Ohio State Buckeyes: Johnnie Dixon

Big Ten Friday mailbag

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
4:30
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I'm taking your questions for a third time this week, filling in the Friday time slot for the vacationing Rittenberg. I'll be gone myself next week, so this will be the last time I talk to you for a bit.

What do you got?

Doc from Scottsdale, Arizona, writes: What is your best case scenario for the Big Ten brand next season in regards to the Playoff? Assuming just one team gets into the Playoff, does it matter which school is there "representing" for the BIG or should just having a presence in the game be considered a victory for the league?

Brian Bennett: Best-case scenario, naturally, is winning a national title. Nothing enhances your brand quite like that. But the second part of your question is the important one, Doc. I think it's vital for the Big Ten to get a team into the Playoff this season. Conferences that don't take part in the four-team event will basically be irrelevant. I don't even think it matters if a Big Ten representative wins its semifinal as long as it is competitive (nightmare scenario: a blowout loss to the No. 2 SEC team in a semi.) Makes no difference which team from the league gets there, but the conference needs to make sure its champion is involved most years.


JR from Winchester, Virginia, writes: What signs or trends from the first few nonconference games will you be looking for that will telegraph what kind of year Nebraska will have? (Turnovers? Ability to pass the ball? Defensive line play?) Thanks.

Brian Bennett: You picked three good ones there, JR. Nebraska should have little to no trouble with its first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State. Fresno State on the road in Week 3 could prove a bit dicier, but the Huskers should still win that game if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. I want to see dominance, especially in the trenches and on that defensive line, in those first three games. I want to see Tommy Armstrong take care of the ball and show that he can make plays down the field. And mostly, I want to see Nebraska avoid some of the extreme mood swings and fluctuations we've witnessed in the past.

A great nonconference performance doesn't guarantee anything, because an injury or other adversity can strike any time. But it would be nice for the Huskers to avoid drama early on.


@TimShay17 via Twitter writes: The Badgers' passing game is their biggest question mark this season. Which is more of a concern: QB race or the unknowns at WR?

Brian Bennett: Good question, and I say it's the wide receivers. Joel Stave, at the very least, is a known quantity. The team won nine games with him as its starter last season, and an extra year of experience can only help him. If Tanner McEvoy beats out Stave, then it's because McEvoy is playing well in practice and offering an improvement. The receivers are still a giant question mark. It's anyone's guess who will lead this team in receiving this year after Wisconsin relied so heavily on Jared Abbrederis the past two seasons.


PurpleCatResurgence from Northbrook, Illinois, writes: Look I get it, Northwestern was sub-.500 last year, and the team still has some holes to fill, but the Cats are getting NO love in the national publications. This is almost the same team that if they get what, 5-6 plays go their way, they are a 9- or maybe even a 10-win team. They have a tough schedule this season, no doubt, but how many wins do you see this team achieving? In your view, what has to break right for this team to play in Indy this fall? Love the blog- Go Cats!

Brian Bennett: It is funny how quickly things can change. Northwestern was 4-0 and rising toward the top 15 heading into October last season. Then came the loss to Ohio State, the first of seven straight defeats, and now the Wildcats are basically off the national radar. Still, this is a team that won 10 games in 2012 and had been to five straight bowl games. As you said, Northwestern dealt with some serious bad luck in 2013, not only late in games but also with a ridiculous rash of injuries.

So Pat Fitzgerald's team could easily be one of the most improved in the Big Ten in 2014. Venric Mark is healthy again, and the offense has a solid identity behind Trevor Siemian. Plenty of talent returns on defense. The schedule is not easy, as the Wildcats drew Michigan and Penn State from the East Division and play at Notre Dame in November. On the other hand, the West does not appear to have any truly dominant teams. I definitely see the 'Cats getting back to a bowl. For them to truly contend for a division title, the offense needs to rediscover its explosiveness, and Fitzgerald will have to figure out how to get over the hump in some of those close games.


@mort_c15 via Twitter asks: Urban Meyer has said repeatedly that this year's freshmen will play will for OSU and few will redshirt. How many will, in your opinion, RS?

Brian Bennett: Meyer told me this spring, as he said often, that he made a mistake by not playing more true freshmen last season. He plans to avoid that in 2014. At the same time, he's not going to play freshmen just to play them. Barring injuries, it's safe to say that Raekwon McMillan, Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Jalyn Holmes will play. Erick Smith could get a look at safety. Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker could force their way onto the field on special teams, at the very least. The more likely redshirt candidates are offensive linemen, like Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor, and quarterback Stephen Collier. Expect to see a lot of true freshmen on the field for the Buckeyes, but if a whole bunch of them are in key roles, that's probably not the best sign.


Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: There seems to be more time travelers here predicting how their favorite team (who has never shown the ability to win out) is going to just absolutely BEAT everyone, go undefeated and win the national championship. Yet you restrain yourself from laughing at them. Is it ever hard to do so?

Brian Bennett: I may have to hold back a chuckle or two. But that's the beauty of the preseason in college football (or any sport, really). Everybody's undefeated, and optimism abounds. Why punish that? The actual season will do that on its own.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Who will be catching the passes this fall?

There is no shortage of speed on the perimeter. After emphasizing the addition of skill players on the recruiting trail over the last couple years to boost the passing attack, Urban Meyer appears to have enough depth to work with as well heading into his third season with the program.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Smith looks poised to build on a junior season in which he had 44 receptions, including eight for touchdowns.
But how exactly the Ohio State coach will tap into that athleticism and who he'll be trotting out in the starting lineup remains a bit of a mystery even after spring practice, and not even his top returning wideout was assured of a first-team job when camp closed.

Devin Smith will almost certainly wind up leading the way for the Buckeyes as they again try to balance their potent rushing game with more production through the air, and the senior is poised for both a heavier workload and more diverse responsibilities as the coaching staff moved him around to different positions throughout March and April. He is a proven commodity as a deep threat and has become a regular in the end zone, but Ohio State is still trying to tap into his potential and develop him into a more consistent, complete receiver. Getting involved in the short to intermediate passing game is a logical next step for Smith, and shifting him around the formation seems to be the start of that process in preparing him to make a big impact in the fall.

Smith figures to be joined by Dontre Wilson in the starting rotation after yet another head-turning set of workouts, and the sophomore's move to the wide receivers' meeting room on a full-time basis should allow him to get a better grasp on the playbook than he had a year ago when he was largely surviving solely on his natural ability. Wilson still will be involved at times as a rushing threat in the hybrid role made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, but he's shaping up to be a matchup nightmare in the slot for opposing defenses -- a threat to take screens the distance with his track-star speed or burn linebackers tasked with covering him deep down the field.

So while Meyer didn't name any official starters, those two players are locks to be significant contributors, leaving competition between a handful of candidates to grab a third spot. The Buckeyes have a traditional, physical target in Michael Thomas coming off another big spring, an unselfish, experienced veteran in Evan Spencer who is a willing blocker on the perimeter, and there are also speedy options such as Johnnie Dixon or Corey Smith who could help stretch the field.

Ohio State didn't need to make a decision about any of them during the spring and it didn't rush into one, leaving the competition open for the offseason conditioning program and training camp. Meyer might have a better idea of his pecking order than he lets on and appears to have two clear-cut building blocks to work with as the passing game undergoes its renovation, but it looks as if the project is going to spill into the fall.
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

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.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

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.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

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.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

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.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

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.

Early OSU observations: No. 2

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
10:00
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There isn’t much to work with heading into spring break, but Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking the week off did give at least a peek at some new faces and a couple changes. While the Buckeyes are refreshing and gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s outfit.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesVersatile weapon Dontre Wilson is in line for more touches for the Buckeyes in 2014.
No. 2: Next step for Dontre Wilson

A different number made for a decent disguise. The blinding speed, though, was a dead giveaway.

Dontre Wilson reported for spring practice with a new digit on his jersey, bumping up from No. 1 to No. 2 as part of his new look for camp at Ohio State as he tries to build on a solid debut season as a hybrid weapon in the spread offense. His first season might not have been quite as spectacular as anticipated, given the way he wowed his teammates and the coaching staff during training camp as a freshman, but it still provided glimpses of what he’s capable of doing as both a rusher and receiver thanks to his incredible natural ability.

Based on the early returns during the first week of camp, it appears the Buckeyes are intent on getting Wilson involved more frequently as a receiver, and he was almost impossible to defend on the perimeter during team drills during the open practice last week.

Wilson isn’t the only blossoming threat on a roster who has been successfully acquiring the kind of speed Meyer craves to run his system, and redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall and early enrollee Johnnie Dixon both look like legitimate options for the Buckeyes as they look to take the passing game to a higher level with some new faces involved.

A familiar one is still around to lead the way, and Devin Smith is still the safe bet to be Braxton Miller’s top receiver. But Wilson is already building a compelling case to become a more frequent target in the passing game, and it probably won’t take long for Miller or the healthy quarterbacks this spring to get used to looking for No. 2.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

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
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Either way, Urban Meyer admitted he was going to put on a smile.

After going down to the wire with one of his most important targets, the Ohio State coach made it clear that the one he was sporting on signing day on Wednesday was genuine and not the fake one he thought he might need if Jamarco Jones spurned his program.

Instead Jones delivered some good news on the phone, and the rest of the committed recruits all faxed in signatures without incident, Ohio State tacked on one unexpected addition and Meyer didn't need to force any grins after again putting together the best class in the Big Ten.

Jamarco Jones
Jared Shanker/ESPNGetting Jamarco Jones to sign with Ohio State helped make it a winning day for the Buckeyes.
"I think we won today," Meyer said. "I made it clear to our guys, I'm very pleased with their efforts. That was a good class."

Missing out on Jones after he flirted late in the process with Michigan State might have changed Meyer's tune, though there still would have been plenty of talent coming to campus even if the talented offensive lineman hadn't decided to stick with his pledge to the Buckeyes.

But in the end, Meyer had little to complain about after putting the finishing touches on his third batch of signees with Ohio State. Now the real work begins for the Buckeyes, but not before taking a look at what they accomplished on national signing day.

Biggest need filled: Offensive line

  • The Buckeyes notably came up short on the recruiting trail last year in an effort to add depth to the offensive line, and with four senior starters departing after the Orange Bowl, they couldn't afford to miss out on big bodies again. Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman got exactly what they needed to bolster that critical position group, and they're expecting at least two of the five linemen they signed this year to at least be in the two-deep by the fall. Kyle Trout and Marcelys Jones are already on campus, but it was Jamarco Jones who drew the most mentions from Meyer on Wednesday and was hailed as the make-or-break player in the class. Throw in Demetrius Knox and Brady Taylor and the future should be in good shape again up front.
Late surprise: Darius Slade

  • Around noon, Meyer left the door open to potentially add one more player to the class, despite coming up short in a head-to-head battle with Michigan State for Malik McDowell and already having signed letters from the rest of the anticipated class. A couple hours later, Meyer once again unveiled a late surprise, swooping in for defensive lineman Darius Slade, a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder who had been committed to the Spartans before his change of heart. Meyer gave all the credit to new defensive line coach Larry Johnson for that final addition, and an already deep, talented group added one more talented piece.
Deepest position: Linebacker

  • The crown jewel of the class was already on campus for the Buckeyes, and after catching a glimpse of Raekwon McMillan working out on Wednesday morning, Meyer suggested he could easily be confused with an upperclassmen given how mature he already appears physically. But he's not the only linebacker Meyer is counting on to lend a hand as quickly as possible at the thinnest position on the roster, and the other three options all seem to be just as appealing for the Buckeyes. Sam Hubbard, Dante Booker Jr. and Kyle Berger won't have the benefit of going through spring practice like McMillan, but the foursome collectively had praise heaped on them -- and Meyer vowed there were "no redshirt plans for those players at all."
Instant impact candidates: Offensive skill players

  • The handy guide for predicting the likelihood of a freshman making a big splash, per Herman: The further away a player lines up from the snap, the better the chances. Given both the need for more playmakers on the perimeter and the speedy guys they signed, the search for new Buckeyes who might leave the biggest mark this fall starts with the wide receivers and another potential hybrid weapon. Noah Brown, Parris Campbell Jr., Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin all bring the kind of game-changing athleticism Ohio State covets so desperately, and there should be playing time to be had at receiver. But it's the dual threat Curtis Samuel could pose as both a target in the passing game and as a rusher that really seemed to have the coaching staff fired up, and like Dontre Wilson a year ago, he could become a factor in a hurry.

Big Ten recruiting roundtable

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
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National signing day is just 48 hours away. To get you ready, we checked in with our ESPN.com recruiting experts for their take on how the Big Ten is faring.

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?

[+] EnlargeMalik McDowell
Tom Hauck for ESPNDE Malik McDowell, No. 60 in the ESPN 300, could come down to a signing day decision between Ohio State and Michigan.
Tom VanHaaren: Probably not much for Michigan as it is really only targeting ESPN 300 defensive lineman Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield). McDowell visited Ohio State Jan. 31 and has hosted every head coach in his top four of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State.

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.
Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation senior analyst Tom Luginbill a question about your team? Tweet it to @TomLuginbill using the hashtag #AskLoogs.

Well, I would go with the most college ready player committed to the Buckeyes right now, and that is linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County). This is a significant area of need, maybe even the most thin group on their roster, so McMillan will be involved from the get-go. McMillan, who has already enrolled at Ohio State, is the type of player who is physical and mentally prepared for the jump to the next level. He’s a rugged, inside thumper who will be able to set the tone and he also has some leadership qualities that stand out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see wide receiver Johnnie Dixon (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) get in the mix on offense, as he adds an explosive element to their skill positions that is needed as well.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's no shortage of talent in the bunch, and Ohio State has several holes on the roster where it might be able to use the influx of talent.

But no spot matches up a pressing need with an elite newcomer quite the way five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan does, and his official confirmation as a member of the program looms largest out of a group of seven unveiled by the Buckeyes on Friday.

Raekwon McMillan
Courtesy of IntersportRaekwon McMillan is ranked No. 13 in the ESPN 300 and is the No. 1 inside linebacker.
Ohio State has two starters returning at the position in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, and both were solid in their first seasons in full-time gigs. But there was little depth behind the first unit, and with Ryan Shazier skipping his senior season to declare for the NFL draft, there will be a noticeable sense of urgency to identify both a new starter and to fill out the second unit when spring practice rolls around.

Having the No. 1 inside linebacker in the ESPN 300 on campus in time for that competition should be a benefit, particularly if it allows McMillan to get a jump on a transition that can be difficult at his position as the coaches try to find a way to tap into a combination of size and speed that made him so coveted as a recruit.

He's not alone in bringing impressive measurable athleticism to Urban Meyer's third recruiting class, and McMillan isn't the only one of the early enrollees who the Buckeyes could find a use for quickly. Offensive linemen Marcelys Jones and Kyle Trout might find their way into the two-deep chart quickly. Wide receiver Johnnie Dixon and hybrid Curtis Samuel don't have many veteran players to try to hurdle for playing time. Kicker Sean Nuernberger could leave camp with the starting job. Quarterback Stephen Collier has generated excitement from the staff as well, but Braxton Miller is back along with two other quarterbacks, and that depth will allow him some time to develop.

McMillan probably won't have that same luxury, though Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson both were brought along slowly by the Buckeyes after their heralded signings a year ago. Now that McMillan has officially arrived, the Buckeyes can judge for themselves how long it will take to get him and the rest of the newcomers on the field.

But at least for the moment, McMillan's reputation and Ohio State's needs appear to match up perfectly.

Midyear signings: Ohio State

January, 16, 2014
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According to ESPN's Tom VanHaaren, the following players have enrolled at Ohio State:

Raekwon McMillan, ILB, Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County
HT: 6-foot-2 WT: 249 pounds
Position rank: No. 1
Stars: 5
ESPN 300: No. 13

Johnnie Dixon, WR, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer
HT: 5-11 WT: 197
Position rank: No. 5
Stars: 4
ESPN 300: No. 34

Curtis Samuel, ATH, Brooklyn, N.Y./Erasmus
HT: 5-11 WT: 186
Position rank: No. 20
Stars: 4
ESPN 300: No. 153

Kyle Trout , OT, Lancaster, Ohio/Lancaster
HT: 6-6 WT: 301
Position rank: No. 26
Stars: 3

Marcelys Jones, OT, Cleveland/Glenville
HT: 6-4 WT: 325
Position rank: No. 49
Stars: 3

Sean Nuernberger, K, Buckner, Ky./Oldham County
HT: 6-2 WT: 220
Position rank: No. 9
Stars: 3

Stephen Collier, QB-PP, Leesburg, Ga./Lee County
HT: 6-3 WT: 205
Position rank: No. 41
Stars: 3

Big Ten class rankings analysis 

January, 8, 2014
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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.

Ohio State lost a 40-35 shootout to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes only had two losses on the season, but one prevented them from playing in the national championship game.

There are plenty of players leaving after this season, but Ohio State’s recruiting class will help fill a few holes.

Key losses: OL Jack Mewhort, OL Andrew Norwell, OL Corey Linsley, OL Marcus Hall, RB Carlos Hyde, RB Jordan Hall, WR Philly Brown, DB Corey Brown, DB C.J. Barnett, DB Bradley Roby, K Drew Basil.

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Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

December, 23, 2013
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There was plenty of recruiting action over the past week for the Big Ten Conference. With new offers, commitments and more, here is a look at the latest news.


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Big Ten recruiting storylines: Dec. 19 

December, 19, 2013
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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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