Ohio State Buckeyes: Malik McDowell

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
5:00
PM ET
You know it, you love it, you can't live without it. It's Wednesday mailbag time.

@GeoffreyMarshal via Twitter writes: What do Wednesday's commitments say, if anything, about B1G recruiting? Is B1G recruiting too top-heavy?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's additions of a pair of top 20 players in linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive end Jashon Cornell is huge news for the Buckeyes, but not all that surprising. Urban Meyer and his staff have killed it on the recruiting front since they arrived in Columbus. We also know that James Franklin is going bonkers at Penn State, with ESPN's No. 4 nationally ranked class right now. And don't forget about Brady Hoke. While Michigan hasn't wrapped up as many commitments this summer as it has in years past, the Wolverines are still sitting on a top 25 class with room to improve.

But did we learn anything? Those three schools have long been at the forefront of recruiting in the Big Ten. If anything, the aggressive tactics of Meyer and Franklin might pull the rest of the league forward, because they risk getting left behind if not.

Then again, look at the last three Big Ten champions: Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice -- one impacted, of course, by Ohio State's probation). Neither of those programs usually finds itself among the elite in the recruiting rankings but instead both do a great job of scouting and developing talent. So just collecting star prospects guarantees nothing, though it is a nice place to start.

 




 

@hicksoldier via Twitter writes: What in your opinion is the reason that MSU keeps missing out on top recruits, especially on defense? And what can they change?

Brian Bennett: It's a stretch to say the Spartans keep missing out. Remember Malik McDowell, a top defensive tackle recruit Michigan State landed earlier this year after much drama? But I see your point. Michigan State made Cornell's final top five, but he ended up choosing Columbus. One would think, given Mark Dantonio's success in developing players -- especially on defense -- coupled with the team's rise toward the national elite would help the Spartans land a few more studs. But a school like Ohio State is always going to have some advantages in recruiting. The good news is Dantonio's staff does a tremendous job figuring out which players will fit the team's system and then polishing them into stars. And if Michigan State can continue to win big on the field and churn out pros, higher-caliber recruits should look toward East Lansing.

 




 

Glenn from Siesta Key, Fla., writes: Brian, why is it that during this offseason you constantly are mentioning the PSU OL as a weakness and question mark, while it seems OSU is pretty much in the same boat? Yet, all you talk about is how OSU will win its division and could be a playoff contender. Won't Braxton Miller have the same challenge as Christian Hackenberg if his OL doesn't show up?

Brian Bennett: For starters, I haven't said Ohio State will win the East Division. I'm not ready to predict that yet. You make a decent point, as both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions likely will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. I have written that the offensive line is a question mark for Ohio State. But the two teams also are coming from different starting points. Ohio State's offensive line was the best in the league the past two years, and the recruiting at that position has been solid. Ed Warriner is one of the best position coaches in the nation.

Penn State's offensive line wasn't as dominant last year as the Buckeyes', and depth is a concern given the scholarship limitations. But I do really like Herb Hand and think he very well could have a Warriner-like impact for the Nittany Lions. We'll see. If Ohio State's line doesn't come together quickly, the Buckeyes could have problems early on against Virginia Tech.

 




 

Chris from Princeton, N.J., writes: I know you guys don't see Rutgers as a bowl team this year but let's say they do manage to get six wins. Where do you see those potential wins coming from?

Brian Bennett: It's not out of the realm of possibility that Rutgers makes a bowl, but the Scarlet Knights will have to win all of their toss-up games for it to become likely, given the schedule. They figure to be heavy underdogs against Michigan and Wisconsin at home and versus Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State on the road. Going across the country for the opener against Washington State in Seattle looks very difficult as well.

That leaves very little margin for error. You can pencil in wins over Howard and Tulane at home. Beating Navy in Annapolis, while not an easy task, is doable and probably crucial. Conference games against Indiana at home and Maryland on the road could go either way. The Big Ten opener against Penn State should be played in front of a raucous atmosphere, and the Lions were often vulnerable on the road last season. So Rutgers is basically going to have to sweep all of its 50-50 games or pull off a big upset anywhere. Good luck with all that.

 




 

Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Brian, do you recall the days of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney? Could the mix of guys the Gophers have produce two 1,000-yard rushers?

Brian Bennett: I sure do, Craig. Those two guys were loads of fun to watch. I'm not sure which is harder to believe, in retrospect, about the 2004 Gophers: that they finished only 7-5 with that pair in the backfield, or that they beat Alabama in a bowl game. But going back to your question, Minnesota has an awful lot of talent at running back this season. David Cobb somewhat quietly ran for 1,202 yards last season, 12th most in school history. Donnell Kirkwood came close to 1,000 yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. is a 247-pound beast who's almost impossible to bring down on first contact. Add in redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who might be more talented than all of the, and quarterback Mitch Leidner, who's got great wheels as well. And that's not even considering top 2014 recruit Jeff Jones, who might not be academically eligible.

Can two Gophers get to 1,000 yards? Minnesota almost certainly will be a rush-first team again this year. The hope is that the passing game improves enough so the offense isn't rush-first, rush-second and rush-third as well. I'm not sure there will be enough carries for two players to get to 1,000 yards, and the offense has to stay on the field longer to provide more opportunities. There may not be a Maroney or a Barber in this group, but it still should be fun to watch.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
9:00
AM ET
With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

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?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

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.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

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.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 5, 2014
May 5
5:00
PM ET
The Monday mailbag is back. I'll have another installment on Wednesday, which will be my last one before I go on vacation. So make sure to get your questions for that one in now by sending them here or hitting us up on Twitter.

For now, I like the way you work it. I got to 'bag it up:


Charlie from Chicago writes: Which incoming freshman will make the biggest impact this season?

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.


Will from Obetz, Ohio, writes: OK, I was just looking over the 2015 B1G team schedules and saw Wisconsin's crossover games. ... I really hope the West can have someone keep up with the Badgers over that very weak schedule. They play no one.

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.


Brian from Omaha writes: People are quick to deride the B1G West as the new Big 12 North. Why? The B1G West/B1G would be lucky to be the Big 12 North/Big 12 from the 1996-2010 era from an on-the-field standpoint. The old Big 12 produced three national champions and four Heisman Trophy winners, with one each from Nebraska. If the B1G West/B1G matches that haul in the next 14 years, it would be an improvement, or the apples-to-apples comparison, of the B1G from 1996-2010 (two national champs and three Heisman trophies).

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.


Dale from Los Angeles writes: Brian, you predicted that Ohio State's defensive line will be the premier unit in the Big Ten this year. I think your selection is an unintended indictment of the Big Ten, and demonstrates just how poor the Big Ten is relative to the other major conferences. Football Study Hall used advanced metrics to rank every defensive line in the country for 2013. Ohio State's line was ranked 96th. It's absolutely pathetic that the Big Ten's best unit in 2014 was among the worst, most overrated units in the country last year. The Big Ten is truly at an all-time low if you can't identify a group with more promise than the OSU D-line. Sadly, though, I think you're right that this lowly unit may be the class of the Big Ten. The gap continues to expand between the B1G and the more premier conferences.

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.


Mike from Huskerville writes: Interesting read on your best position group in the B1G. Any chance you would be willing to give your thoughts on the best of each position group in the league? I.E. best OL, best LB's etc.? Thanks and GBR.

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.
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.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM ET
Sure looked like Eddie Johnson was onside to me. I'll count it as another rivalry win.
  • Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
  • Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
  • Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
  • Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
  • Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
  • Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
  • Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
  • Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
  • Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
PM ET
It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Ohio State Buckeyes, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Maryland Terrapins, Big Ten Conference, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Malik McDowell, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt, Jamal Marcus, Darius Latham, Deion Barnes, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Chris Carter, Bruce Gaston Jr., Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Dave Aranda, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Antoine White, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Tim Kynard, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, DaQuan Jones, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Anthony Zettel, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Micajah Reynolds, Larry Johnson, Langston Newton, C.J. Olaniyan, Paul James, B1G spring positions 14, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Dominic Alvis, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
PM ET
A gold medal-winning version of the links.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
12:00
PM ET
These links are presidential.

Early Offer: Worth the wait for Clark 

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
5:30
AM ET
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Tuesday's offerings: The Tiger was already out of the bag, but that didn’t stop Deondre Clark from having his moment in the sun; it looks like the Malik McDowell saga is going to last quite a bit longer; and the defensive tackle position looks loaded in the Class of 2015.

Malik McDowell to take more visits

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
2:00
PM ET

When Malik McDowell announced at a news conference on signing day that he would attend Michigan State, it was great news for the Spartans. The coaching staff celebrated in East Lansing.

But, of course, McDowell's letter of intent never made it to the school. The Southfield, Mich., defensive end -- ESPN Recruiting Nation's No. 60 overall player in the Class of 2014 -- has yet to actually sign with anybody, and the saga appears to be far from over.

McDowell's father, Greg, told Rivals' Josh Hemholdt on Monday that the family plans to take unofficial visits to Florida State and Ohio State in the near future. He also said that Michigan remains in the picture.

"We plan on doing some unofficials and see if he and his mom can resolve this," Greg McDowell said. "It's possible she'll be open to Michigan State as well, so we'll have to see."

Malik McDowell wants to go to Michigan State, but his mother is against the choice. His parents have said they would like to see their son attend college out of state.

Prospects have until April 1 to sign a letter of intent with a school. McDowell is under no obligation to sign a letter of intent, however, and in fact more players of his stature should probably avoid it. Those who bind themselves to a letter of intent must sit out a year if they decide to transfer at any time after signing. The Big Ten requires that players sign a league tender in order to receive financial aid, but there are no transfer penalties until after a player's second semester, provided he does not transfer within the conference. But McDowell would need one of his parents to sign a Big Ten tender since he is under 21. The Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode lays out McDowell's options here.

There's clearly some family drama going on here that may take a while to resolve. Three Big Ten schools continue to hope it works out in their favor.

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
12:00
PM ET
Pitchers and catchers report this week. Wish I could join them.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
12:00
PM ET
Filling all the needs in another great class of links.
  • Malik McDowell's commitment was perhaps the highlight of the class for Michigan State, but the wait for a signature added even more drama to his recruitment.
  • All of Michigan's signees were committed before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired last month, but he appears to be having an impact already on next year's class.
  • James Franklin emphasized the importance of the Penn State family as the program celebrated its new class with its "Signature Event."
  • The Class of 2014 might turn out to be Urban Meyer's finest with Ohio State, but he wasn't thrilled it didn't go down as the best in the country this year.
  • Upgrading the speed on the roster was the top priority for Wisconsin, and it appears Gary Andersen accomplished that goal.
  • Nebraska signed players from 13 different states, suggesting again that the program is recruiting nationally perhaps more than it ever has before.
  • Purdue was looking for natural leaders to fill out its class, and Darrell Hazell signed 18 players who were captains of their high school teams.
  • Pat Fitzgerald might not have landed every recruit in his backyard, but he felt Northwestern "dominated Chicagoland again" in the last cycle.
  • Jerry Kill puts plenty of stock in the importance of the third recruiting class in building a program, and he picked up some valuable pieces this year for Minnesota.
  • Illinois inked five players out of junior colleges, and Tim Beckman acknowledged it was because those players know there is plenty of opportunity to play quickly.
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.

Signing day wrap: Big Ten

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
8:12
PM ET


Signing day certainly lived up to the hype. With commitments, decommitments and drama across the board, there was a ton of action throughout the day within the Big Ten.

The biggest news on the day was when ESPN 300 defensive lineman Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) committed to Michigan State, but never sent in his national letter of intent. Before the announcement, McDowell's parents were open about the fact they did not want their son to pick the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeMalik McDowell
John Albright/Icon SMIESPN 300 DL Malik McDowell picked Michigan State, but his parents aren't happy with his decision.
When he did commit to Michigan State, the parents refused to sign the letter of intent. While that document isn't completely necessary for the No. 60 ranked prospect to attend Michigan State, he does need to sign his Big Ten tender. That document ensures his scholarship and also needs a parent's signature.

The Spartans' coaching staff has been working feverishly to get the parents on board, but it has been an uphill battle.

B1G surprises

Amidst the McDowell drama, Ohio State snuck in and was able to get three-star defensive end Darius Slade (Montclair, N.J./Montclair) to flip from Michigan State.

Slade initially said he wanted to wait on signing with the Spartans and visit the Buckeyes after signing day. The Michigan State staff spoke with Slade and decided to move on once Slade said he wanted to take the trip to Columbus.

The Buckeyes reaped the rewards as Slade then sent in his letter of intent to the Ohio State fax machine and is signed for the 2014 class.

There must have been something in the water with Big Ten defensive end commits as former Nebraska commit Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) flipped to South Carolina.

The three-star defensive end had been committed to Florida State at one point, then decommitted and chose the Cornhuskers. All seemed to be well until signing day when McClain flipped to the Gamecocks. It is a significant loss for Nebraska at an inconvenient time.

B1G movers

Michigan State saw a huge rise in the class rankings, moving up 10 spots to No. 29 overall. A big part of that increase was due to McDowell. If the Spartans can keep him on board it will be a huge coup.

Michigan State also landed three-star athlete T.J. Harrell (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Catholic), giving the coaching staff 14 three-star commits to go along with eight four-stars in this class. Defensive tackle Craig Evans (Sun Prairie, Wisc./Sun Prairie) didn't commit on signing day, but he was a late flip, switching from Wisconsin.

Northwestern dropped four spots, but that was essentially due to the lower numbers in the class and the fact that the Wildcats had closed out their class.

Future is bright at Penn State

The Nittany Lions picked up a commitment from linebacker Torrence Brown (Tuscaloosa, Ala./Tuscaloosa Academy) to cap off James Franklin's first class as Penn State's head coach.

Franklin was not only able to keep the class intact, but added some outstanding prospects.

ESPN 300 defensive tackle Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) did decommit, but the addition of ESPN 300 wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) and three-star athlete Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif./Notre Dame) helped Penn State finish No. 24 in the class rankings.

Franklin and his staff have already hit the ground running for the 2015 class as well and several junior prospects reported the Penn State coaches even spoke with them on signing day. There are apparently no brakes for this staff as they look to start building their first full class at Penn State.

Impact signings

Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) faxed in his letter of intent to Michigan on signing day. On the surface that might not seem like much, but right up until the night before signing day Peppers had been contemplating holding off on putting ink to paper.

The nation’s No. 2 prospect had heard from a few other schools, but ultimately decided Tuesday night that he would sign with the Wolverines.

That was a crisis averted for Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who brought in the No. 18 class in the country. The Wolverines hadn't landed a commitment in the 2014 class since August and most recently fell from No. 12 overall. That is significant given the fact that Michigan at one point had the No. 1 ranked class for 2014.

Minnesota was also able to hang on to its biggest commitment with running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn). The ESPN 300 prospect had been wavering and hearing from a few schools, but announced he would stay committed with the Gophers during a ceremony at his school.

That is as good a commitment as coach Jerry Kill and his staff have landed. Jones is an explosive back.

All in all it was an exciting day for the future of the Big Ten. The conference ended with 34 ESPN 300 prospects and three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State -- ranked in the top 25 of the class rankings.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Drive Through: Rankings Reaction
Brad Edwards and Antonietta Collins react to the College Football Playoff rankings that were released on Tuesday night.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD