Ohio State Buckeyes: Johnny Adams

The Big Ten championship, like most games, likely will be decided at the line of scrimmage. But do yourself a favor and sneak a few glances at the perimeter.

There you'll find two of the nation's best cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both are native Georgians (Dennard grew up in Dry Branch; Roby is from Suwanee), both love press coverage and run support, and both could be the first members of their respective teams selected in April's NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Al GoldisCB Darqueze Dennard has become a leader for Michigan State's defense.
They are different personalities who have taken different paths, but both faced growth opportunities and seem to be peaking as their college careers wind down.

Dennard on Monday was named the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, the latest honor for a player already named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive back) and the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back). The 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior has 56 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries for the nation's No. 1 defense. All-America honors are undoubtedly forthcoming.

He's also a captain for No. 10 Michigan State, an unlikely ending for the skinny, soft-spoken kid who arrived on campus in the summer of 2010.

"You really can't see a transformation much more defining than what 'Queze went through," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "The success he's had on the field in being a captain and being a very influential person, this team is sitting at 11-1, and he's a big part of that."

Roby is a big part of Ohio State's 12-0 mark, but his season has been anything but smooth. He enjoyed many of the accolades Dennard is now receiving back in 2012, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award after leading the nation in passes defended (1.73 per game).

This season has brought a suspension (following a July arrest), an ejection (for targeting against Iowa) and a humbling performance (against Wisconsin's All-Big Ten receiver Jared Abbrederis on Sept. 28). But the ever-confident Roby didn't let his lows linger and has elevated his play for most of the Big Ten season.

"This year was fundamental," Roby told ESPN.com. "When I made the decision to come back, I felt like this was going to happen. I was like, 'Man, it's too easy, two years and I can already go to the [NFL].' But it's not like that. If I really want to be what I want to be in the long term, I have to go through some things and learn and mature.

"The things that happened, I'm not saying I tied it to those situations on purpose just to get in trouble, but everything that's happened has been serious but also[to] the point where I haven't lost everything."

Roby, who switched his commitment from Vanderbilt to Ohio State weeks before signing day in 2010, arrived in Columbus with a clear plan: redshirt one year, play two and then bolt for the NFL.

But in January, he opted to return for his fourth season, saying he had unfinished business as the Buckeyes emerged from NCAA sanctions. After the first few games, however, Roby was thinking more about the NFL than the BCS.

"I was in a mind-set of, 'Yeah, I'm good enough to play in the NFL,'" he said. "When you start thinking like that, you stop doing the things you used to do, when you were hungry, when nobody knew who you were. It was kind of, 'Oh, I don't have to do this drill today. I don't have to watch film as much.'

"You kind of fall off."

The turning point came after Abbrederis recorded 10 receptions for 207 yards at Ohio Stadium. Although Roby thinks he only had a few bad plays, he admits Abbrederis got the best of him. It forced him to narrow his focus.

The following week at Northwestern, he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Special teams are a trademark for Roby, who has three career punt blocks and two touchdown recoveries. Another is never giving up on plays.

"He's my ace on kickoff coverage," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very valuable member of this team."

While Roby's growth took place this season, Dennard's began much earlier. He had no scholarship offers as a high school senior when Spartans assistant Dave Warner accidentally stumbled upon him while recruiting southern Georgia.

Dennard came to Michigan State at "165 pounds, soaking wet."

"Man, he was little," Bullough said.

"My body just matured after I got here," Dennard said.

Thanks to strength coach Ken Mannie and others, Dennard added 20 pounds as a freshman, when he appeared in six games, starting two. He recorded three interceptions in 2011, including two in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, yet was overshadowed by fellow corner Johnny Adams.

Dennard finally got his due last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He thrives in an aggressive scheme that isolates cornerbacks on the edges but doesn't ask them to back off.

"Darqueze has had an outstanding year," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Shutdown corner, great tackler. He's got great skills."

Dennard complements his physical skills with leadership.

"When I first got to campus, I really was a shy guy, didn't talk that much," Dennard said. "Once I got to know these guys ... I started talking more. These past two years, I've really started [to become vocal]."

Roby doesn't know Dennard well -- he wasn't aware they're both from Georgia -- but he has watched Dennard, especially in press coverage, which Roby loves even though Ohio State doesn't employ it as much. Roby is well aware of the praise Dennard and his fellow MSU defenders receive and uses it as motivation this week.

"I came back this year for this reason, to be in this position," Roby said. "I've gone through a lot of things on and off the field, but at the end of the day, I'm still in position to get everything I want and everything I’ve been dreaming of.

"It's all on the line this Saturday."
Maybe it's a reflection of a lousy Big Ten season, but the league sent a smaller-than-normal contingent to the Senior Bowl. The group already has been reduced by three as injuries have prevented Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Ohio State offensive tackle Reid Fragel and Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon from participating.

As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues Insider with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.

Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.

We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.

Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.
It's that time again. Thankfully, there's only one nonleague game left to predict (Indiana-Navy) and it's not this week.

Five games on tap, all in the Big Ten, and several that could play a huge role in which teams end up in Indianapolis. The games are getting tougher, and so are the predictions, especially this week with several toss-up games.

Adam Rittenberg holds a four-game lead on Brian Bennett entering Week 6, but things can change in a hurry.

Prediction time ...

MICHIGAN STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Mark Dantonio says he wants to see his team come out and make a statement, and I think the Spartans will. Indiana's defense should be just what Michigan State's scuffling passing game needs, as Andrew Maxwell fires two touchdown passes and Johnny Adams has a pair of interceptions. ... Michigan State 28, Indiana 13

Adam Rittenberg: A nonfactor a week ago, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell gets back into the mix in a big way in Bloomington. The Spartans junior goes for 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Indiana once again has some success in the passing game early, but Michigan State takes control in the third quarter as Aaron Burbridge hauls in a touchdown catch in his first start. ... Michigan State 34, Indiana 20

No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Matt McGloin has torched Northwestern while quarterbacking a bad offense, and though the Wildcats are better defensively, so is McGloin. The Penn State senior connects for three touchdown passes to three different receivers. Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter keep Northwestern in this one, but McGloin leads the way in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 28, Northwestern 24


Brian Bennett: I'm way behind in the standings, so I need to take some chances. And while Penn State's defense has been playing very well, the Lions haven't exactly played stellar offenses the past three weeks. Northwestern's two-headed quarterback monster and Venric Mark will get their yards and points, and an improving Wildcats defense comes up with an interception of McGloin in the final minute to seal the deal. ... Northwestern 23, Penn State 17

ILLINOIS at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has its share of issues but looks like a top-10 team compared to the hot mess at Illinois. Jared Abbrederis hauls in two touchdown passes, and the Badgers stuff the wobbly Illini offense to get a much-needed Leaders Division victory.... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14

Adam Rittenberg: Both teams need a win, and while Illinois can't be this bad week after week, I can't see the Illini pulling off the upset. Wisconsin gets multiple backs involved and gets three rushing touchdowns, two from Montee Ball. Joel Stave gets Jacob Pedersen more involved as Wisconsin pulls away in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17

MICHIGAN at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Tough one to call, and I've been going back and forth on it all week. Purdue will be geared up for its biggest game in recent memory and take an early lead. But Denard Robinson eventually finds enough gaps in the Boilers' defense and records two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally the Wolverines. Caleb TerBush fires two early touchdown passes, but his interception in the closing minutes seals it for Michigan. ... Michigan 27, Purdue 24

Brian Bennett: I agree that this is an intriguing game. My biggest question: Is Purdue ready to take that next step? I think the Boilermakers are close, but ultimately not quite there yet. As disastrous as Michigan's turnovers were against Notre Dame, I saw improvement on both lines in that loss. And after a week off, I expect the Wolverines to come out with a better game plan, and to feature Robinson's legs much more. Robinson runs for 175 and three scores as Michigan gets a badly needed win. ... Michigan 35, Purdue 28

No. 21 NEBRASKA at No. 12 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: It seems like most weeks I'm wondering how Ohio State just won. The Buckeyes have been getting by on a little good fortune and a whole lot of Braxton Miller in their 5-0 start. Nebraska will be by far the best offense Ohio State has faced. But the Huskers still seem a little too loose with the ball and too susceptible to mobile quarterbacks. Miller gets it done again with 350 yards and four total touchdowns as the Buckeyes work their magic once more. ... Ohio State 31, Nebraska 30

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State took a nice step in Week 5, but the Buckeyes have been a pretty fortunate team so far this season. They've survived turnovers on the road and defensive breakdowns at home. Saturday night, their luck runs out as Nebraska records its first true signature road win in the league. Miller does his thing and records two rush touchdowns and a passing touchdown, but he also throws a costly interception in the fourth quarter. Taylor Martinez rebounds from an early turnover to spark the Huskers against the Buckeyes, who haven't seen an offense like this. Martinez records his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and Brett Maher nails a 50-yard field goal to win it for Big Red. ... Nebraska 30, Ohio State 28

Iowa and Minnesota both are off this week.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 41-11 (.788)

Brian Bennett: 37-15 (.712)
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
In a conversation with ESPN's Antonietta Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton breaks down the recruiting momentum building at Auburn and offers predictions for where the top 10 recruits will commit.Tags: Trenton Thompson, Kerryon Johnson, Jeffery Holland, Martez Ivey, Torrance Gibson, Cece Jefferson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Gerry Hamilton
VIDEO PLAYLIST video