Michigan Wolverines: Taylor Decker

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.

SportsNation

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

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    7%
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    67%
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    6%
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    7%
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    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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
5:00
PM ET
It's mailbag time once again. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, and you can ask us mailbag questions there.

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, this whole scheduling FCS teams issue REALLY makes me upset as a fan and a season ticket holder. I think it's really quite ridiculous that the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own set of rules, but also schedule games against teams that are already at a competitive disadvantage. Why is it that no one in the media is questioning the logic behind, as you said in your most recent article "with power teams needing seven home games to make budget", how does this make sense when schools are bringing in tens of millions of dollars more in media contracts now than they were 10 years ago? It seems the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own rules and act autonomously, but yet refuse to work together on scheduling partnerships to ease the process for nonconference scheduling. I'm also sick of the excuse that the B1G needs to consider scheduling FCS schools to maximize potential to get into the new "Playoff." I think the selection committee should ignore any game played against an FCS school when identifying the best teams for the playoff.

Brian Bennett: Some very good points, Rob, and you and I appear to be in total agreement that these FCS games should be eliminated. I didn't even mention ticket prices in my post, but the rising costs of attending games is yet another reason why these games are abhorrent. And I also agree that the seven home games argument is a bit odd given the massive amount of money flowing into Power 5 conference teams. It has been projected that the Big Ten could distribute $45 million to each of its member schools after the league's new TV contract is negotiated. Surely some of this can help make up for a lack of a seventh home game in some seasons, no? Or do schools need to continue to raise coaches' salaries and build even more spectacular facilities with that cash?

I also love your last point about the selection committee ignoring wins over FCS opponents. So if, say, an ACC team is 11-1 but has a win over an FCS team, it should be considered 10-1. That might make a big difference when comparing it to an 11-1 team from another conference that has 11 wins over actual FBS teams. I think that would change some schools' willingness to schedule FCS opponents very quickly.


Dave from Minneapolis writes: Honestly, I love the no-FCS mandate, as well as the nine-game B1G schedule for entertainment, but it is not the best move for getting into the playoff. While the schedule will be considered, it certainly won't be enough to counter a loss to a lower-level FBS (former) team. If an 11-2 B1G team is up against a 12-1 ACC/SEC team for playoff selection, the B1G team won't get selected. Sure, it may help when 12-1 against 12-1, but seems the extra risk might not be worth the reward ... for those concerned with the "playoff." All the more reason why it should be an eight-team playoff, with each major conference champ gaining entrance.

Brian Bennett: Dave, while I agree with you on an eight-team playoff, which in my view would be the perfect setup, we need to be happy that we at long last have some sort of a playoff system. And it will eventually expand, I believe. I also don't think the FCS mandate will have much impact on the Playoff in terms of wins or losses. Let's face it: Any team that loses to an FCS or lower-level FBS team is not going to make the four-team Playoff field anyway. What not scheduling FCS opponents does for the Big Ten is raise its overall strength-of-schedule component, which could be key for selection purposes.


Jared from Minnesota writes: Your recent article about B1G needing to stay the course and ultimately refrain from scheduling FCS opponents is definitely legitimate. However, I recall a mailbag post a little bit ago where (I'm not sure if it was you or Rittenberg) argued the point that some schools -- Indiana, for example -- might benefit from scheduling an FCS team in order to help their program to move to the next level, in the Hoosiers' case, become bowl eligible. Would you agree (or still agree if that was your stance) that there is still some stock to that scenario?

Brian Bennett: I don't believe I ever said that schools like Indiana should schedule FCS schools. However, I do believe a team like the Hoosiers should dumb down its schedule if it needs to get over the hump and into a bowl game. Last year, Indiana played Navy, Missouri and Bowling Green in the nonconference schedule, which seemed to me a bit too ambitious for a program looking for its second bowl appearance since 1993 and first in six years. There are plenty of easier games against lower-level FBS schools to be had, even if it means a home-and-home series to reduce costs.


Josh from NYC writes: When do you think Michigan becomes a national, or at least regional, power again? Other programs have faced or are facing similar paths, Bama between Bryant and Saban, Oklahoma and Texas now, and it'll happen again. However the school is just built for success and I don't see anything shy of the death sentence keeping this program down. Not that I'm not enjoying MSU's recent success, but it's fun to see some brotherly competition.

Brian Bennett: Great question, Josh, and it's something that needs to happen, not just for Michigan but to strengthen the entire Big Ten. Michigan has every possible resource you would need, including the nation's largest stadium and huge revenue streams. Brady Hoke's staff has recruited highly ranked classes. So there's really nothing that should be keeping this program down. Either Hoke will get it there in the next couple of years, or someone else will get a chance to try.


JK from NoVA writes: Brian, have you actually looked at Ohio State's offensive line? That was a rhetorical question because if you did, you wouldn't post this rubbish. Ohio State's talent level up front is shameful. They will likely duke it out with Michigan for the worst offensive line in the Big Ten. They have next to no experience, very little talent, and they make Penn State's depth situation look positively good (it is actually far better than most think).

Brian Bennett: Shameful? Really? I have "actually looked" at the Buckeyes' line and have seen them in practice. That line includes left tackle Taylor Decker, who started last year and who Urban Meyer said was playing as well as any Ohio State lineman at the end of 2013. It includes Chad Lindsay, who transferred from Alabama after starting several games there at center. It also includes Pat Elflein, who filled in for Marcus Hall very well last year. Fourth-year junior Antonio Underwood and fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin ran with the first team most of the spring. There are a lot of younger players behind them pushing for time.

Meyer wasn't satisfied with his line play this spring, but to say the group lacks talent is disingenuous. Remember there were many questions about the line before 2012, and Ed Warriner quickly shaped that group into one of the country's strongest units. Warriner is one of the best in the business, and while this year's O-line likely won't be as good as the 2013 version, he'll get it figured out.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
2:30
PM ET
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Jack Miller, Kyle Kalis, Evan Lisle, Patrick Kugler, Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch, Brandon Vitabile, Michael Heitz, Travis Jackson, Damian Prince, Brandon Scherff, Brett Van Sloten, Donovan Smith, Jeremiah Sirles, Rob Havenstein, Simon Cvijanovic, Spencer Long, Taylor Decker, Ted Karras, Pat Fitzgerald, Andrew Donnal, Zac Epping, Gary Andersen, Graham Glasgow, Ryan Groy, Joel Hale, Josh Campion, Dan Voltz, Jon Christenson, Jordan Roos, Jaden Gault, Paul Jorgensen, Blake Treadwell, Dan Feeney, Michael Deiter, James Franklin, Ben Lauer, David Hedelin, Tommy Olson, Zach Sterup, Kyle Costigan, Darryl Baldwin, Miles Dieffenbach, B1G spring positions 14, Andrew Nelson, Angelo Mangiro, Austin Blythe, Austin Schmidt, Betim Bujari, Caleb Bak, Cameron Cermin, Collin Rahrig, Connor Kruse, Conor Boffelli, Corey Lewis, Dallas Lewallen, Devyn Salmon, Dorian Miller, Eric Olson, Eric Simmons, Greg Studrawa, J.J. Denman, J.J. Prince, Jack Konopka, Jake Cotton, James Bodanis, Jason Spriggs, Justin King, Kaleb Johnson, Keith Lumpkin, Kodi Kieler, Kyle Dodson, Larry Mazyck, Marek Lenkiewicz, Mark Pelini, Matt Finnin, Michael Dunn, Mike Moudy, Mitch Browning, Noah Jones, Pat Elflein, Robert Kugler, Ryan Doyle, Sal Conaboy, Tommy Gaul

The Michigan defense has to make some strides in 2014 if it wants to live up to the expectations of a Michigan defense.

And the Wolverines won't get a break because there are plenty of offensive weapons on the schedule next season.

Here’s a look ahead to the biggest challenges Michigan will face.

[+] EnlargeBen Gedeon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMichigan will once again have its hands full with Ohio State dual-threat QB Braxton Miller in 2014.
1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State. No surprises here. The Ohio State quarterback gets his chance to take on the Michigan defense in The Horseshoe. And with his production on the field the past two seasons, he should be even better next season. Miller is the best dual-threat quarterback the Wolverines will face in 2014. He averaged 175 yards passing yards and 89 yards rushing per game. His TD percentage (TD/pass attempts) was second only to Jameis Winston in 2013.

2. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State. Cook was another signal-caller who made significant improvement, specifically down the stretch in the Big Ten Championship game and in the Rose Bowl. He’s secured his starting role and isn’t in the midst of a three- or four-quarterback controversy, which should also aid his growth as a leader and player. Like Miller, he has the luxury of playing Michigan in his home stadium. Cook led the conference with the lowest interception percentage (INT/pass attempts) at 1.6, and with an offseason to develop with his receivers and the MSU run game, he -- like Miller -- should be much better in 2014 than he was in 2013.

3. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Hackenberg has a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator, but the freshman showed such potential this past season that he should be a considerable offensive threat this fall. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year should be in good hands, considering what new coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan did at Vanderbilt. Hackenberg finished in the middle of the pack in many Big Ten quarterback stats this season, but that could change in 2014.

4. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State. Like Cook, Langford was a guy stuck in the middle of a position controversy early in the 2013 season. Now, with the position solidified, he should be able to have a strong offseason and come in as the guy. His growth will only help Cook’s, and vice versa, so these two should create a pretty tough threat for defenses.

5. Penn State tight ends. The Nittany Lions certainly lost a lot at receiver when Allen Robinson declared for the NFL draft. With his 119 yards per game gone, Hackenberg will look to spread it out a bit more. He’ll look more for the talented tight ends on the roster. With Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, Hackenberg has plenty of offensive threats. And with the way the Wolverines struggled in pass coverage, talented tight ends who can block and catch aren’t what they want to see from an offense. And certainly not several from one team with those capabilities.

Honorable mention:

  • RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The rising sophomore has some big shoes to fill, but his size and athleticism indicate he’s more than ready to do it. Michigan struggled against the run in 2013, and he’s a guy who could exploit those issues up front, especially if Miller takes the attention from the defense.
  • QB Nate Sudfeld and RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was the No. 5 rusher in the Big Ten in 2013, and while he rushed for just 78 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines, this could be one of those tandems that could catch Michigan off guard in the fall (much as it did last fall).
  • QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Golson has returned, and Brian Kelly is back calling the plays. This should create a comfort level between the two, but how effective Golson will be depends on if Notre Dame can get some receiving weapons to step up.
  • OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The only returning starter on the Buckeyes' offensive line will be a handful for the Wolverines' front four, especially if Michigan's pass rush looks anything like it did in 2013.

Certainly there are players in the B1G West such as Iowa QB Jake Rudock and OT Brandon Scherff and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon who could pose huge threats, but the Wolverines wouldn’t see them until a potential Big Ten championship game, so they weren’t included on this list.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 7, 2013
8/07/13
3:08
PM ET
Happy Sea Serpent Day.
Trades aren't happening in college football any time soon. Even if they were legalized, the thought of two hated rivals doing anything to potentially help each other out would make Woody and Bo start spinning in their graves.

But pretend for a second those laws were relaxed and the Buckeyes and Wolverines each had a need so pressing that the programs at least kicked around some ideas. As part of our ongoing look this week at "The Game," a couple ESPN.com beat writers took a shot to see just what they could get from each other that might spur on a championship run for the current roster. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, here's a look at how a (fictional) deal might have gone down.

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Don’t tell anybody

Mr. Rothstein:

We probably shouldn’t even be talking, and if word gets out that we even considered making a deal, we might need to consider looking for new jobs. But since the rules against trades in college football magically vanished and we were hired for some reason to become general managers for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, I think we at least owe it to ourselves to pursue all options. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Buckeyes were hit pretty hard by graduation in the front seven after knocking off the Wolverines to cap a perfect season last fall (in case you forgot about the celebration in the ‘Shoe). And recently the program has seen a group of linebackers that was already thin lose a couple more bodies that could have offered some help off the bench this fall. Additionally, while the future looks pretty bright at tackle for Taylor Decker or Chase Farris, right now there is one spot without much experience that tends to stand out when there are four seniors starting elsewhere on the line. So, I don’t know what position is troubling you most as training camp sneaks up on college football, but if there’s a potential swap or two that might help us both out, I am all ears. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Sincerely,

Austin Ward

Interim Ohio State personnel director

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[+] EnlargeMichael Schofield
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes wanted Michael Schofield for experience at tackle, but Michigan's demands in return were too rich for OSU's blood.
From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: Too late

Mr. Ward:

Unfortunately for you, I'm mouthy. And I've already started rumors you are trying to trade Braxton Miller for the remnants of Rich Rodriguez's offense. Apologies in advance. Not going to lie, looking over my roster I have concerns at wide receiver, running back and I could use some experience on the interior of the offensive line. Also, while there's some depth at cornerback, wouldn't mind grabbing one or two from you. Oh, and since you're interested in giving up Miller, that would solidify some of the depth issues there. I see you're fishing for a tackle. Sorry, Taylor Lewan is not available. While I like Michael Schofield a lot, he is more available at the right price. So too are some of the linebackers. What interests you on the Michigan squad? I'm willing to listen for anyone except for Lewan and quarterback Devin Gardner.

Sincerely,

Michael Rothstein

Fake Michigan personnel director

---

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Re: BRAXTON

Hey bud, these talks just about ended instantly with any mention of the franchise quarterback being available. Newsflash -- Miller won’t be on the market heading into his senior season either, so get used to trying to defend him. At any rate, Schofield would be an intriguing option for the Buckeyes because he could provide another veteran presence with ample experience in the Big Ten, potentially giving Decker or Farris another year to develop physically before moving into the starting lineup in 2014. After getting a glimpse at what Desmond Morgan could do last fall when he made 11 tackles (in a losing effort) against Ohio State, he might look good in Scarlet and Gray, especially if the spring gave him flexibility to play in the middle. I probably don’t need to mention that Bradley Roby is untouchable in the secondary, but there is no shortage of talent alongside him in the backend. Might want to take a look at the stable of running backs the Buckeyes have in the fold as well -- but feel free to skip over Carlos Hyde.

AW

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From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: No subject

(Read full post)

It's time to jump back into our preseason position rankings with a look at the offensive line units.

On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.

Away we go:

1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US Presswire With top tackle Taylor Lewan returning, Michigan fields one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines might have the top tackle in the league with junior Taylor Lewan, and guard Patrick Omameh is a three-year starter. Senior Ricky Barnum is taking over for David Molk at center. Michael Schofield should be solid at right tackle, though the left guard spot remains a competition. It should be a strong starting group, though depth here is a major concern.

3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.

(Read full post)

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