Michigan Wolverines: Taylor Lewan

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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Hope you all have caught your breath after a thrilling weekend of basketball action. Three Big Ten teams are still dancing, and my home state is about to go up in flames.

But enough about hoops. It's always football time around here, and this is a time when I answer your burning Big Ten questions.

3-2-1, shoot:

Adam from Houston, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, two questions: 1) What are the "must-do's" for Braxton Miller to hoist the Heisman Trophy this year? I think in some fashion, watching tape on the former OSU Heisman winner Troy Smith can help. Smith was a much better passer than Miller, but was a threat running when he had to. I think he also has to show up mentally for big games. It was obvious even through the TV against Northwestern and Michigan State (read: away from home) he was rattled. Does growth as a "field general" increase his chances at all, or will it only come down to performance? 2) What is your preseason Heisman list?

Brian Bennett: Heisman talk in late March. I love it!

This is going to sound overly simplistic, but more than anything, Miller needs numbers and wins to get into serious Heisman contention. In the past two seasons, he has thrown for just more than 2,000 yards, with a 1,000-yard rushing season in each. He had 28 total touchdowns in 2012, 36 last season. Those are good, but not eye-popping, stats. Consider that last year's winner, Jameis Winston, threw for more than 4,000 yards and had 44 total touchdowns. Given the way offenses are heading, big-numbers guys such as Winston and Johnny Manziel are going to stand out.

To do that, Miller needs to continue to make strides as a passer, and his receiving corps -- especially with favorite target Philly Brown gone -- needs to step up and help him out. He also needs to stay healthy and upright behind a rebuilt offensive line.

And, of course, spotlight victories are tremendously important. Winston played for the national champs. Manziel beat Alabama. Miller was in the discussion the past two years because Ohio State won 24 consecutive games. For the first time this year, he'll have some tough early tests against Virginia Tech, Navy and Cincinnati. Big performances and wins in those games could give Miller a head of steam.

Finally, my preseason list would naturally include Winston -- even though it's virtually impossible to win the Heisman twice -- along with Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baylor's Bryce Petty, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Miller. Winston and Manziel came out of virtually nowhere to win, however, so next year's Heisman could go to somebody we're not even discussing right now.


Rich from Des Moines writes: Brian, I'm sure whenever you do a post like the coaches tournament, you get crushed by people for leaving out their favorite coach/player/whatever. That's not my intention. Rather, I just want to ask why a few coaches that seem obvious for inclusion to me were not only left out of the bracket but not even mentioned in the closing paragraph as notable but not quite worthy of making the cut: 1. Biggie Munn, MSU: I understand he only coached one season in the Big Ten. But Tom Osborne coached zero seasons in the Big Ten; 2. Lloyd Carr, Michigan: While I am a committed UM hater, not mentioning him seems like a pretty big omission; 3. John Cooper: I know he is ridiculed in many quarters. I ridicule him for failing to understand the importance of the Michigan game, calling it just another game. But the guy won a lot.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the (very-long-and-since-edited question), Rich. Going through this exercise proved one thing: there is a tremendous and rich history of outstanding coaches in the Big Ten. I know going in that we couldn't make everyone happy. We like to keep these types of fields short so they don't overwhelm the blog, but I probably could have expanded it to a 64-team field. As it was, we went to a 12-team tournament instead of the eight-entry bracket we used for the players' and championship teams' tournamaent.

To address your specific questions, longevity made a difference in our choices. So while Munn did great things at Michigan State, he only coached there for seven seasons, including one in the Big Ten. We also wanted to diversify our field as much as possible, so while Carr also accomplished a whole lot, Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost seemed like better choices for Michigan. Cooper has some outstanding seasons, particularly 1993, 1996 and 1998, but he's not exactly beloved by Ohio State fans and we already had Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel. You can't please everybody. Just look at some of the controversial seeding in the men's basketball tournament.


Franklin from Norman, Okla., writes: What's with all the negative Michigan reporting these days? It seems like you guys are getting a kick out of it. It is quite clear that Adam does not like Michigan but I thought you were different. You guys are acting like Michigan is about to get hit with Penn State sanctions. Also, while you guys are all high on Michigan State and Ohio State (rightfully so), the upcoming season Michigan has will shock both of you. You are underestimating the impact coach [Doug] Nussmeier will have and the reorganizing that Brady Hoke did.

Brian Bennett: What you call "negative reporting," Franklin, I just call reporting. When a player as well known as Taylor Lewan gets charged with assault for an incident after the Ohio State game, that's news. When a starting offensive lineman gets suspended for the spring and the opener, that's news. No matter how much you love the Maize and Blue, I can't imagine you feel good about how the Brendan Gibbons saga has unfolded. I promise you that Adam and I derive no pleasure from reporting about off-the-field incidents and in fact would much, much rather just stick to writing about games and more pleasant stories. But stuff happens, and there's no way to deny that it hasn't been a great few months for the Wolverines this offseason. The best way to get past all that is to win, and the team certainly has the talent to do so, though many questions remain at several positions. I'm heading up to Ann Arbor this weekend and am eager to see how things are going this spring.


Jeff from between Omaha and Lincoln writes: Some of the coaches would like to be able to make scholarship offers earlier to help eliminate the flipping toward the end. This makes perfect sense to me. Teams need to make plans and have backup plans in place. However, doesn't this also work in reverse? A three-star athlete might want to go to a top-level program, but can't receive that offer because a commitment from a four- or five-star kid who said he wanted to go to that school. Isn't there a degree of discrimination happening here? If an athlete makes a commitment, he should be held to it. If he's not ready, the school can move on. The only exception should be if a coaching change is made. I'd like to see a few athlete-based lawsuits pop up against the rule-makers and see what happens.

Brian Bennett: Discrimination isn't really the word, but there are some complicating factors with coaches being allowed to offer earlier and an early signing period. Some players simply develop later while guys who are stars as juniors stagnate, especially once they get a big-time offer. Head coaches, assistants and roster plans change all the time. If big changes are made to the recruiting calender, I'd like to see some protections and restrictions in place. Limit the number of kids who could sign early to, say, no more than half the class. Allow anyone who signed early to get out of his letter if the head coach leaves afterward. These are some of the issues that need to be debated, in my opinion.


Drew from Detroit writes: Two quick questions... which B1G schools would you say have the best and worst football/basketball combo? Also, what's the difference between a "mailbag" and a "mailblog?"

Brian Bennett: Michigan State gets the nod from me for best combo, especially after just winning the Rose Bowl and for all its basketball success under Tom Izzo. But Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin are not far behind at all. As for the worst combo, right now it has to be Purdue, which finished last in the Big Ten in both sports. Historically, it's probably Northwestern, which is dragged down by a basketball program that still has never made the tournament.

As for the 'bag/'blog thing, I've always called it a mailbag, while Adam prefers mailblog, for whatever reason. That's not a piece of wordplay I particularly enjoy, but I've been known to make many groan-inducing puns. So to each his own.
Over the last couple of weeks, we've taken a look in video form at the biggest shoes to fill on each Big Ten team this spring and who the replacements might be.

SportsNation

Who leaves the biggest shoes to fill in the Big Ten this spring?

  •  
    30%
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    19%
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    17%
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    16%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,693)

Which player's empty cleats will be the most considerable this spring? Let's consider these options:
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson: The two-time Big Ten receiver of the year left early for the NFL and left Christian Hackenberg without his favorite target. Watch the video here.
  • Michigan LT Taylor Lewan: In case you didn't notice, the Wolverines' offensive line wasn't very good last season, and that was with an All-American left tackle. Lewan will likely be a top 15 NFL draft pick. Watch the video here.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis: The former walk-on-turned-superstar was the Badgers' only real threat at wideout the past two years, leaving a gaping hole at the position. Watch the video here.
  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: Where oh where would the Buckeyes' defense -- and its underachieving linebacker unit -- have been without Shazier last season? The Buckeyes might have to find out this spring. Watch the video here.
  • Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: While the Spartans know how to reload on defense, it's never easy to replace a player the caliber of Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Watch the video here.

Vote now in our poll.
The NFL scouting combine is done, pro days are taking place around the Big Ten, and Todd McShay has another version of his NFL mock draft. Big Ten fans will have to scroll past the reshuffled top 10, as no players from the league appear -- despite some good performances from Taylor Lewan, Ra'Shede Hageman and others at the combine.

Here's how McShay sees things going for Big Ten prospects:
  • No. 12: Michigan OT Taylor Lewan to New York Giants
  • No. 20: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard to Arizona
  • No. 22: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby to Philadelphia
  • No. 29: Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman to New England

Lewan holds steady from McShay's previous mock, but Dennard and Hageman both move up and Roby enters the mix after being left out.

It would be exciting to see Dennard playing opposite Patrick Peterson in Arizona, and New England could be a great spot for Hageman.

Mel Kiper's latest Big Board, by the way, lists Lewan at No. 7, Dennard at No. 18 and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier at No. 25.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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Congrats to Penn State students, who raised more than $13 million for pediatric cancer research at the school's annual THON event.
The 2014 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is more than halfway over, and testing results have been recorded for quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive linemen and specialists. As we do every year around this time, let's check in on how the Big Ten contingent is performing at the site of the Big Ten championship game (Lucas Oil Stadium).

Note: These are results through Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was one of several Big Ten players who increased their stock at the NFL combine over the weekend.
TOP PERFORMERS

Overall

  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley is tied for second with 36 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds.
  • Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman is tied for 10th in bench-press repetitions with 32.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson is tied for eighth in the vertical jump at 39 inches; tied for eighth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 7 inches; seventh in the 20-yard shuttle at four seconds and sixth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds.
  • Michigan State WR Bennie Fowler is ninth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 6 inches; 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.52 seconds.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis is 14th in the 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds; 12th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.08 seconds and seventh in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.39 seconds.
By position

Running backs: Wisconsin's James White is tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 23; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde is tied for 13th with 19.

Wide receivers: Enunwa is tied for 11th in 40-yard dash and seventh in bench-press reps with 19; Indiana's Cody Latimer is first in bench-press reps with 23; Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is tied for second in bench-press reps with 21; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon is tied for 13th in bench-press reps with 15; Robinson is sixth in vertical jump, tied for third in broad jump, seventh in 20-yard shuttle and sixth in 60-yard shuttle; Fowler is tied for fifth in broad jump, 15th in 20-yard shuttle and 12th in 60-yard shuttle; Abbrederis is 12th in 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds, 11th in 20-yard shuttle and seventh in 60-yard shuttle.

Tight ends: Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz is sixth in the 40-yard dash (4.76 seconds), fifth in bench-press reps (25), tied for 11th in vertical jump (31.5 inches), tied for sixth in broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches), first in 3-cone drill (7.1 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.26 seconds); Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen is tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash (4.89 seconds), 11th in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds), seventh in 20-yard shuttle (4.4 seconds) and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (12.19 seconds).

Offensive linemen: Michigan's Taylor Lewan is first in 40-yard dash (4.87 seconds) and broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (29), tied for third in vertical jump (30.5 inches), fourth in 3-cone drill (7.39 seconds), ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.49 seconds); Michigan's Michael Schofield is sixth in 40-yard dash (5.01 seconds), 13th in 3-cone drill (7.62 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.57 seconds); Linsley is tied for second in bench-press reps; Penn State's John Urschel is tied for eighth in bench-press reps (30), tied for fifth in vertical jump (29 inches), ninth in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Ohio State's Jack Mewhort is tied for 14th in bench-press reps (28); Wisconsin's Ryan Groy is tied for seventh in broad jump (9 feet), eighth in 3-cone drill (7.49 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Iowa's Conor Boffeli is seventh in 3-cone drill (7.44 seconds) and 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds).

Defensive linemen (bench-press only): Hageman is tied for third with 32 repetitions.

Workouts and testing for defensive linemen and linebackers takes place Monday, followed by the defensive backs on Tuesday. We'll have more updates as the results come in, but you should check out ESPN.com's full combine coverage here.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
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A gold medal-winning version of the links.
The NFL combine starts this Saturday, and Michigan fans will have their eyes on former Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan as he takes his next step. Lewan will go through his events on Saturday with the other offensive linemen (other groups working out that day are tight ends and specialists).

Lewan signed with Tom Condon of CAA and trained for the combine at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.). I caught up with Lewan this week to discuss his training, his time at Michigan and whether he’s keeping up with the Olympics or not.

How is training going?

Taylor Lewan: It’s going really well. IMG is an unbelievable place. I’m on the best diet and working with the best coaches on anything I need as far as speed training, anything for the combine.

[+] Enlarge Taylor Lewan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan feels that he felt his senior year at Michigan was his best individual season.
How different is your training now from your training at Michigan?

TL: It’s really different. My focus isn’t so much on football as it is on my speed work and my agility work, that’s what the testing is. All the stuff as far the field, that’s done. My film is out there, whatever people think I do well or badly is out there. Now my job is to prove my athleticism and how I can move as a 6-foot-7, 310-pound individual.

You stuck to your guns in believing that staying at Michigan was the right choice. What did you learn in your fifth year that’s helping you now?

TL: I think the best part of it was the film. I think I had my best year of football ever. I graded out higher than I ever had. My technique, my fundamentals were better than they had ever been. They can always get better. From a maturity standpoint I think I was ready to go last year, but just having an extra year to learn a little bit more.

Looking back at your college career, what moments stick out to you?

TL: As a whole collective thing, I made my best friends there. The ups, the downs, the going 5-7 my first year and then making it to the Sugar Bowl to beating Michigan State with a last-second field goal, beating Ohio State. Those are memories you never want to lose, those are unbelievable. I wouldn’t trade those for the world.

For the people that are getting antsy with Brady Hoke and Michigan football, what are your words for them?

TL: I think they need to watch the games and stick to being fans. If their opinions really mattered then they’d be getting paid for it. Coach Hoke is doing a great job in my opinion. [Athletics director] Dave Brandon, in my opinion, is an unbelievable man and absolutely knows what he’s doing. This program is going to get back on top and I think it’s only a matter of time, but you have to give them an opportunity to get them there. I think they’re going to do a phenomenal job this year.

You’re still playing football, but is there any part of you that’s sad that you’re not getting ready to start another spring football with Michigan?

TL: Not sad, but it’s kind of crazy to think that if you really think about it, I’m 22 and I’m unemployed. I started at Michigan for four years and it’s a crazy feeling to know that my future is uncertain. It’s crazy to know that if I had another year, I’d be playing again or have the opportunity to play again at Michigan and all that. It’s not a sad feeling. My five years there, it wasn’t what I wanted as far as a record and stuff like that, but it was a phenomenal experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But I think I’m ready for this next step.

It is weird that you’re 22 and currently unemployed, no?

TL: Exactly. You go from being a captain on the Michigan football team to now, being in this weird limbo. I’m in Florida with a bunch of random guys I had never met before, training for a job. It’s unbelievable.

Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson will likely compete for your starting spot, what advice do you have for them?

TL: Just stay confident. Be confident in who you are. Things aren’t always going to go right all the time. That never happens. You never have a perfect game. No one ever does. But when you do get beat or those times happen when you should’ve done something differently in a game, move on from it. Have a short memory.

Have you been keeping up with the Olympics at all?

TL: I have. [US hockey player] T.J. Oshie, he’s my new hero. He’s a true-blooded American and I love him to death. His quote about heroes that wear camo, those are the heroes, that’s unbelievable selflessness and very humbling as an athlete.

You played hockey a bit as a kid, but if you had to pick another winter sport to compete in at the winter Olympics what would it be?

TL: Curling. It’s the best sport. I think it’s hilarious. You slide blocks of ice on ice with brooms. You sweep with the brooms to make it go faster or turn or however it works. You look at it and you’re like “this is a ridiculous sport, why is this an Olympics sport?” and then you end up sitting there and watching for an hour.
The NFL scouting combine -- also known as the world's most dissected job interview session -- began Wednesday in Indianapolis, and workouts begin Saturday. The hopefuls include 36 players from Big Ten schools, 38 if you count Maryland and Rutgers.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsFormer Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will work out as a receiver at the NFL scouting combine.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the league's contingents run, lift, jump and shuttle for NFL executives:

  • How many first-rounders can the Big Ten produce? Last year was arguably the worst draft in league history, as only one player -- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick -- heard his name called on opening night, and not until the 31st pick. The conference should definitely do better in the first round this year, with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard widely viewed as locks to go early. Some others could work their way into the first round with strong showings in Indy, including Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (whose physical-freak traits should translate well into workouts), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Carlos Hyde and Penn State receiver Allen Robinson.
  • Speaking of Robinson, he's one of eight Big Ten players who will work out as a receiver, and that group includes ultra-productive college wideouts such as Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Indiana's Cody Latimer. This is viewed as a deep draft for receivers in general, so the Big Ten contingent will have to post good times in the 40 and other drills to stand out.
  • One player who will work out as a receiver is Northwestern's Kain Colter, who primarily played quarterback in college. Colter, of course, has been in the news because of his fight to unionize college football players. How will NFL general managers and executives view the stance taken by Colter, who should interview extremely well? And how will he perform as a wide receiver in drills?
  • Linebacker is probably the strongest group the Big Ten will send to Indianapolis, which is fitting because that was the best position group in the league in 2013. Many scouts already love Wisconsin's Chris Borland, but his height could remain an issue for some. I think his overall athleticism should shine through this weekend and relieve some of those questions. Michigan State's Max Bullough has excellent height and size, but faces some concerns over his lateral quickness and probably even more regarding his Rose Bowl suspension. Will Bullough publicly reveal the reason for his suspension? It will also be fun to see how Iowa's standout trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens compares in their testing.
  • Lewan figures to go in the top 15, but he does have some character issues to address in his interviews. Speaking of offensive linemen, how healthy is Nebraska All-American guard Spencer Long after his season-ending knee injury? Ohio State's Jack Mewhort was a great leader for the Buckeyes but must show he's athletic enough to play tackle in the NFL. And after interviewing Penn State's John Urschel, will some team ask him to skip his playing days and just run their front office?
  • Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz earned rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. While he wasn't hyper-productive in the passing game with the Hawkeyes, some team easily could fall in love with his size and athleticism and make him an early-round pick.
  • Defensive back is another deep group from the Big Ten, with seven players invited. Dennard simply needs to not hurt his stock, and Roby could improve his after a good, but not great, junior season. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be intriguing with his 6-foot-3 frame, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks' tall defensive backs. Guys such as Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis, Minnesota's Brock Vereen and Purdue's Ricardo Allen are viewed as late-round picks at this point; they need to make an impression and not lose any more ground in the eyes of scouts.


All these questions and more will begin to be answered this weekend.

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Michigan

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
1:00
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video
Chantel Jennings takes a look at a key position and players to watch as the Michigan Wolverines look ahead to spring practice, which begins Feb. 25.
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.
The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.
The Big Ten had only one first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Will things improve in 2014?

ESPN.com NFL draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay say yes, but not by a landslide. In their newest mock drafts, Kiper has four Big Ten players in the first round -- but only one in the top 23 -- while McShay projects three.

Leading the way from the Big Ten in both of their projections is Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan. Kiper projects Lewan at No. 11, while McShay has him at No. 12. Both have Lewan as the third offensive tackle taken off the board, behind Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews. It makes sense, as left tackle is a premium position in today's pass-happy NFL. But teams will likely grill Lewan about some character concerns during the upcoming combine in Indianapolis.

Michigan State star and Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard is the second player listed in each of our analysts' new mock drafts. McShay has Dennard going No. 22, while Kiper has him at No. 24.

To see what other Big Ten players are included in those mock drafts and what the analysts had to say about Lewan and Dennard, check out the full posts. Here's Kiper's mock draft Insider, and here is the one from McShay Insider.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.
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There have been plenty of memorable prospects and players to come through the Big Ten, but RecruitingNation's scouts have put together their Ultimate ESPN 300 list of top recruits.

Here are the top five Big Ten recruits who made the list:


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The countdown is coming into the home stretch -- are you getting nervous about whether your favorite player made the top 10 or if they didn’t make the list at all?

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan played well, but the struggles of the other Michigan offensive linemen negatively impacted his spot in the rankings.
No. 9: Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan

Previous ranking: No. 7

The case for Lewan: The No. 9 spot on the list is by no means a bad spot to be. However, several Lewan fanatics are likely to be upset not to see the fifth-year senior listed higher.

He passed up the NFL and millions of dollars last season to return to Michigan for his final season of eligibility. He was elected by his teammates as a captain, making him the only offensive captain this season. However, the offense never really got to a place in which it played well consistently and some of that has to lay on the leadership. The Wolverines were 11th in the Big Ten with 374 yards of offense per game.

One of the bigger deterrents for Lewan this season was not that he struggled individually, but that he was surrounded by quite a bit of youth and inexperience. While he might not have allowed a sack all season, the Michigan offensive line allowed 36 sacks, including seven each to Michigan State and Nebraska.

However, when quarterback Devin Gardner wasn’t getting sacked, he wasn’t getting a lot of time in the pocket either. Even with a player as talented as Lewan on the line, the Wolverines only averaged 3.3 yards per rush (No. 113 in the country, No. 11 in the Big Ten) and couldn’t find a consistent lineman to run behind.

The countdown:

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Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
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