Ohio State Buckeyes: Curtis Grant

Helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 3, 2014
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Honoring the best and brightest from Ohio State's 55-14 blowout over Illinois on Saturday night to set the table for an enormous showdown with Michigan State.

DE Joey Bosa
  • The sensational sophomore season rolled on, and it's getting harder and harder to even consider another player as a challenger to Bosa for top defensive honors in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes didn't even need him to turn in a full shift against the hapless Illini, but Bosa still tacked on three tackles for loss and two sacks before resting for most of the second half in the easy victory. There might not be a more difficult blocking assignment in the nation than lining up against Bosa, and lately it's been his versatile ability and Ohio State's willingness to move him to different spots up front that is giving opponents even more fits.
LB Curtis Grant
  • Somewhat lost in the hype swirling around true freshman Raekwon McMillan, the senior has been steady, reliable and occasionally a standout for the Buckeyes in the middle of the defense. Against the Illini, Grant put himself in position to deliver a pair of turnovers and spark the lopsided victory, deftly nabbing a bouncing ball for an interception and then later pouncing on a fumble to put another nail in the Illinois coffin. The veteran also chipped in three tackles, and against Michigan State's improved offense, the Buckeyes will no doubt need Grant to be a factor again next week.
RB Curtis Samuel
  • The true freshman was a surprise starter, but it was clear he had earned the right as he carved up the Illini with his blinding speed and more toughness than perhaps he had shown previously this season. Samuel ended up carrying the football just nine times, but he turned those opportunities into 63 yards and a pair of touchdowns to offer a reminder that Ohio State will be just fine without the services of Rod Smith moving forward. The one-two combination with Ezekiel Elliott at running back could be critical for the Buckeyes down the line as they continue to incorporate more young, talented players into the rotation on offense.

Helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at the standouts in Ohio State's dominant 52-24 road win over Maryland Saturday.

QB J.T. Barrett
  • The redshirt freshman continues to rewrite the record books and rack up individual honors as his rapid development continues for the Buckeyes. Barrett was staggeringly efficient as a passer, completing 18 of his 23 attempts for 267 yards and four more touchdowns while spreading the ball around to nine different receivers in that famed "distributor" role Urban Meyer has been touting behind center. And Barrett is proving he's no slouch on the ground either, adding 71 yards rushing and another score to keep the Terrapins off balance and spark a blowout that has the Buckeyes again looking like a legitimate contender in the Big Ten.
LB Raekwon McMillan
  • The Buckeyes have eased him into the rotation behind starter Curtis Grant, but the takeover at middle linebacker is well underway as the true freshman is already starting to live up to the advance billing about his freakish ability. McMillan's interception and 19-yard return for a touchdown will only take the hype to another level, but he was also sure in his tackling with four hits and proved he doesn't give up on plays with a critical fumble recovery after teammate Darron Lee had the ball popped loose following an interception just before halftime. Ohio State had nothing to complain about with Grant, but the future is sneaking up on him.
DE Joey Bosa
  • The case is building every week that the sophomore might be the nation's most lethal weapon at defensive end. Bosa added another sack to his credit and had 1.5 tackles for loss on top of that, making a living in the offensive backfield and looking downright unstoppable up front in what was actually a better defensive outing for the Buckeyes than the scoreboard might suggest. Bosa isn't even halfway through his second season with the program and he appears to already be the best defensive player in the Big Ten. What else does he have in store this season after Ohio State returns from its bye next weekend?

Helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The opponent certainly wasn't the finest Ohio State will face this season. But coming off an upset loss, the Buckeyes were looking for an outlet for their frustration and some reasons to feel good about themselves as they regroup to try to make a run at a Big Ten title.

With a bye week looming, these three Buckeyes stood out the most and could be ready to take some steps forward down the line.

H-Back Curtis Samuel

The true freshman has drawn rave reviews from coach Urban Meyer for his explosiveness, and he really had a chance to show it off against an overmatched Kent State defense. Samuel looked like the football version of an acrobat, spinning away from tacklers, flying through the air to pick up extra yardage and also sticking one notable landing in the end zone when it looked like he could have easily been stopped short of the goal line. The versatile weapon finished with a pair of touchdowns, complementing his 100 yards rushing and 40 yards on four catches in a performance that will keep Meyer excited about his future.

LB Raekwon McMillan

Breaking into the starting lineup still won't be easy with a steady veteran like Curtis Grant in the way at middle linebacker, but McMillan was another newcomer who took advantage of extra snaps in a lopsided victory. McMillan finished as the leading tackler for Ohio State with seven hits, but it was his three plays behind the line of scrimmage, including two sacks, that offered a glimpse at his athleticism and ability to read plays and react quickly. After spending the past two seasons low on depth at linebacker, the Buckeyes appear to be on their way to restocking the cupboards.

QB J.T. Barrett

Kent State would have been the ideal opponent for Barrett's first career start instead of his third. Maybe then the redshirt freshman and his inexperienced offensive line would have been able to build some confidence before facing an aggressive, physical defense like Virginia Tech's. Obviously it didn't work out that way for the Buckeyes, but Barrett looked to be in complete command and much more comfortable running the show on Saturday, throwing for 312 yards and tying a school record with six touchdown passes. Barrett still has room to grow, and Meyer plans on working him hard during the bye week, but he showed signs of progress with his accuracy and decisions.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Who will be the difference-maker at the second level?

[+] EnlargeJoshua Perry
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJoshua Perry is one of several Buckeyes trying to make up for the loss of Ryan Shazier.
A starting unit appeared to take shape relatively quickly. Even without as much depth as the Buckeyes might like, a decent rotation seemed to be filling in behind the first unit by the time spring practice ended to provide more of a security blanket in reserve than the program has had over the last couple seasons. And a more aggressive approach combined with a simplified scheme put all of the linebackers more at ease with the system heading into the summer.

And while all of those things are positive developments for a unit that has had its share of struggles since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State, there is one uncertainty that will loom throughout the summer months, into training camp and probably into the first couple games before an answer emerges. Will anybody at linebacker be able to match the do-it-all production that Ryan Shazier provided before skipping his final season to jump to the NFL?

Joshua Perry was a serviceable starter a year ago opposite Shazier on the outside, and his move to the weak side was widely regarded as a successful transition during March and April. Curtis Grant earned praise from Meyer for having the best set of practices of his career, and Darron Lee was something of a revelation as he emerged as the third starter on the first day of practice and never relinquished the role.

But are any of them capable of giving the Buckeyes the type of consistent individual output and game-changing plays the way Shazier did with his incredible speed, sharp instincts and bottomless supply of energy? Shazier made 249 tackles over the last two seasons, and that loss alone is significant. But it was his 39.5 tackles for loss, his 7 forced fumbles and 11 sacks that made him such an impactful force for Ohio State, and those are big shoes for Perry, Grant and the unproven Lee to try to fill.

Of course, there's a chance that they may not have to do it by themselves. If the overall unit is more solid and the statistics are spread evenly among the linebackers, the Buckeyes obviously won't complain. And unlike last year, there may be more help coming off the bench, particularly if true freshman Raekwon McMillan builds on an impressive spring and pushes for early playing time in the middle and redshirt freshman Chris Worley challenges Lee for reps on the strong side.

But that clarity isn't likely to come for a while. And until then, even if the Buckeyes have somebody to fill Shazier's spot, finding somebody to replace his production will loom throughout the offseason.
Now that spring practice is officially in the books, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

We're talking about guys who maybe haven't had big roles yet but displayed enough during the 15 spring practices -- and not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

The series rolls along with a look at Ohio State and its rebuilding defense.

Spring breakout player: LB Darron Lee

Filling the void left behind by one of the most productive linebackers in the nation isn’t likely going to be a job Ryan Shazier’s replacement in the lineup can do alone, and technically Lee isn’t going to be playing exactly the same position in Ohio State’s retooled defense.

But with Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant both returning as starters, the spotlight all spring was on the final piece of the puzzle and the fresh face working with the unit. There wasn’t much buzz about the former high school quarterback and defensive back heading into camp, but Lee impressed the staff with his work in the offseason program and was plugged into the first-team role at strongside linebacker on the opening day of practice -- and he never did anything to relinquish the job when all the work on the field was done in the middle of April.

Lee is obviously unproven after appearing in just two games as a true freshman, and he’s still not guaranteed anything heading into training camp with redshirt freshman Chris Worley pushing for playing time as well. But Lee’s ability to stay at the top of the depth chart while the Buckeyes were closely monitoring the position and trying to restore the proud tradition of their linebackers speaks volumes about the potential he has shown on the field as a tackler and in the weight room as he has built his 6-foot-1 frame up to 225 pounds.

The Buckeyes may still not be fully reloaded in terms of depth and experience at linebacker quite yet. But Lee at least appeared to give Ohio State a viable candidate to replace Shazier and fill out the first-team defense, which made the spring a success for both parties.
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, the final look at things to watch will breakd own some intriguing matchups now that the official rosters have been unveiled.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikWith a tough matchup in Ohio State's spring game, Darryl Baldwin could prove he can lockdown the starting RT job.
Scarlet QB Cardale Jones vs. Gray secondary

  • The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
Gray LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Scarlet RB Ezekiel Elliott

  • The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
Scarlet RT Darryl Baldwin vs. Gray DE Noah Spence

  • Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.
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.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just as soon as Ohio State took a big step forward in replenishing its depth at linebacker, it once again appears to have followed it up with one in the opposite direction.

The school confirmed on Monday that former four-star and ESPN 300 recruit Mike Mitchell is no longer practicing with the team and won't participate in the camp that opens Tuesday, another blow to the depth at the thinnest position on the roster. ElevenWarriors.com, citing sources, reported previously that Mitchell is planning to transfer at the end of the spring semester to be closer to his family and ailing father.

His departure would put more pressure on a group of four new recruits and two returning starters for a unit that has clearly not lived up to coach Urban Meyer’s expectations over the last two years and has been plagued by attrition.

The news release from the program doesn't address his future plans, but Mitchell’s departure would make him the fifth linebacker to leave the program with eligibility remaining since the end of the 2012 season, ramping up pressure on the incoming freshmen and rising sophomore Trey Johnson to fill the void left by all those missing bodies.

“The emphasis is on linebacker,” Meyer said last month. “There have been far too many mistakes in either lack of development or whatever, and it’s just not where we need to be.”

Mitchell was supposed to help address that when he chose to leave his home state of Texas last year and join the Buckeyes, but he ended up redshirting last season despite the lack of many options at the position.

The need to find more contributors in the middle of the defense only increased when star outside linebacker Ryan Shazier elected to skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft. And while veterans Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant will return for the Buckeyes, at a minimum they’ll need to identify one new starter and could wind up counting on the newcomers to fill out the two-deep given the accumulating losses concentrated at linebacker.

Mitchell would join David Perkins, Luke Roberts and Conner Crowell (injury) as potential candidates for playing time who have left the program since the end of the 2012 campaign, stretching Ohio State thin and contributing to the uneven play of a defense that struggled at the end of last season during consecutive losses to Michigan State and Clemson.

“There’s four linebackers that have been recruited, Raekwon McMillan, Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker, four guys I’m putting pressure on,” Meyer said. “[Co-defensive coordinator Luke] Fickell and myself have to get them ready for next year. They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already.

“So just so everybody knows, there’s no redshirt plans for those players at all. We thought about that during the recruiting process.”

It’s now more clear than ever that Ohio State won’t have much time to wait for those young guys to develop.

Top spring position battles: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and another position on offense in the countdown, the series shifts to the other side of the ball for a critical competition in the middle of the defense.

[+] EnlargeTrey Johnson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTrey Johnson, a top prospect signed in the 2013 class, could step in for Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker.
No. 3: Outside linebacker

  • Predecessor: Ryan Shazier (143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 4 forced fumbles; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Sophomore Trey Johnson, junior Camren Williams, sophomore Darron Lee, true freshmen Sam Hubbard, Raekwon McMillan
  • Why to watch: With two returning starters, on the surface there appears to be only one hole to fill, and it's the gaping one left behind by Shazier at the most beleaguered position group on the roster. But even with Curtis Grant in the middle and Joshua Perry looking like a viable option at strongside linebacker, there still could be shakeups at those spots, depending on just how quickly some of the young talent can transition to life at Ohio State and the Big Ten. Assuming Grant and Perry build on their steady, but certainly not spectacular, 2013 seasons and solidify themselves in those jobs, that will put an even brighter spotlight on the guys trying to replace a player who was one of the most productive linebackers in the country in the last two seasons. The Buckeyes counted on Shazier to do so much work from sideline to sideline, in the backfield and in pass coverage, that simply plugging in one guy and expecting similar results isn't realistic. That will make it imperative for Ohio State to weigh its options at each spot during the spring, regardless of previous position or experience, and make sure it has the best group of three it can put on the field as it tries again to live up to the high expectations the program has for its linebackers.
  • Pre-camp edge: There aren't many positions more difficult for a true freshman to make an instant impact than linebacker, but the hype around McMillan is already building thanks to his early enrollment and a mature body that clearly has impressed Urban Meyer. His development figures to be aided by going through spring practice, and that should also be a big benefit for the coaching staff as they get a look at where he might fit best. But either way, Johnson is a sure bet to line up with the first-team defense when camp opens in March, and he has been praised for his football intelligence and sharp instincts. He's certainly no slouch as an athlete, either, and the Buckeyes are expecting more from him than the six games and 11 tackles he chipped in as a freshman.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.

Players to watch in spring: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.

[+] EnlargeTrey Johnson
Miller Safrit/ESPNTrey Johnson, who was ranked as the No. 2 inside linebacker in the Class of 2013, could replace Ryan Shazier for Ohio State.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The journey concludes today with an absolutely crucial position of need.

No. 1: Trey Johnson, linebacker

  • By the numbers: The touted recruit appeared in six games as a freshman, chipping in 11 tackles and getting credit for a quarterback hit.
  • What’s at stake: There aren’t any bigger shoes to fill on the Ohio State roster than the cleats Ryan Shazier left behind at outside linebacker, and identifying a replacement for one of the nation’s most productive defenders is at the top of the checklist in spring practice. The unit as a whole has been perilously short on depth for the last two seasons, and even with Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry returning as starters, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has been vocal both about his disappointment in the linebackers and the emphasis he’s placing on making big strides there this season. That process starts in earnest when camp opens in March, and, after drawing high praise from the coaching staff as a potential contributor right away when he signed last year, Johnson will need to live up to that hype after spending his freshman season largely as an observer.
  • Best-case scenario: The Buckeyes signed four linebackers to compete for spots in the rotation and supply some depth in the fall, but what they really need is Johnson to solidify himself in Shazier’s old spot and prove that he can be the same type of sideline-to-sideline force defensively. Johnson seems to have the athleticism to get the job done, and he’s been widely praised dating back to last year for having unnatural instincts and a knack for diagnosing plays that would suggest he’ll be able to make an impact at the second level. Maybe Johnson won’t be able to deliver exactly as much production as Shazier as a sophomore, but as long as he stamps himself as the top contender to fill that role, the Buckeyes should be fine with every other starter in the front seven returning next fall.

A record number of underclassmen elected to take the NFL plunge this year, but the Big Ten barely made a splash. Only four Big Ten juniors are entering the draft, continuing a recent downturn after just six left early a year ago. Several stars certainly could have entered the draft, so this is good news for fans who enjoy seeing the league's top players stay for a fourth year. But it also underscores a lack of top talent, especially when compared to the SEC and Pac-12.

Despite a small contingent of early entries, Big Ten teams have some significant holes to fill. As spring ball approaches, here's a look at who's gone and who might replace them.

Leaving: Indiana WR Cody Latimer

[+] EnlargeShane Wynn
AJ Mast/Icon SMIShane Wynn averaged 13.8 ypc this season and scored 11 TDs. His stock and those numbers should soar higher as he takes on a bigger role next season.
The replacement: Shane Wynn

Wynn and Latimer obviously have different body frames, but both produce at a high level, particularly when it comes to touchdowns. Latimer led Indiana by wide margins in both receptions (72, next highest: 47) and receiving yards (1,096, next highest total: 739), but Wynn had more touchdowns with 11 (Latimer at nine). The departures of Latimer, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser make Wynn the team's only returning receiver with more than 15 receptions in 2013.

Indiana certainly could use a bigger receiver to play on the outside where Latimer roamed, and perhaps Nick Stoner or incoming recruit Dominique Booth fills that role. But the Hoosiers undoubtedly will rely more on Wynn, a 5-foot-7 dynamo who averaged 13.8 yards per reception last season. Of the Big Ten's early entries, Latimer is the most surprising, given the strength in the draft at wide receiver, but Indiana has had little trouble developing strong pass-catchers.

Leaving: Penn State WR Allen Robinson

The replacement: Geno Lewis

Latimer's departure raised a few eyebrows, but Robinson's had been expected for some time, especially after coach Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the NFL's Houston Texans. Robinson earned the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013 after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to lead the league each year. The Penn State standout had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season, topping the Big Ten charts in both categories despite not playing in the postseason.

Lewis likely will move into the No. 1 spot, in part because Penn State doesn't much experience at receiver. In addition to Robinson, the Lions lose No. 2 wideout Brandon Felder. Although Penn State returns a wealth of talent at tight end, Lewis is the leading returning wide receiver with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Lewis showed potential during his redshirt freshman season, especially with a 91-yard performance in the finale at Wisconsin. After struggling midway through the fall, Lewis' strong finish sets him up well to be quarterback Christian Hackenberg's top option in 2014.

Leaving: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

The replacement: Doran Grant. Grant played opposite Roby throughout last season and recorded 58 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. He endured some ups and downs in a secondary that struggled for much of the season, especially after losing safety Christian Bryant to injury, but the experience should prove valuable going forward. Not surprisingly, Grant was challenged more than Roby, but as these numbers show, he held his own despite some mistakes here and there.

Roby's early departure is the least surprising of the group, as he announced before the season that it would be his last at Ohio State. His presence will be missed, especially on special teams, but Grant could develop into a top corner. Ohio State certainly has bigger problems to address in the back four as it welcomes in new coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ash from Arkansas.

Leaving: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

The replacement: Trey Johnson. Ohio State returns starters at the other two linebacker spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, and it's possible Perry could slide over into the role where Shazier excelled. But Johnson served as Shazier's backup in 2013 and boasts the athleticism to step in and perform. Johnson played sparingly last fall, recording 11 tackles in six games, but his role undoubtedly will expand with Shazier moving onto the NFL.

There should be plenty of competition at linebacker, a spot where depth has been a concern for head coach Urban Meyer. Like Johnson, Mike Mitchell came to Ohio State as an extremely decorated recruit and should push for playing time this spring after a redshirt season. Camren Williams and converted safety Devan Bogard also are possibilities, although Bogard will be coming off of a second ACL tear.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's no shortage of talent in the bunch, and Ohio State has several holes on the roster where it might be able to use the influx of talent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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