Ohio State Buckeyes: Michael Bennett

If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
5:00
PM ET
Welcome to another edition of the Monday mailbag. Adam is on vacation this week, so I'm going to attempt to fill his Friday slot as well as my usual Wednesday 'bag this week. But I need questions to pull that off, so make sure to send them here or hit us up on Twitter.

To your queries ...

Aaron from Washington, Iowa, writes: I feel like Ty Issac signing at Michigan hasn't gotten as much attention as it should have. I feel like Michigan's RBs could have a huge year if the pieces fall into place. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Isaac, who transferred from USC, is potentially a big boost for the Wolverines. But it remains to be seen whether Isaac will receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible. He's from Shorewood, Illinois, which isn't exactly next door to Ann Arbor. The NCAA, though, has been pretty lenient on waiver cases of late, so we'll see. We should also have learned by now to exercise caution with hyped transfers. Remember all the hoopla about Kyle Prater transferring from USC to Northwestern, or DeAnthony Arnett going to Michigan State from Tennessee? Neither has had much of an impact yet in the Big Ten, though there's still time.

There is absolutely no doubt that Michigan has to improve its rushing attack after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Derrick Green should be better as a sophomore, especially with a more streamlined body. De'Veon Smith is pushing him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is emphasizing the north-south running game, and the Wolverines simply can't win at a high level without it. The question, of course, is whether the offensive line can coalesce and create enough holes for the back to plow through. If not, it won't matter who is carrying the ball.


Dale from Los Angeles writes: I'm a firm believer that certain units of Big Ten teams may look impressive during the season, but it is only because they are playing against Big Ten opponents. For instance, according to the numbers, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all had top-20 rush defenses in 2013. But look at the bowl performances. MSU held their opponents to 2.85 yards per carry, but Stanford ran for 4.5 ypc against MSU. South Carolina ran for 3.44 ypc against Wisconsin's 3.22 average. LSU ran for 4.31 ypc against Iowa's 3.51 average. Ohio State's rushing D performed the worst relative to their average ypc allowed, as Clemson ran for more than 5 yards per carry and more than 2.2 yards/carry above the average OSU opponent. As soon as they played real teams, the shine rubbed off these so called "elite" rush defenses.

My question is: I know you guys (and most college football analysts) think Ohio State's D-line is the best unit in the Big Ten. But how do you think they measure up nationally? I think Clemson's line is head and shoulders better, considering that this Tigers front blew up Ohio State's allegedly great offensive line for five sacks and 10 (10!!) tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl. Is Ohio State's D-line even in the nation's top 20?

Brian Bennett: It's always going to be tough to compare college football teams directly against one another statistically across conferences because they all play such different schedules. Also remember that no team plays elite competition every week; statistical measures like yards per carry allowed are always going to be boosted by games against weak nonconference opponents, league bottom-feeders, heavy passing teams, etc. It would be surprising if a team like Michigan State didn't give up more rushing yards than its season average against a team like Stanford, which had one of the nation's better ground games last year and features a powerful attack that is unlike most FBS teams.

It also works in reverse. You mentioned, for example, Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers rushed for 293 yards and for 6.8 yards per carry in that game, numbers that were way above the Gamecocks' season defensive averages. Does that mean that South Carolina's defense was overrated? What about the impact on Big Ten defenses that had to face Wisconsin?

There's very little question about the talent on Ohio State's defensive line. You've got two of the top returning defensive ends in the league in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (when he returns from suspension). Defensive tackle Michael Bennett is being projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Adolphus Washington is also extremely skilled, and there is promising depth behind the starters. The Buckeyes could have three or four first-round picks on that unit this fall. That's why everyone is so high on that defensive line, though, of course, the group still needs to prove it on the field against the best of the best.


Jerry D. from Dublin, Va., writes: I am amazed at the lack of coverage you are giving Maryland, unless it's some kind of negative press. Maryland finished 7-5 last year with a severely crippled team. Maryland will shock the Big Ten when Ohio State crosses the Mason-Dixon and loses to the Terps. Then the other heavyweight, Michigan State will be "blacked out" by the nighttime atmosphere at Byrd Stadium. Not the biggest stadium in the country, but can be one of the loudest! Go Terps!

Brian Bennett: Love your optimism, Jerry. A couple of things -- for one, it's the summer time, and things are pretty slow everywhere. There hasn't been a lot of news out of College Park in a while. Maryland doesn't officially even join the Big Ten (along with Rutgers) until July 1, at which time we hope to have some more coverage of the Terps. Maryland fans have also been very quiet -- we haven't heard much from you guys on Twitter on in the mailbags. I think Randy Edsall has an interesting team on his hands and one that can make some noise if it can stay healthy. It's a pretty simple equation around here: The more you win and have an impact on the league, the more we're going to talk about you.


Xavier from Paoli, Ind., writes: I would love to know why Indiana offensive players don't get any respect. I get IU won five games last year, but you can't blame the offense that was ninth in the nation. Nate Sudfeld and Tevin Coleman are two of the top players at their respective positions. Nate Sudfeld threw for 21 TDs and 9 INTs in 322 attempts last year. Only Connor Cook and Joel Stave threw for more TDs, but Stave threw four more INT's and attempted 336 passes and Cook attempted 380 passes. Coleman rushed for 958 yards in nine games and averaged 7.8 yards a carry, which was tied for eighth in the nation with Carlos Hyde. I truly think both should be getting more respect than they do, because they get just about zero. Maybe they need to put on a Michigan or Ohio State jersey to get it?

Brian Bennett: We're well aware of Indiana's offensive prowess, Xavier, and we mention those guys a lot around here. We're doing some statistical projections in the next few days, and the Hoosiers will be well represented. If you're talking about national respect, it's all about winning games. When a team has been out of the postseason since 2007, like IU, it becomes pretty irrelevant nationally. Its games don't receive spotlight broadcast times, and individual accomplishments get overlooked. Indiana needs to pull off a couple of Big Ten upsets for its players to get noticed nationally. Sudfeld and Coleman need to deliver in games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other top contenders.


Cameron from San Diego writes: Brian, the Big Ten's ban on FCS schools makes sense for the most part. No self-respecting Ohio State team should be playing Florida A&M. I know there is a bit more of a gray area with matchups like Minnnesota-NDSU and the like. But one that I think absolutely needs to be played that I don't think I've ever heard anyone mention is Rutgers-Princeton in 2019. That's right -- the 150th anniversary of college football. From what I hear there are no talks about it. I don't even know if anybody knows or cares, but I think it would be perfect! It needs to happen! It would be a great thing for the Big Ten to capitalize on as well.

Brian Bennett: Fun idea, Cameron. The Ivy League has steered clear of playing FBS teams in recent years. But this is one FBS-FCS matchup I could support, if only for the historical celebrations and ceremonies that could come with it.
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Quarterback
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Go ahead and blame the Big Ten blog. Since it launched in July 2008, the Big Ten hasn't had an NFL draft pick in the top 10. The Big Ten also hasn't had a team appear in the national championship game.

So yes, it's all my/our fault.

Here's the good news: if you believe the really early forecasts for the 2015 draft, the Big Ten's top-10 drought soon will end. USA Today's first mock draft for 2015 has Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory not only going in the top 10, but at No. 1 overall.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsA USA Today 2015 NFL mock draft has Nebraska's Randy Gregory as the No. 1 overall pick.
That would be a bit ironic, since the Big Ten's last top-10 pick also went No. 1 overall (former Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long in 2008).

ESPN's Todd McShay isn't as high on the Big Ten or Gregory, but he does predict, at least for now, that the Big Ten will produce a top-10 pick next spring.

McShay's first mock draft for 2015 features Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff at No. 7 overall. Scherff opted to return to Iowa for his senior season rather than enter the draft, where Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said he likely would have been a mid to late first-round selection. It will be interesting if Scherff follows the path of another Iowa tackle who chose to stay in school, Robert Gallery, the No. 2 overall pick in 2004.

Gregory is at No. 28 in McShay's mock, although the Nebraska standout certainly has top-10 potential if he builds on a terrific 2013 season. He is definitely attracting the attention of NFL personnel evaluators.

Another top-10 candidate is Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who comes in at No. 12 in McShay's mock. Calhoun shined in his first year as a starter, leading the Big Ten with four fumbles recovered and recording 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett rounds out McShay's mock draft at No. 32 overall.

Two questions for you: Will the Big Ten's top-10 drought end next year? And, if so, who will end it?

Send your responses here.
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.

Can the Buckeyes' defensive line live up to the hype?

There's not really any uncertainty or much reason to doubt the deepest unit on the roster and perhaps the most talented group of starting defensive linemen in the nation, though perhaps that might be the only thing that could potentially become an issue for the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMINoah Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season, but with the depth Ohio State has on the defensive line, the Buckeyes should be fine.
It seems unlikely that a group, led by one of the program's most respected leaders in defensive tackle Michael Bennett, would fall victim to its own hype. Finding the motivation to tap into the potential that has Urban Meyer and the coaching staff drooling over the possibilities would seem to be the only possible hurdle keeping the Buckeyes from making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

After all, there was so much size, speed and skill on hand this spring that Meyer shipped over an 11-game starter last season -- Joel Hale -- to the offensive line, and he's a senior with just one season of eligibility remaining. The emphasis on rebuilding the defense on the recruiting trail from the front to back is clearly paying dividends, and the next wave is ready to take over and make an impact.

Joey Bosa and Noah Spence showed what they were capable of last season by combining for 15.5 sacks at defensive end, and the former in particular might have only been scratching the surface of his ability after jumping into the starting lineup as a true freshman when Adolphus Washington struggled with some early injuries. It was Washington who was supposed to form the other half of a terrifying tandem with his classmate Spence, but a new, permanent home on the interior next to Bennett might make the junior even more dangerous, as he hasn't lost any burst while still adding strength to his 6-foot-4, 288-pound frame.

And while that collection of starters might make it tempting for new defensive line coach Larry Johnson to just leave them on the field for the entire game and never look back, the Buckeyes are planning to rotate liberally to keep everybody fresh -- and it's the depth that affords them that option. Players such as Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter are capable of coming in to stuff the run on the interior, and pass rushers such as Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier, Jamal Marcus and Tyquan Lewis each could factor into Ohio State's plans to spell Bosa and Spence.

In fact, somebody will have to fill in for Spence for the first two weeks of the season because of the suspension that started in the Discover Orange Bowl and will keep him out of games against Navy and Virginia Tech.

But even answering the question of who will take his place temporarily won't likely be one that causes the Buckeyes to lose any sleep.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.
Now that spring practice has played out in the Big Ten, we thought we'd try to identify the best overall position group on any team in the league.

Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.

This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Joey Bosa made an instant impact as a freshman and helped transform Ohio State's defensive line into the Big Ten's most formidable unit.
But my vote for the Big Ten's best position group goes to Ohio State's defensive line.

It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.

Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.

The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.

"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."

Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.

"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."

New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.

Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.

"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.

That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.

Ohio State spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
6:30
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Spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall from Ohio State.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • The rebuilding job in the secondary is progressing: The spring game didn’t leave all that much to truly evaluate, but in workouts leading up to it, the Buckeyes showed their dedication to becoming more aggressive defending the pass by playing virtually every snap in press coverage. Led by senior cornerback Doran Grant, there’s enough talent on hand to play that style.
  • The spread has its hybrid weapon: The inevitable comparisons with Percy Harvin might still be premature, but Urban Meyer does appear to have somebody he believes can fill that vaunted role in his offense. Dontre Wilson’s shift to becoming a full-time receiver with occasional appearances as a rusher produced a prolific camp and raised the bar for him after largely playing a decoy role as a freshman.
  • The defensive line is loaded: There surely isn’t a deeper, more athletic defensive line in the Big Ten than what the Buckeyes are bringing back, and Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett might have a case to be considered among the nation’s most terrifying starting units. The quartet was so disruptive during spring practice, Meyer held them out of the spring game to help ensure there might be something to evaluate on offense.
Three questions for the fall

  • How far has Braxton Miller come mentally?: The two-time defending Big Ten player of the year had nothing to prove physically, so the shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice wasn’t that big of a deal. If anything, it might be a blessing that he used all the extra mental reps to take his game to a higher level in terms of reading defenses and making better decisions.
  • Will the offensive line come together?: Meyer only named two starters coming out of spring, and considering he had four established seniors in the lineup at this time a year ago, that level of uncertainty is no doubt a bit uncomfortable for the Buckeyes. Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein offer a nice foundation, but Ohio State needs to settle on three more regulars quickly to develop some chemistry.
  • Is Darron Lee ready for the big time?: After emerging as a surprising starter on the first day of camp, the converted high school quarterback kept that job at linebacker all the way until the end of spring. The sophomore has no shortage of athleticism and has filled out to 225 pounds, but he’ll have big shoes to fill for a unit that must replace all the production Ryan Shazier left behind.
One way-too-early prediction

The rise of Tom Herman’s star in the coaching profession is not exactly a secret, but after one more prolific season guiding the Ohio State offense, he’ll be off to lead his own team. Herman has the personality to be the face of a program, and his thirst for knowledge and ability to learn under Meyer for three years will make him an ideal candidate for a major program with an opening next winter.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Video: Ohio State's Michael Bennett

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
5:00
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Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett talks about the Buckeyes' talented defensive line and changes to the defense this spring.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, we're taking a look at players who have helped themselves and could put on a show over the weekend, switching over today to defense.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMoving inside will help both Adolphus Washington and the Buckeyes' defensive line.
LB Darron Lee

  • The sophomore might not have been one of the popular pre-spring picks to claim the third starting job at linebacker and help fill the void left by Ryan Shazier's early entry to the NFL draft, but Lee impressed the coaching staff enough during offseason workouts to earn the first crack at it when camp opened -- and he's done nothing since then to lose the spot. The Buckeyes have tweaked the lineup a bit with Joshua Perry moving over to weak-side linebacker in place of Shazier with Lee taking over on the strong side, and with Curtis Grant in the middle, that unit has shown some signs of getting Ohio State closer to the level it has come to expect on defense. Lee's versatile athleticism as a former high school quarterback and defensive back has blended well with the added strength he's put on at 225 pounds, and the Buckeyes have had little reason to explore other starting options heading into the spring game.
CB Gareon Conley

  • One of the more touted prospects at the position a year ago, coach Urban Meyer hasn't been shy about expressing some disappointment that Conley wasn't ready to contribute last season and ultimately redshirted. But his skills in coverage are starting to show up more regularly now, and he's pushing Armani Reeves hard for the second starting job opposite Doran Grant in Ohio State's more aggressive man-to-man defense. Even if Conley doesn't claim that gig, the Buckeyes are still likely going to have him heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages, and the rigors of playing more bump-and-run in the secondary will make having reliable, talented depth like he figures to provide invaluable. Assuming the offense again tries to stress the passing game in the closing scrimmage, Conley should have numerous chances to show his stuff on Saturday.
DT Adolphus Washington

  • Now a junior with some proven ability when it counts on his resume, Washington isn't exactly emerging out of nowhere. He's also previously had a breakout spring that ended with a prolific performance in the exhibition game that seemingly announced his arrival as a future star. But injuries and what appeared to be uncertainty about the best way to use Washington kept him from truly becoming the havoc-wreaking force the Buckeyes expected last season, and in some respects that made the 6-foot-4, 288-pounder a bit of an afterthought heading into camp. His move to defensive tackle, though, has provided the stability perhaps needed to allow him to flourish -- and when healthy, there's never been a need to question his physical tools. With Noah Spence and Joey Bosa on the edge and Michael Bennett returning on the inside, a rejuvenated Washington could be the piece that gives Ohio State one of the most relentless pass rushes in the nation.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
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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.




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