought Carimi would be available at No. 29, including the Bears, who tried to trade up to get him. Carimi proved himself against several of the nation's top defensive linemen, including both Kerrigan and Clayborn (and Watt in practice). Some viewed his Combine comments as cocky, but he's well prepared for what to expect in the NFL.

Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State, 6-5, 294
Pick:
No. 31
Team:
Pittsburgh
Video analysis
: Todd McShay
Quotable: "I know he's watching. I'm going to try to do everything to make him proud of me and live his legacy on." -- Cameron Heyward, on his late father, Craig, who starred for the University of Pittsburgh before moving on to the NFL
My quick take:
Heyward is a big-game performer who joins a team that plays quite a few big games. He starred as a junior against both USC and Penn State and saved his best for his last game, the 2011 Allstate Sugar Bowl against Arkansas. Heyward won't be under a ton of pressure to be a star right away as Pittsburgh boasts a solid defensive front. He's extremely strong and gives the Steelers a big body who can play both outside or inside if needed.
There's little doubt that the first Big Ten player drafted in April will be a defensive lineman.

(Not including Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played his entire career in the Big 12.)

Who will hear his name called first? Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan? Illinois' Corey Liuget? Iowa's Adrian Clayborn? Ohio State's Cameron Heyward?

I'll have more on the hopefuls as we get closer to draft night, but colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are always dissecting the draft and have come out with their latest three-round mock selections.

Here's McShay's mock draft and where the Big Ten players fall:

First round
  • Illinois DT Corey Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, No. 16 overall to Jacksonville
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, No. 17 overall to New England
  • Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi, No. 21 overall to Kansas City
  • Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 24 overall to New Orleans
  • Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, No. 32 overall to Green Bay
Second round
Third round

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft and where the Big Ten prospects fall:

First round
  • Watt, No. 10 overall to Washington
  • Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Kerrigan, No. 20 overall to Tampa Bay
  • Carimi, No. 23 overall to Philadelphia
  • Clayborn, No. 27 overall to Atlanta
  • Heyward, No. 30 overall to New York Jets
Second round
  • Wilson, No. 34 overall to Buffalo
  • Leshoure, No. 53 overall to Indianapolis
  • Doss, No. 64 overall to Green Bay
Third round
  • Ballard, No. 67 overall to Denver
  • Kendricks, No. 68 overall to Buffalo
  • Moffitt, No. 77 overall to Tennessee
  • Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, No. 81 overall to Oakland
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, No. 85 overall to Philadelphia
  • Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, No. 93 to Chicago

Some interesting stuff here. Both McShay and Kiper think the Colts' Big Ten pipeline will continue, and both also like Buffalo to draft Big Ten players. Kiper includes three players McShay leaves out -- Chekwa, Homan and Wisniewski -- while McShay includes one player (Brewer) who Kiper leaves out. It also stands out how teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have more high-level draft prospects this year than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.

Amukamara is the only Nebraska player included in both mock drafts. Both McShay and Kiper have Amukamara going 13th overall to Detroit, where he'll reunite with former Huskers' teammate Ndamukong Suh.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A series of bowl banners hang from the rafters at the Mollenkopf Center, serving as reminders of the steady success Purdue enjoyed for most of Joe Tiller's tenure.

Tiller took the Boilers bowling in seven of his first eight seasons as coach. After going 5-6 in 2007, Purdue went back to bowls the next two seasons. Although the run only included one Rose Bowl (2001) and three January games (2001 Rose, 2000 Outback, 2004 Capital One), Purdue could pretty much count on going somewhere warm for the holidays.

The bowl banners inside Mollenkopf form a nearly perfect arc above the field, but there's a gap next to the 2007 Motor City Bowl. There's a missing piece, and after three winters at home, Purdue intends to find it.

"We've got to get back, got to get back," quarterback Rob Henry repeated after a recent practice. "We've got to get back on track. I hate losing more than I love winning, and it's time to turn it around and get back to a bowl."

Henry has taken the challenge to heart this spring. After being thrust into a starting job last fall because of attrition at quarterback, Henry looks like he belongs now.

The 6-foot-2, 198-pound sophomore has recovered from a nasty laceration on his throwing hand that made it tough to even grip the ball at times last season. He toughed it out as a run-first quarterback, but the injury limited him. Henry,who still has his right index finger taped in practice, only felt 100 percent a month ago but can throw pain free.

[+] EnlargeRob Henry
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIPurdue's Rob Henry passed for 996 yards and eight touchdowns with seven interceptions as a freshman. He also ran for 547 yards and four scores.
Though Purdue's No. 1 quarterback remains in limbo, Henry wants to lead the team back to the postseason.

"I think he's the most improved player on our football team," third-year coach Danny Hope said. "He's a great athlete, a tremendous competitor, a very, very special and player. He has all the intangibles and redeeming qualities to lead this football team to a winning season and compete every Saturday with a chance to win."

Hope acknowledges Henry is "ahead of the rest" at this point but notes that things could change before the opener Sept. 3 against Middle Tennessee. Robert Marve, recovering from his second consecutive torn ACL, will be back in the mix this summer after limited participation in spring ball. Caleb TerBush, named the team's most improved offensive player last spring before being ruled academically ineligible for the season, also will be back.

The competition will spill into fall camp, and Marve's return will create an interesting dynamic. But after a season when injuries to Marve and others crippled Purdue, the team is moving forward with who's available, and Henry is distinguishing himself in spring practice.

"If you maximize your potential as a quarterback," Henry said, "you can't ask any more."

Henry seems to be getting closer to that point, but Purdue needs other players and position groups to do the same. Few teams could have survived the number of major injuries to key players as Purdue endured in 2010, but the Boilers know there will be no excuses this fall.

They must fill the void left by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan, who earned unanimous All-America honors last fall. Kerrigan's departure leaves Purdue thin at defensive end, but nine starters return on defense, including promising young players like cornerback Ricardo Allen, defensive tackle Kawann Short and linebacker Will Lucas.

Hope has made speed a chief priority in his first few recruiting classes, and he expects a payoff this season.

"Looking back at our team a couple years ago, we only had five or six guys who could run 4.5s or better," Hope said. "I think we've tripled or maybe quadrupled that number. It already is a big difference. You can't tackle if you can't get there. We tackle so much better now because can accelerate to the football. We have some guys who can make plays in space on both sides of the football because of athleticism.

"We're a much faster football team than we were my first year here. Much faster."

It has been tough to get a full read on Purdue during Hope's tenure. The team overcame a rough start in 2009 to finish 4-4 in Big Ten play but ultimately made too many mistakes to go bowling. The high expectations last season vanished after the wave of injuries.

One way or the other, the picture should clear up this fall. And the Boilers hope it shows them in a bowl game.

"Every spring we have the alumni come back and you see guys telling stories about going to bowls," senior offensive tackle Dennis Kelly said. "It's one of those things that looking five, 10 years down the road, you want to do that and say, 'My senior year, we went to such and such bowl and had a great season.'"

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