Nebraska Cornhuskers: Spencer Long

Tired of NFL draft rewind posts? Well, it's nearly over. And besides, not much else is happening in mid-May.

We're taking a closer look, roundtable-style, at the Big Ten's draft: how certain teams did, the risers, the falls and more. Noted draft hater Brian Bennett is somewhere in Italy, so Big Ten reporters Mitch Sherman, Josh Moyer and Austin Ward are kind enough to join me in breaking down the draft.

The draft roundtable is on the clock ...

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier ended a three-year drought without a Buckeye in the first round.
Let's start off with individual teams you cover -- Nebraska (Sherman), Penn State (Moyer) and Ohio State (Ward), for those who need a refresher. What stood out to you most about each team's draft showing?

Moyer: Penn State had just three players drafted, so what really stood out to me was how divided the opinion was on Allen Robinson, who was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round. At times, he was a projected first-rounder. At other times, he wasn't projected to go until Day 3. Some lauded the Jags' pick; others labeled it a reach. Let me add my two cents: He's going to succeed in the NFL. I spoke with two former PSU and NFL wideouts, O.J. McDuffie and Kenny Jackson, and they both said last season that A-Rob boasts more physical skills than they ever did. That has to count for something.

Sherman: NFL organizations continue to rate Nebraska defensive backs highly. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second round to the Saints) was the 11th draftee from the secondary in the past 10 years. Since 2003, though, just two Nebraska offensive players, including new Redskins guard Spencer Long, have landed in the top three rounds. Receiver Quincy Enunwa, despite technical shortcomings, offers value to the Jets as a sixth-round pick. As expected, all others, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, had to take the free-agency route.

Ward: Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the next level, but it had actually been three years since it had produced any first-round picks until Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby on Thursday night. The Buckeyes followed that up with four more players being selected, which suggests the talent level is starting to get back to the level the program is accustomed to after going through a bit of a down stretch. It seems a bit backward that two guys from a beleaguered defense were the top picks while the record-setting offense wasn't represented until Carlos Hyde and Jack Mewhort were grabbed in the second round, but either way the Buckeyes appear to be back as a favored target for NFL organizations.

Turning our attention to the entire Big Ten, which player surprised you by how high he was drafted, and which player surprised you with how far he fell in the draft?

Rittenberg: I was a little surprised to see Michael Schofield go before the end of Day 2. We knew Michigan’s poor offensive line play wouldn’t impact Taylor Lewan, but I thought it might make teams hesitant about selecting Schofield. He’s a good player who enters a great situation in Denver. Another Big Ten offensive lineman on a struggling unit, Purdue’s Kevin Pamphile, surprised me with how early he went. I didn't see Darqueze Dennard, the nation’s most decorated cornerback on arguably the nation’s best defense last season, dropping to No. 24 overall. Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Ohio State’s Hyde went later than I thought they would.

Sherman: Long's rise to the third round surprised me after he missed the final six games of his senior season with a knee injury that kept him out of the combine and limited him at Nebraska's pro day. I pegged the former walk-on as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. And I thought Lewan might slip past the first 15 picks because of character questions from a pair of off-field incidents at Michigan. Conversely, I thought Borland’s exemplary résumé at Wisconsin might propel him into the top 50 picks. At No. 77 to the 49ers he's a steal.

Ward: There really weren't guys who made shocking jumps up the board in my mind, though Ohio State safety Christian Bryant sneaking into the seventh round was a feel-good story after he missed the majority of his senior season with a fractured ankle. The Big Ten also had a handful of first-round caliber players slide to the second day, so Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Hyde or Penn State's Robinson all qualified as minor surprises -- and great values for their new teams.

Moyer: How many people thought Dezmen Southward would be the first Badger drafted? I sure didn't. The Atlanta Falcons scooped him up early in the third round, and they probably could've snagged him two rounds later. As far as guys who fell, I expected both Latimer and Dennard to go sooner. They didn't free-fall, but you kept hearing before the draft how those two improved their stock -- and then Latimer nearly fell to the third round, anyway.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis went in the fifth round to the Green Bay Packers.
Which Big Ten players will be the biggest sleepers/best values in the draft?

Ward: General managers and coaches might view running backs as easily replaceable in this new era in the NFL, but the league’s most recent champion offered another reminder of how important it is to have a productive rushing attack and an elite tailback. Hyde hasn’t proven anything at the next level yet, so comparing him with Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is a bit premature. But Hyde has all the physical tools to be a star, from his well-built frame to his often overlooked speed, and he's going to a team in San Francisco that has a system that will put him in position to thrive.

Rittenberg: Southward’s high selection surprised me, too, but the other four Wisconsin players -- Borland, Jared Abbrederis, running back James White and nose tackle Beau Allen -- all are good value pickups. White is an extremely versatile player who might never be a featured back but can block, catch passes and do whatever his coaches need. Allen gained great experience as a nose tackle last fall. I think the New York Jets get a sixth-round steal in Enunwa, whose blocking skills should help him get on the field. Big Ten coaches loved DaQuan Jones, who looks like a nice value pickup for Tennessee in the fourth round.

Sherman: I'll place Robinson (second round to Jacksonville) and Abbrederis (fifth to Green Bay) together in a category of undervalued Big Ten receivers. Perhaps it illustrates a general stigma about offensive skill players from the conference; throw second-rounders Latimer and Hyde into the discussion, too. NFL decision-makers might not respect the competition these players face on a weekly basis and count it against them in evaluations. If so, that’s a big problem for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten had eight more players drafted this year than in 2013, but its champion, Michigan State, had only one selection. What does this say about the league and its trajectory?

Sherman: After 2012, the Big Ten presumably had nowhere to go but up in producing quality prospects. The influx of Urban Meyer-recruited talent will soon impact the Big Ten in the draft. Same goes for Brady Hoke, even if he’s not making gains in the standings. Penn State and Nebraska, too, are upgrading their talent, so the trajectory figures to continue upward. As for Michigan State, it was young on offense and clearly better than the sum of its parts on defense, a testament to Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. The absence in the draft of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen caught me off guard.

Moyer: Having more picks shows the Big Ten is on the right track ... but it still has a long way to go. Yes, it improved on last year -- but it still finished behind the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34) this year, in terms of players drafted. As far as Michigan State, I think their success serves as a reminder that the right coaching and the right schemes can still trump a roster full of NFL-caliber players. Penn State's success during the sanctions also helps to reinforce that.

Ward: It's another reminder of how well-coached the Spartans were a year ago, particularly in turning a defense that had just one player drafted into the nation’s best unit. Dantonio deserves another bow for the job he and his staff did a year ago, even if they didn’t have much to celebrate during the draft. The league does seem to be on the rise again in the minds of top athletes around the country with Meyer, Hoke and now James Franklin upping the ante on the recruiting trail. Those efforts should produce even better weekends than the one that just wrapped up.

Rittenberg: It says something when arguably the best Big Ten team in the past seven or eight years -- MSU had nine double-digit league wins plus the Rose Bowl triumph -- produces only one draft pick. Still, I think the arrow is pointed up after a horrendous 2013 draft. The Big Ten has struggled to produce elite prospects at both cornerback and wide receiver in recent years. This year, the league had three corners drafted in the first two rounds, and while I agree the Big Ten's wide receivers were undervalued, the league still produced five picks. The next step is obvious: generating better quarterback play as no Big Ten QBs were drafted this year.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN.com. And for the first time since 2011, when cornerback Prince Amukamara was selected 19th by the New York Giants, a Nebraska player is under consideration to come off the board in the first 32 picks.

The second and third rounds begin Friday at 7 p.m. ET, with the final four rounds set for Saturday at noon. A year after placing two players in the draft -- their fewest since 1962 -- the Huskers again look on track for a low figure.

Here’s a cheat sheet for the top Nebraska prospects:

CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Measurables: 6-2 5/8, 218

Going for him: Jean-Baptiste possesses the size coveted by NFL organizations. Physically, he’s a heavier Richard Sherman, and he posted numbers similar to Sherman at the NFL combine in February. Jean-Baptiste learned to play in the secondary quickly at Nebraska after his shift from wide receiver in 2011. He showed excellent durability throughout his career after he began at junior college out of high school in Miami. A solid week at the Senior Bowl proved his worth and launched him on a rise that leaves Jean-Baptiste with an outside shot to land late in the first round.

Going against him: Despite his age -- Jean-Baptiste turned 24 last month -- he’s still fairly raw as a cornerback in comparison to other top prospects. His 4.61-second 40-yard dash time rated as mediocre, and Jean-Baptiste plays a bit stiff in the lower body, according to some reports. He feasted on nonconference competition as a senior, intercepting a pass in each of four games. But as Big Ten teams scouted Nebraska (and avoided Jean-Baptiste), he did not record a pick in league play.

OG Spencer Long
Measurables: 6-4 5/8, 320

Going for him: Long has an impeccable résumé as a leader, rising from walk-on status to team captain and the cornerstone of Nebraska's offensive line in 2012 and 2013. After he suffered a right-knee injury in the sixth game of his senior season, the Huskers’ offensive production dropped markedly. He has good size, bulk and strength, huge hands and displayed excellent awareness on the field. Long is also a student of the game. He studied pre-medicine in Lincoln and was accepted to medical school.

Going against him: Long benefited from the draft’s later date, which allowed him to heal from knee surgery. Still, scouts were unable to see him run at the combine or at Nebraska’s pro day, so some questions remain about his recovery. Much like his situation out of high school, Long’s athleticism has not wowed scouts. But he massively exceeded expectations in college and looks to offer value in the mid to late rounds.

WR Quincy Enunwa
Measurables: 6-2, 225

Going for him: Enunwa is a physical specimen. His toughness and durability are top end, traits that helped him extensively as a blocker in Nebraska’s perimeter run game. He broke 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Nebraska’s pro day and measured above average in arm length and hand size. Enunwa enjoyed a breakout senior season with 51 catches for 753 yards and a school-record 12 touchdown receptions, including a 99-yarder against Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He also showed consistent ability to gain yards after the catch.

Going against him: There’s a lot here. Enunwa failed to impress many -- evidenced by his lack of All-Big Ten recognition -- because of deficiencies in route running and inconsistency with his hands. Largely unrefined as a receiver, he suffered a hand injury in practice before the East-West Shrine Game and injured a hamstring at the combine. Some organizations will steer clear, fearing he’s a project in adjusting to the NFL game, though Enunwa offers good intangibles and competitiveness as a late pick.

The others: Taylor Martinez presents the most intrigue among Nebraska’s likely free-agent signees. The four-year starting quarterback faces a position switch at the next level and a significant adjustment period, but he offers great speed and athletic ability. Cornerback Ciante Evans, another team leader at Nebraska, showed versatility in college, but a lack of size hurts him. Offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale also figure to get an opportunity in addition to defensive end Jason Ankrah.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
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Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the first 2½ years of his career at Nebraska, Givens Price heard voices.

Voices at practice. Voices in the meeting room. Voices when he entered the playing rotation at guard in the second half of last season as injuries nearly decimated the offensive line.

Five senior offensive linemen in 2013 -- gone from Nebraska after starting a combined 127 games in their careers -- spoke to Price even when he stood alone on the sideline.

“We are the voices now,” Price said on Monday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIZach Sterup (57) and Ryne Reeves (65) are among those competing for spots on the Huskers O-line.
The Huskers are rebuilding the line this spring. Through six practices, improvement is steady, according to the linemen and the quarterback they protect, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“They’re going to get better,” Armstrong said. “We’re expecting that. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. They’re all out there to win a spot. They’re all out there to improve and push each other. They come out there and they’re ready to work.”

Despite the departures, Nebraska returns experience, primarily in left guard Jake Cotton, a senior who started 11 games last season. Others show notable promise, and the line, as a group, appears just as physically impressive as the 2013 cast.

Perhaps more impressive, in fact.

“We’ve got to get the mental side down,” Cotton said, “if we want the size to matter.”

Six practices into this spring, Cotton at left guard and junior Zach Sterup at right tackle appear most entrenched. Price has taken the majority of snaps at right guard, though senior Mike Moudy, out with a shoulder injury this spring, figures to compete for the job in August.

At center, senior Mark Pelini and junior Ryne Reeves are splitting time. And at left tackle, Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior who has emerged as a top spring storyline, and redshirt freshman David Knevel, continue to compete.

“I think our whole room is full of competitors,” Cotton said “Some of the guys have come so far in [two weeks]. I wouldn’t have guessed it would go this fast.”

Many of the new candidates to start received an unexpected jump start last season.

With seniors Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick set to anchor the line, all appeared settled.

But after Long, an offensive captain and All-Big Ten pick in 2012, went down with a knee injury in early October, the injuries mounted. Moudy started three games in place of Long at right guard before the shoulder injury hit.

Cotton missed two games with a knee injury. Sirles and Pensick also missed practice time, forcing position shifts among the experienced linemen and youngsters like Reeves, Sterup, Pelini and Price into action.

Production suffered. Nebraska averaged 42.4 points and 291.6 rushing yards in the five games before Long’s injury; after, it was 25.4 and 168.2.

Still, Armstrong credits the veteran linemen, especially Cotton, with easing the quarterback's transition into the lineup.

“They all sat me down and said, ‘Hey, this is your time,’” Armstrong said. “’We saw how you practiced. Just go out there and have fun. We’re going to have your back 100 percent of the way.’ Jake Cotton said, ‘You’re the guy we want right now, and you’re the guy we need.'

“He told me we were going to win games, and that’s what we did.”

Armstrong finished 7-1 as a starter last season, including a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

Now it’s his turn to help nurture the young linemen.

The play of Lewis at left tackle grabbed Armstrong’s attention this spring. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Lewis, who started 12 games at Colorado in 2012, has meshed well with Cotton to help protect the QB’s blind side.

Lewis and Cotton, to put in nicely, make their presence known on the practice field.

“That’s double trouble right there,” Armstrong said. “They work hard. They’re outgoing. They’re rowdy. They just keep going.”

Cotton said the group is quickly developing a chemistry.

“You go the extra step to make sure guys are on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about having open spots, with nothing guaranteed, that’s fun, because the competition is heated. Guys are gunning for spots.”

It will, no doubt, intensify in August as Moudy returns. Also set to join the mix are Nick Gates, D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer, the most heralded group of linemen signees in coach Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska. Another rookie, Mick Stoltenberg, could fit on the offensive or defensive line.

Regardless of the personnel, they’ll work without the guidance of veterans like Long and Sirles.

“Nothing stops,” Price said. “We’ve got to pick up from where they left off. The dream they had is still the dream we have -- that’s to make it to the Big Ten championship and win the Big Ten championship. It starts in spring football.”

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
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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:

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

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
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.
We’ve reached the fourth day in our pre-spring countdown of Nebraska’s position groups with most room to improve.

Up next, a group that went unnoticed at times -- all the evidence required for inclusion on this list. At No. 2, it’s the tight ends:

Major losses: Jake Long looked poised for a nice senior season after stepping into a starting role vacated last year by the departure of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Because of injuries, it didn’t materialize as planned, much like the senior season of Long’s twin brother, All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Jake caught just eight passes for 121 yards.

[+] EnlargeCethan Carter
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCethan Carter led Nebraska tight ends with 10 catches in the 2013 season.
Top returnees: Cethan Carter showed flashes as a true freshman. He grabbed 10 passes for 127 yards. Sam Cotton, as a redshirt freshman, caught three passes for 22 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown against Minnesota, the only score by a tight end last season. Rising sophomore Trey Foster and junior David Sutton played minor roles in 2013.

Numbers to know: Tight ends at Nebraska caught 22 passes in 14 games, with no gain longer than 26 yards. That’s just not good enough for Barney Cotton’s group, even with all the inexperience and Long’s hobbled state. Here’s one number to watch: 39.2. It’s the Huskers’ third-down conversion rate last season, 72nd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. With a productive core of tight ends, that will improve.

Key question: Productive tight ends can make a huge difference in the play-action passing game for Nebraska, potentially a strength for Tommy Armstrong Jr. or Johnny Stanton at quarterback. Is that tight end on the roster?

The outlook: The lack of tight end production last year involved more than injuries and inexperience. Part of it fell on Armstrong, who started eight games and locked too often on top receiving options Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.

They were excellent choices, but so is a dangerous tight end, which adds a difficult-to-defend element to any offense.

Nebraska’s quarterbacks get an offseason to work with Carter, who should develop into a big-play threat, and Cotton. The overall comfort level should improve, and the addition of redshirt freshman Greg Hart adds another big target.

True freshman Freedom Akinmoladun rates as a dark horse in the 2014 recruiting class to make a quick impact. If he’s ready, the opportunity is there.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:

No. 5: Secondary
No. 4: Quarterbacks
No. 3: Linebackers
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.

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

Recapping the Big Ten All-Americans

December, 19, 2013
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If you thought the Hollywood awards season lasted a long time, well, it has nothing on college football.

There's now an endless number of individual trophies, many sponsored by city sports commissions or other groups who want to be associated with college football. And the same is true with All-America teams. Major ones now include the Associated Press, American Football Coaches Association, Football Writers Association of America, Walter Camp, Sporting News, ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com and CBSSports.com. Whew.

It can be hard if not impossible to keep up with all of it. So we're here to recap it for you, with a list of every Big Ten player who made one of those major All-America teams. In all, eight different Big Ten players garnered at least one first-team All-America nods, while 19 earned at least a second- or third-team honor. (Note that some organizations, like Walter Camp and ESPN.com, release only a first team).

We start the list with the lone unanimous first-team All-American from the conference:

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State corner Darqueze Dennard was the Big Ten's only unanimous first-team All-American.
Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard

First team: AP, AFCA, FWAA, Walter Camp, Sporting News, ESPN.com, SI.com, CBSSports.com

Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

First team: AP, ESPN.com, SI.com
Second team: FWAA, Walter Camp, CBSSports.com

Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

First team: Sporting News
Second team: AP, Walter Camp, CBSSports.com, SI.com

Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

First team: FWAA
Second team: AP, CBSSports.com, SI.com

Penn State WR Allen Robinson

First team: CBSSports.com, Sporting News
Second team: FWAA, SI.com
Third team: AP

Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort

First team: ESPN.com
Second team: FWAA, Walter Camp, SI.com
Third team: AP, CBSSports.com

Northwestern K Jeff Budzien

First team: Sporting News
Second team: Walter Camp
Third team: AP

Michigan State P Mike Sadler

First team: ESPN.com, CBSSports.com

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team: AP, Walter Camp, SI.com

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Third team: AP

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Second team: FWAA

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Third team: AP

Penn State G John Urschel

Third team: AP

Wisconsin G Ryan Groy

Third team: AP

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Max Bullough

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Denicos Allen

Second team: SI.com
Third team: AP

Nebraska G Spencer Long

Third team: CBSSports.com

Ohio State S C.J. Barnett

Third team: CBSSports.com

Chance to move forward excites Huskers

December, 12, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The last time we saw Jeremiah Sirles before Wednesday, the Nebraska senior emptied his heart in support of coach Bo Pelini, embroiled in controversy after the Huskers’ Nov. 29 loss to Iowa to end the regular season.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Sirles
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJeremiah Sirles and his teammates are glad Nebraska's focus is back on football.
Sirles, a four-year starter at offensive tackle, and several teammates spoke passionately about Pelini and his staff, yet it appeared to many observers that the sixth-year coach may not survive the weekend at Nebraska.

Well, he did.

And the program lunged forward. The Huskers received a break from the game to rest and prepare for final exams. Pelini and his staff gained momentum on the recruiting trail. The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, in a move unexpected before the final hours on Sunday, paired Nebraska with Georgia for a New Year’s Day rematch of the Capital One Bowl from last season.

As the team readies to get back to practice this weekend, the air around Memorial Stadium appears free of the toxicity from two weeks ago.

Count Sirles among those relieved that Nebraska football has moved past a November dominated by questions about the job security of its coach.

“It’s hard to have all these unanswered questions around this place because it always seems like there [are] these unanswered questions," Sirles said Wednesday, as a group of Huskers met with the media for the first time since the regular-season finale. "Being able to have answers to all that and being able to have a stable base for going into the bowl game and even going to next year, I think, is huge.”

About 19 hours after Iowa cemented its 38-17 win in Lincoln, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst issued a statement of support for Pelini.

Sirles said he was “proud” of the administration for its decision.

“Every word that I said was 100 percent from the heart and 100 percent true,” Sirles said. ‘I hope that people around the stadium could really tell that we really love and we care for our coaches, and that they love and care for us.”

Fellow senior lineman Brent Qvale said he understood the sentiment from some Nebraska fans that an 8-4 regular season fell short of expectations.

Still, the coaches don’t deserve blame, he said.

“It’s just a culture around Nebraska that championships are expected,” Qvale said. “And it should be. You play this game to win championships.”

Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa said he stayed away from listening to the media speculation and criticism of November.

“We know what’s going on inside the program,” Enunwa said. “We know that we have our coaches back. We believe that we’re a good team; there have just been a lot of setbacks for us this year.”

That said, the Huskers are excited about the opportunity to finish strong.

Several Nebraska players interviewed on Wednesday said they were excited to face Georgia again.

“It might be frustration if we just blew them out last year,” Enunwa said, “but we lost.”

Said defensive back Josh Mitchell: “I didn’t really have much of a reaction. It’s just another game to me. We just need to get another win.”

The Bulldogs beat Nebraska 45-31 to end last season in Orlando. Georgia scored the final 22 points behind a prolific performance from quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s out for the Gator Bowl with a knee injury.

“We felt like we had a good chance of beating these guys last year,” Sirles said. “We kind of let it slip through our fingers a little bit. It’s almost a good chance to get back and get a little redemption.”

Sirles and Enunwa were among a long list of Huskers slowed by injuries this fall. They said they’ll be healthy for the Gator Bowl.

The Huskers, in fact, should field a team in Jacksonville, Fla., that's healthier than at any point since early October. Of the key contributors who went down, only guard Spencer Long is ruled out.

“I’m ready to play a game where most of our offense is healthy,” Enunwa said.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played in just one game after the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA, continues to rehabilitate a foot injury. His availability for the Gator Bowl looks unlikely.

Sirles said many Huskers have “lived in the treatment room” since the regular season concluded. With most of the coaches away, the players participated in a few conditioning drills last week.

The tempo increased this week. The full group was at work, without pads, inside the Hawks Championship Center, on Wednesday afternoon.

Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt are set to meet in Jacksonville on Thursday afternoon to officially accept the Gator Bowl invitations.

Then it’s back to work.

“We’re going to come back healthy,” Sirles said. “We’re anxious to get back on the practice field and start banging again.”

Tale of the tape: Georgia-Nebraska

December, 9, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- We learned on Sunday that No. 22 Georgia (8-4) would face Nebraska (8-4) in its bowl game for the second straight season. Let's take a closer look at the two teams in advance of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which will kick off at noon ET on New Year's Day and air on ESPN2.

Remembering last year: Georgia closed its 45-31 victory over the Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl with a 21-0 run -- featuring touchdown passes from Aaron Murray to Chris Conley of 49 and 87 yards, respectively. Murray torched a previously stellar Nebraska pass defense for 427 yards and five touchdowns and Todd Gurley ran for 125 yards and a score. Huskers running back Rex Burkhead (140 rushing yards and one TD plus 39 receiving and another score) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (204 passing yards, two touchdowns plus 46 rushing) had their moments, but Nebraska's porous defense let the its second-half lead slip away.

Who's under center?: Both of these teams featured a first-time starting quarterback in their last game. Hutson Mason led Georgia back from a 20-0 deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech in double overtime, passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The results weren't so positive for Ron Kellogg III in replacing Martinez. He passed for 199 yards, one touchdown and two picks and the Huskers lost 38-17 to Iowa.

Injury issues: The injuries to Murray and Martinez create perhaps the most glaring injury absences from last season's standouts, but both teams have struggled with physical ailments throughout the year. Martinez suffered a foot injury in the first game that hampered him initially and eventually shut him down by midseason. The Huskers also lost valuable offensive lineman Spencer Long and saw a number of other linemen deal with injuries, rendering a formerly dangerous offense ineffective. Sound familiar Georgia fans? Murray made it to the end of the season, but many of his most dangerous weapons did not. Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall all suffered season-ending knee injuries before midseason and All-SEC tailback Gurley led a big group of players who suffered multiple-game injuries.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHow Georgia backup QB Hutson Mason does in comparison to Nebraska's backup QBs will be key in which team wins the Gator Bowl.
More similarities: It isn't just their matching 8-4 records, their having played in a bowl last season or their widespread injury problems that make these teams so similar. They have also dealt with similar problems throughout the season -- namely special teams ineptitude and ugly turnover margins. Nebraska is tied for 118th nationally with a minus-12 turnover margin (16 takeaways, 28 giveaways), while Georgia is not much better, tying for 97th with a minus-6 margin (14 takeaways, 20 giveaways).

Hailing Mary: Although it wasn't technically a “Hail Mary,” perhaps the most memorable play from Georgia's season came when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall launched a 73-yard bomb into double coverage in the game's final minute, only to have Bulldogs safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons converge and deflect the ball to Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis, who caught it for the game-winning touchdown. Likewise, Northwestern was on its way to a 24-21 win over the Cornhuskers before third-string quarterback Kellogg's Hail Mary deflected backward to Jordan Westerkamp for the game-winning score.

Best wins: Nebraska doesn't have a win against a ranked team, but it beat Penn State (7-5) in overtime and edged Michigan (also 7-5) 17-13. Georgia started the season with wins against No. 9 South Carolina (10-2) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) in the first month. The Bulldogs also edged rivals Florida (4-8) and Georgia Tech (7-5).

Worst losses: No. 17 UCLA scored 31 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 41-21 in September. The Huskers also turned it over five times in a 41-28 loss to No. 4 Michigan State in mid-November. Georgia's narrow losses to No. 12 Clemson and No. 2 Auburn were painful, but the two-game midseason losing streak against No. 8 Missouri (41-26) and Vanderbilt (31-27) might have been worse because of the injuries that weakened the Bulldogs' offense in those games.

Offensive stars: Gurley (903 rushing yards, 10 TDs in nine games) and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (ninth nationally with 1,568 and 8 TDs) create an intriguing rushing matchup between two of the nation's best backs.

Defensive stars: Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC and is 10th nationally with 128 tackles, plus he's tied for the team lead with 11 tackles for a loss. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory is a force on Nebraska's defense, leading the Huskers with 17 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries from his defensive end position.

X-factor: Quarterback composure will be worth watching. We know Mason will start for Georgia after leading the comeback against Georgia Tech, although he got off to a slow start in that game. Kellogg tossed two first-quarter interceptions in the disappointing loss to Iowa. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has started seven games this season, could also get the starting nod against the Bulldogs. Regardless of who starts for the Huskers, the team whose inexperienced quarterback plays a steadier game could very well end up as the winner.

Planning for success: Nebraska

November, 21, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- When your dreams are dashed and most of your goals gone, there’s just one way to react, according to Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah.

"Move on,” he said. “That’s part of college football.”

Nebraska finds itself out of position to win a conference title with two regular-season games to play for the first time since 2007.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
The Cornhuskers said the situation makes no difference in their preparation for a visit Saturday to Penn State. Nebraska faces Iowa next week with incentive still to win nine games for a sixth consecutive season.

Actually, a 10-win season -- bowl game included -- remains possible.

The plan for Nebraska success in State College involves tapping a strong reserve of pride.

“We have too high character of guys to have a letdown,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “I think we’ll be doing just fine. But if there is any lull, it’s going to be up to myself and the rest of the seniors to really push everyone along and make sure we are executing in finishing out the season the right way.”

Nine wins is a big deal.

“It’s the No. 1 thing we’re working for right now,” linebacker David Santos said.

It helps that the Huskers match in these final two weeks against the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes.

Nebraska and Penn State share a notable history as nonconference foes. In Big Ten play, the Huskers won the first two meetings, including an emotional-wrapped 17-14 victory at Beaver Stadium two years ago in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing.

Iowa and Nebraska share a border and a Big Ten-assigned, post-Thanksgiving rivalry.

The Huskers continue to deal with injuries. Another starter on the offensive line is doubtful for Saturday as center-turned-guard Cole Pensick fights a knee injury suffered last week in Nebraska’s 41-28 loss to Michigan State.

Pensick’s injury brings to four the number of top-unit offensive linemen who are not healthy. All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long went down against Purdue with a season-ending knee injury. He was followed to the sideline by guard Jake Cotton, tackle Jeremiah Sirles and Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy.

Still, Nebraska found a way rush for 182 yards against the Spartans, nearly twice as many as any foe had gained against MSU this season.

“There’s a lot of character on this football team,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

Individually, many goals remain. Abdullah is a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation’s top running back. He’s also in contention to be named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year.

But the junior, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of the Huskers’ 10 games, is more concerned about his team.

“I feel like, as a team, we’re a pretty prideful bunch,” Abdullah said. “We want to win, and we want to get the bad taste of a loss out of our mouths. We are going to do everything we can this week to ensure that we can do that.”

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