Ohio State Buckeyes: De'Andre Thompkins
Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.
So let's get started ...
Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?
VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.
Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.
Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?
Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.
Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.
Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.
When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?
Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.
VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.
What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?
Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.
VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.
Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.
Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
- The Big Ten remains king of college sports -- at least in revenue. ICYMI, an excellent look by Scott Dochterman at the unsold Big Ten bowl tickets and what they cost.
- The always-inspirational Eric LeGrand inspires graduates at Rutgers' commencement.
- Penn State early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins wasted no time in making his mark. James Franklin wants to see facilities upgrades at PSU.
- The victim in the assault allegedly involving Philip Nelson is on life support. A closer look at Nelson's sudden fall.
- Illinois' quarterbacks will mix fun and work this summer. USC transfer Ty Isaac is an intriguing option for the Illini.
- Like many of us, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was shocked to see only one Spartan drafted this year.
- Nebraska fans should appreciate the security the Big Ten provides, Lee Barfknecht writes.
- Charles Woodson expects big things from incoming Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers.
- Ohio State players can go chase waterfalls in their new locker room.
- A good look at the draft-day experience for Maryland CB Dexter McDougle.
- Tom Dienhart writes the Big Ten should stop playing Notre Dame altogether.
- Michigan State and Michigan don't feel alcohol sales at games are necessary.
- Here are the must-see Big Ten nonconference games.
- Purdue RB Raheem Mostert helps revive the school's track program.
- The "Jump Around" makes its appearance at Wisconsin's graduation ceremony.
For now, I like the way you work it. I got to 'bag it up:
Brian Bennett: It's a good question, Charlie, and one I imagine we'll revisit more closely this summer. The guys who arrived in January and went through a full spring practice have a leg up, so players such as Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Michigan wide receiver Freddy Canteen and Penn State receiver De'Andre Thompkins leap immediately to mind. I'm excited to hear about the players who get to campus this summer, such as Michigan State defensive tackle and recruiting drama champion Malik McDowell, Minnesota running back Jeff Jones and Maryland offensive tackle Damian Prince. There are a lot of candidates, but for now my money remains on incoming Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers.
Bennett: Will, the Badgers have the same 2015 crossover opponents as they do this season: Rutgers and Maryland. It does seem like Wisconsin caught a major break or that Jim Delany owed Barry Alvarez a favor with those schedules. In reality, though, we don't know how competitive Rutgers and Maryland will be, and you could argue that Indiana -- which has been to recent bowl games far, far less frequently than the two newest members -- would make for an easier crossover. Wisconsin has a great opportunity to make some noise the next two seasons, particularly with its openers against LSU (in 2014) and Alabama (2015). And then things go the opposite way in 2016, as the Badgers open Big Ten play at Michigan, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State in three consecutive weeks.
Bennett: Some fair points, there, Brian (great name, by the way). I think most of the B1G West/Big 12 North comparisons come in regard to the relative strength between the other division in the conference -- the Big 12 South was so clearly deeper and more competitive overall than the North over the course of that era, and some fear the same thing will be the case with the Big Ten East because of Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. But there is no dominant team in the West right now, like Nebraska was for a long stretch during its Big 12 days. In fact, the West has a chance to be really balanced, especially if Iowa plays up to its capabilities, Northwestern bounces back, Minnesota continues its upward trend, etc. If you offered the Big Ten the scenario of having one legitimate playoff contender in the West every year but that the division would be weaker than the other side, I think the conference would be more than happy to take that.
Brian Bennett: Football Study Hall is always an interesting read, and I love the application of advanced stats. But here's one case where I don't think the numbers add up. I don't believe Ohio State had the best defensive line in the Big Ten last season, but there's no way it was No. 96 in the FBS. The Buckeyes were really good against the run and had strong pass rushers. They had their lapses and could stand to get better. But don't forget that key players on that line included a true freshman (Joey Bosa) and two true sophomores (Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington). They're only going to get better, and the depth and skill level on this line is extremely promising for 2014.
Brian Bennett: Mike, we usually do position group rankings for the whole league close to the start of the season. The one position group that I think is the most interesting to rank right now is offensive line. Ohio State held the top spot there in the past two seasons, in my opinion, but the Buckeyes lost four senior starters from last year's group. Several potential contenders have major question marks right now at offensive line, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Wisconsin usually just reloads there, but still has to replace some good players. Michigan State lost three starters and is searching for the kind of depth it had in 2013. Nebraska is replacing a ton of experience. Could Iowa, led by Brandon Scherff, take the title of best offensive line? What about Minnesota's underrated group? It will be really interesting to see how such an important position group in this league shakes out this summer and fall.
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To the inbox ...
Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?
Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.
Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.
Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.
Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.
Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.
Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.
Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.
Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.
Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.
Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.
Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.
Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.
Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.
Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.
Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.
Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.
More position breakdowns
Senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill and Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren spared time from their busy schedules to answer these questions:
Ohio State and Michigan again lead the way in the Big Ten recruiting rankings. How much late drama do you expect with those two programs?
He will take his decision out to signing day, so there is a battle going on there, but there's still a chance he ends up at Michigan State or Florida State. He has kept everything close to the vest and it's anyone's guess as to where he ends up. Ohio State could have a little drama, but that happens when you land top ranked prospects.
Tom Luginbill: I really just expect to see where McDowell falls.
What other Big Ten programs have impressed you?
TL: Penn State and Wisconsin. Badgers coach Gary Andersen is adding more speed and athleticism to this class, including QB D.J. Gillins (Jacksonville, Fla./Ribault). They would love to close with CB Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation).
TVH: Michigan State has put together a good class. I really like ESPN 300 defensive back Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway) for the Spartans defense. I think Northwestern has put together a really good class as well with three ESPN 300 commitments. The Wildcats added in-state defensive back Parrker Westphal (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook), which was a big get for them. Illinois did a lot to help fill immediate needs as well. The Illini lose four receivers and brought in some junior college prospects to compete right away.
How much impact has James Franklin made on Penn State's recruiting in a short time?
TVH: It seems to be all positive for now. It's not surprising that he has flipped so many Vanderbilt commitments to Penn State, because he was the coach who recruited them. The recruits, however, that have flipped will all tell you that he is the guy they want to play for. There is already some excitement in the 2015 class and in the Pennsylvania area, so I think Penn State fans are going to be very happy with what Franklin and his staff does in the near future.
TL: Significant, but it should be noted that Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro) and Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown) all enrolled early prior to his hire, but after Bill O’Brien departed, which tells you of their commitment to the program. Since his hiring, Penn State has added seven verbal commits, including flipping Rutgers commit WR Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) this past week.
How much of an effect, if any, has Michigan State's on-field success had in its recruiting so far?
TL: Minimal. They do what they do. The biggest myth is that they are made up of 2- and 3-star players, which is not true. It has been 4- or 3- star players the past three to four classes The Spartans develop players as well as anyone. They don’t give in to external pressures to recruit anyone and they identify not only good players, but the right players for them.
TVH: It had some impact in the 2014 class, but because that class was already almost over by the time the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, the real affect will likely be on 2015 and 2016 prospects. Michigan State already has one of the top in-state prospects committed with Kyonta Stallworth (St. Clair Shores, Mich./South Lake) and there is a realistic chance the Spartans could land most of the top prospects from the state of Michigan. They have already heard from some prospects that they otherwise would have been out of the running for, so I think 2015 could be where you see some of those affects.
How have Maryland and Rutgers done in recruiting, and are their efforts up to Big Ten standards?
TVH: Rutgers has suffered a lot of decommitments in the 2014 class. It seems like this is a whole new class from what it used to be. The most recent was Blacknall, who flipped to Penn State. Maryland has had a better time recruiting in this class, but is still outside the top 40 in the class rankings. The Terrapins have had a lot of injuries to deal with, so I think once they get healthy and get back on track they will start to see a little more success. Now that they're in the Big Ten they can tell local recruits that they can stay close to home and still play in big stadiums and on national television, which will be a big draw.
TL: Rutgers is crumbling. At one time they had four ESPN 300 prospects and all have decommitted. This is not a good start for the Knights heading into the Big Ten. We very much like the top third of Maryland’s class, and the middle third has upside, but there is a significant drop off in talent in the bottom third, in our opinion.
What teams do you view as disappointing with this class?
TL: Rutgers. The rest have essentially been as expected for the most part.
TVH: Can I cop out and give everyone a trophy? I don't think anyone has a really disappointing class. I imagine Rutgers' coaches aren't thrilled with the way things have gone, but for the Big Ten teams from this season I think most of them have done a really nice job filling needs and getting a few big recruits in the class.
Finally, name a few players who we can expect to have an immediate impact in the 2014 season.
TVH: Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) is probably the first name that sticks out. He is the No. 2-ranked prospect in the country for a reason and could end being an outstanding college football player once he's done. I expect him to play early in some capacity. Potentially, a guy like Dominique Booth (Indianapolis/Pike) at Indiana at receiver, running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn) if he sticks with Minnesota, Johnnie Dixon (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) at Ohio State and maybe juco defensive lineman Joe Keels (Kenosha, Wisc./Highland (Kan.) Community College) at Nebraska.
TL: Peppers, (Ohio State LB) Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County) and Jones, if he sticks.
Ohio State has been on a roll on the recruiting trail in the past few weeks. The commitments the Buckeyes have landed, along with a few other happenings in the Big Ten, have impacted the class rankings.
Here is a look at the most recent trends within the Big Ten.
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As expected, Day 2 at the Under Armour All-America practices were smoother, more concise and much more productive. The players are now starting to think less and play more. Natural ability is starting to come to the forefront, which allows for them to be more productive. There have been fewer dropped passes, fewer misses by the QBs and the offensive lines are starting to jell quicker than expected. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this group is there have not been any true letdowns. They have stepped up and been as advertised almost top to bottom for both squads. Let’s hit the highlights of the day:
WR Cameron Sims (Monroe, La./Ouachita Parish): Sims might not wow anyone with his 40-yard dash time, but it may not matter. Sims is so similar to Mike Evans at Texas A&M. He just makes plays. He has extremely long arms and is outstanding when in contested matchups. The ball will look like it is uncatchable and then next thing you know he jumps out of nowhere, extends and makes a play and the defender is left scratching his head. When it comes down to it, the QBs for Team Highlight can trust that if they need to throw it up, Sims will make a play. The most basic thing about the position is catching the football and Sims has no problem doing that.
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DB Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic)
6-foot-1, 205 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 2
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As the calendar year winds down, there is still plenty to talk about within recruiting. Big Ten teams have been on a roll on the recruiting trail as of late, and each program is hoping that continues into signing day.
Here are five things for fans to watch as we head into the holiday season.
Under Armour Game
There are six Big Ten teams represented in the Under Armour All-America game this year with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State all having commitments scheduled to play in the game.
The game will be played Jan. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla., but there will be plenty to watch before the big game. The participants will go through tough practices and skill competitions leading up to the event, which always has some interesting storylines.
The practices put the best players in the country against each other, so it’s a good measuring stick of top prospects.
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The Big Ten has quite a few of those recruits in the game, so here is a look at five of the bigger storylines heading into the prestigious game.
Will Jabrill Peppers take visits?
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Brad Bournival: I won’t speak for the Ohio State staff, but I’m almost firmly convinced the Prince-to-the-Buckeyes ship has sailed. In fact, I would put it at 95 percent right now that he signs with Maryland in February.
That’s how confident I am that Prince (Forestville, Md./Bishop McNamara) he stays in-state at the end. When a program tells you it wants you to be the face of the program like the Terrapins have, it’s hard to argue against it.
@dannograef: Who is the biggest sleeper commit in the Big Ten?
Tom VanHaaren: It’s no secret that I think highly of Minnesota running back commit Jeff Jones (Washburn, Minn./Washburn), who completed his regular season with 39 touchdowns. I think he’s a candidate, I also like Illinois commit Mike Dudek (Naperville, Ill./Neuqua Valley), Michigan commit Noah Furbush (Kenton, Ohio/Kenton) and Northwestern commit Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio/Galion). Penn State commit De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro) is in the ESPN 300, but doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s going to do big things for the Nittany Lions.
@HoosierHolmes: How much would making a bowl help Indiana’s recruiting efforts?
Bournival: To answer that question, I send you over to Penn State where recruits have gone on record to say they won’t choose the Nittany Lions because of the inability to go to a bowl for the next two seasons.
To be more precise, winning breeds winning and attracts more attention from bigger names. The proof is in the fact the same schools in the Big Ten stay on top of the recruiting rankings for that very reason. Kevin Wilson is slowly turning the program around. If he can end the five-year bowl absence this season, don’t be surprised to see a boost in recruiting as well.
@mike_albach10: I really like Malik McDowell's size and intangibles. What do you think his ceiling is?
VanHaaren: He is ranked No. 67 overall and the No. 4 defensive tackle. He is a giant, first of all. He has slimmed down some this season, but he is still head and shoulders bigger than everyone on his team. I think McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) would make an excellent 3-technique defensive tackle for any team in a 4-3 scheme. In Michigan’s defense, he would be able to slide outside to the strongside end spot in running situations and inside to tackle on passing downs. I think he is yet to tap a lot of his potential no matter where he ends up.
@WWEFan20134: Who do you think the final six will be for the class of 2014 for Ohio State football recruiting?
Bournival: With Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) picking Penn State I only see five. The others I feel much stronger about are Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County), Chad Mavety (Garden City, N.J./Nassau Community College), Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) and teammates Marshon Lattimore (Cleveland/Glenville) and Erick Smith.
@Collin_Stauder: Could the play of Michigan State’s defense this year be enough to possibly sway (Parrker) Westphal or McDowell?
VanHaaren: Michigan State always plays good defense, so that’s not something new for those guys. I think that’s part of what attracted them to the Spartans in the first place, so I don’t think that’s a bonus at this point that will tip the scales.
I think the Spartans probably have a better shot with Westphal (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook) than McDowell at this point, but at the same time I still think Northwestern has a lot to say in Westphal’s recruitment as well.
The play on the field has definitely helped attract some top prospects lately, but Michigan State needs to build on the Indiana win and show more than defense to some of their targets.
@buckeyefan686: Since the Buckeyes missed out on Gesicki who do you believe they land at tight end, or would they just not take one in this class?
Bournival: I think getting a tight end is an absolute must as I’m not convinced moving Sam Hubbard (Cincinnati/Moeller) over is the solution. Even though Ohio State doesn’t utilize the tight end much, there’s not a plethora of depth at the position. Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett will be back next season, but Blake Thomas’ career is likely done with the Buckeyes and Marcus Baugh is unproven at this point. Expect them to make a harder push for DeAndre Goolsby (Derby, Kan./Derby), who took an official visit for the Wisconsin game.
@hartley_nick: Any negative recruiting vibes with Michigan’s struggles on the field?
VanHaaren: Not yet. It was only one game and Michigan still only has one loss. It was an emotional loss for the fans because of how deeply they dig into things and diagnose the issues in specific games.
Recruits don’t tend to go that far into things like fans do. If you were to ask a recruit what they saw in that game, they would probably tell you two teams who fought hard into four overtimes and one came out on top.
If that type of play continues, though, and Michigan doesn’t show progress, then I think you could start to see some noise. I don’t think would be any issues with the 2014 class or even the 2015 kids that have already committed. If the season goes downhill, I think you’d see the most impact on uncommitted 2015 targets, but still that doesn’t seem too likely at this point.
Each Wednesday, ESPN RecruitingNation updates its national class rankings. For an in-depth look at the Big Ten conference, check out our conference rankings:
1. Michigan, 15 commits: The Wolverines are No. 6 in the RecruitingNation class rankings, which includes nine ESPN300 prospects -- among them headliner and No. 2 overall Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic High). Michigan could make a move into the top-5 by winning the race for No. 4 Da’Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge High). Defensive tackle and No. 67 Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mi./Southfield High) is another top target still in play. No. 41 overall John Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Polytechnic High) will visit Nov. 29, and is another top target remaining.
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Each class within the Big Ten has its strengths and weaknesses, but there is a lot of talent joining the conference. Here is a look at the top classes in the Big Ten by position.
Strongest class: Penn State
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