Michigan Wolverines: Curtis Grant

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.
Five lessons from four games in Week 5. Got that?

Let's go ...

1. Ohio State's young defense is growing up: Lost amid the Braxton Miller-Kenny Guiton debate this week was the fact a mostly young Ohio State defense with only one returning starter in the front seven would be put to the test by Melvin Gordon, James White and the formidable Wisconsin run game. The young Bucks certainly earned a passing grade after holding Wisconsin to just 104 yards on 27 carries. Gordon's knee injury limited the Badgers, but Ohio State prevented big runs and forced Wisconsin to win the game through the air. Linebacker Ryan Shazier shined, while linebacker Curtis Grant and lineman Michael Bennett both recorded sacks. The loss of safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending ankle injury is a big blow, but Ohio State has enough talent in the secondary to make up for it, as long as they don't run into Jared Abbrederis again soon. Ohio State's offense will win plenty of games, but you know what they say about defenses and championship. These might not be the typical Silver Bullets, but they're developing and can build on Saturday's performance as they face an even another formidable offense in Northwestern next week.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave and the Badgers hung around, but they were eventually tamed by Michael Bennett and the Buckeyes.
2. Wisconsin is an excellent 56-minute team: Gary Andersen's crew showed plenty of grit Saturday night in Columbus. Quarterback Joel Stave quieted some of his critics -- thanks in large part to a career performance from Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, 1 TD) -- and linebacker Chris Borland was brilliant, as usual. But Wisconsin's inability to finish off halves remains a troubling trend, and it surfaced in the loss to Ohio State. The Badgers trailed by only three points when freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped an easy interception near the goal line. Miller found Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play, giving Ohio State a huge boost with one second left in the half. Wisconsin struggled to manage the clock down the stretch as its comeback attempt fell short. This isn't a team built to come back in games based on the pass game, and it showed. Coupled with the Arizona State debacle (granted, more officiating than execution), Wisconsin has had a lot of bad things happen at critical moments. That's what could separate the Badgers from a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

3. Iowa will be a factor in the Legends Division: The Hawkeyes might not be a great team yet, but it's clear they are vastly improved from last season. On Saturday, Iowa went into Minnesota and pushed the Gophers around on their home turf, piling up 464 total yards and allowing only 30 rushing yards in a 23-7 win. The pig will return to Iowa City, but even more importantly, the hogs up front are getting it done in classic Kirk Ferentz fashion. Iowa has rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season and went for 246 against a Minnesota defense that thought it had made strides in that area. This team has an identity, and it starts with the power running game led by Mark Weisman and a solid offensive line. Quarterback Jake Rudock has shown an ability to extend plays, and Iowa even got an explosive play in the passing game when Damond Powell took a short pass 74 yards to paydirt. The defense is also playing well right now; the Gophers' only score came after a long kickoff return. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and gets Michigan State at home next week, while Northwestern and Michigan still must come to Kinnick Stadium. The schedule is difficult the rest of the way, but Iowa will have a big say in who wins the Legends.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's most improved player: A year ago, Scheelhaase was sputtering at the helm of one of the nation's worst offenses, hardly resembling the player who had shown promise as a freshman and during the first part of his sophomore season. No Big Ten player has made bigger strides in the past season than the Illinois senior quarterback, who threw five first-half touchdown passes Saturday against Miami (Ohio) and finished with 278 pass yards on 19 of 24 attempts. Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yards and is second in touchdowns (12), tripling his total from last season. He's just five touchdown passes shy of his single-season best and 15 shy of Kurt Kittner's single-season team record. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit deserves a lot of credit for Scheelhaase's surge -- and that of the entire Illini offense -- but Scheelhaase clearly is back on track after a year and a half in the dark. It will be interesting to see what he does this week against Nebraska's shaky defense.

5. Future starts now for Etling, Purdue: Darrell Hazell stuck with senior quarterback Rob Henry through this season's early offensive struggles, but the Purdue coach realized it was time for a change Saturday against Northern Illinois. The last straw was Henry's second interception of the first half, a terribly thrown floater into the Huskies' end zone. That prompted Hazell to give the reins over to true freshman Danny Etling, the prized former recruit who made his collegiate debut. This was no fairy tale, so Etling didn't lead the Boilermakers to a comeback victory. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and narrowly avoided another one. But Etling (19-for-39, 241 yards) did show good mobility and flashed his strong arm, especially on his first career touchdown pass, a 16-yarder to Cameron Posey. The offense will have more of a chance to stretch the field with him under center. Quarterback is hardly the only problem for Purdue, which got housed 55-24 at home by a MAC team and might have a hard time finding another win this season. But while Boilers fans don't like to see the words "Danny" and "hope" in the same sentence, Etling at least gives them something to look forward to as Hazell tries to work the program out of this mess.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp hasn't even started yet. After that grueling month, there's still almost an entire season to be played before "The Game" that matters most.

But it's never too early to set the table for the feud between Ohio State and Michigan, and at BuckeyeNation and WolverineNation, we're doing it all week.

We looked back on Monday at some heroes and villains on both sides of the rivalry. Today we're looking ahead at the strengths and weaknesses that could decide the latest edition in the storied series, which is just more than four short months away.

STRENGTHS

Ground and pound:

Carlos Hyde
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Carlos Hyde is poised for a big senior season.
The Ohio State rushing attack was potent enough a year ago, but it's only added more experience and weapons to the mix now. By November, it might be almost impossible to slow down the Buckeyes on the ground as they incorporate the new pieces to the attack and potentially get more support from the passing game. Braxton Miller is obviously a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and if Carlos Hyde makes the kind of improvement he's targeted in terms of making defenders miss at the second level, that one-two combination will continue to rank among the best in the country, particularly with four seniors back on the offensive line.

But it might be the added dimension of a healthy Jordan Hall or a true freshman such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall at the hybrid, Pivot position that gives opponents even more fits. Or maybe it's a backfield that can be loaded up with as many as three talented rushers, rolling out Rod Smith or Bri'onte Dunn in a diamond formation with Hyde and Miller. Either way, the Buckeyes have the personnel to give Michigan a workout in the front seven.

Air patrol:

The expectations are growing for Michigan's passing attack now that Devin Gardner has the position all to himself, and he'll have plenty of time to develop and find a rhythm before meeting up with the Buckeyes. But there might be no stiffer test in the country than the one Ohio State can present a quarterback thanks to its overflowing talent and veteran savvy in the secondary. Cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett would make life difficult on their own, but the Buckeyes can complement that with another senior safety in reserve in Corey "Pittsburgh"' Brown, a junior cornerback looking to make a name for himself in Doran Grant and a class of incoming defensive backs that represented perhaps the best signing day haul in the nation.

The Buckeyes plan to get as many of those guys involved as possible this season, which could make the secondary even more fearsome by the time Gardner gets a crack at them.

WEAKNESSES

Middle ground:

The fresh faces are almost everywhere in the front seven, but heading to training camp, there's not all that much uncertainty about who will be filling which shoes left behind by the defenders who helped the Buckeyes go unbeaten last fall. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are poised for breakouts at end and Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry appear ready to lend a hand next to Ryan Shazier at linebacker, but there are two critical spots on the inside of the line that bear monitoring as Ohio State prepares to stop opposing rushing attacks. Michael Bennett is close to a lock for one role, but there could be a heated competition for reps next to him to complete the rotation. Tommy Schutt battled injuries throughout spring practice, but he has the ability to be a future star. Joel Hale is a grinder and respected leader, and the junior could be an intriguing option as well. And if big Chris Carter can manage his weight, his massive frame clearly could fill up some rushing lanes.

By November, the Buckeyes figure to have long ago answered those questions up front and should have also built up plenty of experience. But that will be at the top of the priority list as Ohio State chases a Big Ten title -- and keeps an eye on its rival.

Kicking it:

More often than not, the Buckeyes had the edge over opponents in the third phase. But considering how much value Urban Meyer places on special teams and how much production he expects, Ohio State wasn't all that close to giving him what he wanted a year ago. Kicker Drew Basil wasn't used all that much, aside from the season-ending win over Michigan, but among his 11 attempts last season were a pair of missed field goals from less than 39 yards that didn't exactly inspire confidence. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new punter as well, and winning the field position battle is as important under Meyer as it has always been under previous regimes at Ohio State -- putting pressure on some young contributors to make plays in kickoff and punt coverage.

Philly Brown took a couple punts back for touchdowns last year and the "Freak Show" punt block unit made itself a nuisance a few times, but Meyer and newly-promoted special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs keep the bar pretty high in that area of the game. And in tightly contested rivalries, it can make all the difference.
The "Inside the Game" position preview series continues with the crux of any defense -- and long a position with a lot of lineage at both Michigan and Ohio State: Linebackers.

BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein take a look at the men in the middle of both defenses.


Michigan
Rothstein:
Michigan’s linebackers can rejoice. For the first time since any of them has been a Wolverine, they will play in essentially the same defensive scheme with the same defensive coordinator for the second season in a row.

And if you think that doesn’t make a difference, you’re kidding yourself. Even defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said as much, that having the players learning the same system for the second year allows for a faster refresher course along with more advanced teaching. And for the linebackers more than any other defensive position group, this is critical.

Michigan has the bulk of its main playmakers at the position back, including fifth-year senior Kenny Demens in the middle along with sophomores Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan on the outside.

Demens is Michigan’s leading returning tackler with 94 last season, including three sacks. Morgan, as a freshman, was fifth in tackles with 63. At linebacker, that kind of production is expected.

That starting group, though, will be pushed. Junior Cam Gordon is fighting with Ryan for time, as is senior Brandin Hawthorne behind Morgan. Also involved are a gaggle of talented freshmen, including James Ross III, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden, who enrolled last spring and could see a lot of time his freshman season.

Still, though, it is a young group with a lot of room to grow and likely won’t see its true potential for another season or two.

Ohio State
Ward:
There may not be a linebacker with the name recognition of the Ohio State legends that have come before them.

By its own admission, the current group of Buckeyes didn’t live up to the expectations established by those predecessors.

But even without a Hawk or Laurinaitis this fall, the middle of the defense should be much improved even if there isn’t any established star on the roster during training camp.

Perhaps by the time the Buckeyes take on their rivals at the end of the season, though, sophomores Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant could make themselves a lot more familiar to folks around the Big Ten. Shazier in particular began building some buzz for himself during a three-game tackling barrage when he was inserted into the starting lineup due to injury last season and responded with 30 takedowns.

Now Shazier appears to have a more permanent spot in the rotation, and along with Grant and senior Etienne Sabino they should give defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell a solid foundation to start with. While there isn’t much experience in reserve to work with right now, the Buckeyes loaded up with five talented signees in February who will ultimately be charged with restoring the program’s proud defensive tradition.

There probably won’t be as much pressure to do it right away with arguably the best line in the nation in front and a skilled, veteran secondary behind them. But they should be able to get things back on track either way.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Friday, 11/28
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