Michigan Wolverines: Taiwan Jones

Earlier this week Sports on Earth took a look at the college football players facing the most pressure entering the 2014 season. The Big Ten occupied three places on the list: Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova; Ohio State cornerbacks Doran Grant and Armani Reeves; and Michigan offensive linemen Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis.

For today's poll, I'll make it a bit simpler for you and simply list five individual Big Ten players facing pressure entering the season. It could be because of struggles last season, competition at their position or key personnel losses around them. Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback-heavy, but there are some other spots represented.

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Which Big Ten player is facing the most pressure this season?

  •  
    7%
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    67%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,987)

The candidates, please ...
  • Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State: Last year, Decker was the young buck on the Big Ten's best offensive line. He's now the only returning starter for a group that will be in the spotlight as it must protect Ohio State's primary asset: senior quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes also have new blood in the backfield after losing bulldozer Carlos Hyde. Decker has a lot of responsibility to lead the line and maintain the standard set during the past two seasons.
  • Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: The Wolverine linemen listed in the Sports on Earth piece undoubtedly are under the gun after a poor 2013 season, but so is Gardner. He was the most polarizing player in the Big Ten in terms of performance -- exceptional against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Indiana; shaky to woeful against Akron, Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa (to be fair, the offensive line gave him little to no help). Now Gardner finds himself needing to wriggle free from Shane Morris, absorb a new offense and get Michigan back on track in his final season in Ann Arbor.
  • Taiwan Jones, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans survived without Max Bullough in the Rose Bowl, but they'll undoubtedly miss the player who defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi often called the "computer" of the unit. Bullough's system knowledge and ability to get his teammates on the same page helped MSU's defense rise to nationally elite levels. That responsibility now falls on Jones, who told Brian Bennett this spring, "Everybody's depending on you. You're that guy."
  • Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers: Nova is the rare three-year starter who finds himself needing to prove himself to fans entering his senior season. He started 10 games last season, but was benched down the stretch and saw his passing yards, touchdowns total and completion percentage dip from 2012. Nova competed with Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano this spring but emerged from the session as the frontrunner to retain his job. Still, he faces pressure to step up and claim support from a fan base that has debated his merits seemingly for a decade.
  • Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin: Stave hasn't been on the field for Wisconsin as long as Nova has for Rutgers, but there's a similar dynamic going on. Some Wisconsin fans have Stave fatigue after the quarterback struggled for stretches last season. He loses top target Jared Abbrederis and must overcome a throwing shoulder injury that limited him in the spring. Dual-threat junior Tanner McEvoy is pushing for the starting job, and with so many questions at receiver, the coaches might want more mobility at quarterback.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark

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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

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  • Ohio State is auditioning students to see if anybody on campus can beat a speedster like Dontre Wilson in a race.
  • Michigan reshuffled its defensive coaching staff to get its line more hands-on attention, but that doesn't mean Brady Hoke will be staying away completely.
  • Taiwan Jones has the first crack at filling the vacant role at middle linebacker for Michigan State this spring, and the senior is embracing the move.
  • James Franklin is dialing up the intensity of workouts for Penn State, including reps in the Oklahoma Drill for just about everybody on the roster.
  • Rutgers is flip-flopping roles for two returning linebackers, trying to squeeze more production from the unit after a disastrous defensive season a year ago.
  • Wisconsin is looking to expand its recruiting footprint in the areas opened up by Big Ten expansion, and new recruiting coordinator Chris Beatty will lead the charge.
  • Randy Edsall is concerned about the kind of impact recruiting is having on kids these days, and he has a detailed plan to help take some pressure off and fix what he views as a broken system.
  • Replacing three senior linebackers is at the top of the priority list for Kirk Ferentz as spring practice gets rolling at Iowa.
  • A pair of notable injuries have opened up opportunities at wide receiver for Purdue, and Dan Monteroso is trying to make the most of his chance in the slot.
  • Ground will be broken this year on a sparkling new indoor practice facility at Minnesota, which is expected to come with a price tag of $70 million.
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.
The Michigan offense spent most of this season trying to figure out its identity. It has returning pieces next year, but there are still a lot of question marks out there.

Here are the defensive players that the Wolverines will definitely face this upcoming season who could prove to be the biggest threats.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Gardner and Michigan are all too familiar with Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, who is back for another year of harassing the Wolverines.
DL Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He recorded just 37 tackles, but 14 of those were for a loss. Calhoun also accounted for a team-high 7.5 sacks, a team-high 18 quarterback hurries, a team-high four fumble recoveries and one interception en route to being named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. His ability to get to quarterbacks is going to be an issue for the Wolverines this upcoming season, just as it was last year.

DL Noah Spence, Ohio State: This past season, Spence accounted for 14.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high eight sacks. The Buckeyes will deal with a changing coaching staff, as Mike Vrabel joined former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans. Vrabel was replaced by Larry Johnson, who comes to Columbus with an impressive track record. During Johnson’s 14 seasons at Penn State, he produced six defensive linemen who were first-round NFL draft picks, so he certainly knows how to develop talent up front. Between Spence and the next guy on our list, Johnson will have plenty to work with as he devises ways to terrorize opposing offenses.

DL Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Bosa burst onto the Big Ten scene this season, becoming a starter as a freshman. He recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, including 7.5 sacks, and six quarterback hurries. In the Big Ten championship game, he was effective in getting to Michigan State QB Connor Cook, and the ability to generate consistent pressure is likely to be the norm for Bosa as a sophomore. In other words, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is going to have to look out.

S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The Spartans’ no-fly zone loses All-American Darqueze Dennard, but Drummond will be back, attempting to keep quarterbacks from even looking downfield. Drummond was the clean-up guy this season when QBs did get passes through, leading the Spartans secondary with 91 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. He was tied with Dennard for the team-high in interceptions with four and will look to make an even bigger impact for MSU next season.

LB Taiwan Jones, Michigan State: The Spartans are going to need someone to step up in the middle of the field this season to fill the shoes left by Max Bullough, and Jones could likely be that guy. This past season he had 67 tackles, including seven for a loss. Michigan will need to figure out its run game this season far more quickly than it did last season, because in the fourth conference game of the year, the Wolverines will face Jones and an MSU defense that will look to be just as effective in 2014 against the run as it was in 2013.

Honorable mention:

  • CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Joining Drummond in the secondary will be Waynes. He was a key contributor this season and will look to step up even more as the Spartans try to replace Dennard.
  • LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: Airguzo recorded 106 tackles, which was fifth-best in the Big Ten. He had four interceptions, two sacks, six passes defended and three quarterback hurries. With the Wildcats looking for revenge against the Wolverines, he could be a big defensive threat.
  • LB Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was second on the Nittany Lions with 78 tackles this season. But against the Wolverines he had a game-high 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and one pass break-up. If Michigan wants to have success running the ball against the Nittany Lions, it will have to get through Hull first.
  • DL Marcus Rush, Michigan State: He ranked among the top 20 in the Big Ten with five sacks and will join Calhoun up front for the Spartans to harass opposing quarterbacks. Rush recorded one tackle for a loss of seven yards against the Wolverines this past season, but with another year of experience, he and Calhoun will be coming at Gardner hard in 2014, hoping to help MSU record a third consecutive seven-sack effort against the Wolverines.

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