Ohio State Buckeyes: Jeff Heuerman
QB J.T. Barrett
- The redshirt freshman has only been a starter or half of a season, so there is still plenty of time for him to improve. But how much more could the Buckeyes really need from Barrett? After his rough outing in September against Virginia Tech, Barrett has played himself into contention for major awards and dragged the Buckeyes back into the College Football Playoff discussion with an accurate arm, underrated athleticism as a rusher and the leadership skills of a veteran. Against the Scarlet Knights, he threw for 261 yards, ran for 107 and accounted for five touchdowns -- and still apparently left Urban Meyer wanting a little more.
- Ohio State was already in control on the scoreboard in the closing seconds of the first half, but it obviously didn't want to give Rutgers any reason for optimism heading into the locker room or let the game get any tighter. After a costly penalty extended the drive deep into Ohio State territory, Grant snuffed it out with an interception in the end zone that might as well have been the nail in the coffin for the Scarlet Knights. The Ohio State cornerback also tied for the team lead with seven tackles in his finest outing of the season.
- There still haven't been all that many opportunities for the tight ends to get their hands on the ball with so many skill players fighting for touches, but Vannett made the most of his opportunities against the Scarlet Knights. The junior turned both of his catches into touchdowns for the Buckeyes, opening the scoring quickly on the opening drive with a 12-yard grab and tacking on a 26-yarder for good measure in the second quarter. He and Jeff Heuerman may have to keep doing dirty work as blockers most of the time, but they are both more than capable of adding an extra dimension to the vaunted Ohio State attack.
TE Jeff Heuerman
- The veteran's injured foot took longer to fully heal than previously anticipated, but Heuerman looks healthy and ready to add yet another dimension to Ohio State's rapidly improving offense. With J.T. Barrett at quarterback, the Buckeyes have played some of their best football by pushing the tempo, and Heuerman's versatility is key in helping to ramp up the pace given his skills as both a blocker and a receiver. Heuerman is too big to be covered by a defensive back, he's too athletic for a linebacker to handle one-on-one -- and might also be just the answer the Buckeyes need to shore up some inconsistency in the red zone.
- Thanks to relatively modest numbers at this point, the senior has somewhat fallen off the awards radar at this point of the season. But the same ability that made him a preseason All-America candidate is still there, and it shows up at least a couple times per game even if it doesn't produce individual statistics. Bennett still has 3 tackles for a loss and a sack to his credit, and Ohio State's blowout wins have given him rest late in games, but his work occupying blockers down after down has helped Joey Bosa and other blitzers keep quarterbacks off balance. When a team stops paying extra attention to him, Bennett still has the speed and strength to slice into the backfield and make some noise.
- The majority of the backfield workload will continue to be on Ezekiel Elliott's shoulders, but the former ESPN 150 recruit is finally showing signs of living up to his promise and carving out a role for himself in his final season. The process actually started by proving he could be trusted with special teams playing time, and now Smith might be in position to become Ohio State's short-yardage and goal-line finisher with his tough running between the tackles. Smith has scored a rushing touchdown in each of the last three games and has also grabbed one as a receiver this season, making him yet another threat that a defense must account for.
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
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).
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.
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:
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley
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
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein
Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
A lot of good responses to what you would do to improve college football.
To the inbox ...
Jeff from Chicago writes: What would I like to see in college football: A Big Ten-SEC Challenge every season, the first weekend of October. Just like the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball, you make the pairings by perceived quality, play half the games in each conference's stadiums. Alabama-Ohio State. Texas A&M-Michigan. Michigan State-Auburn. Florida-Penn State. Wisconsin-Georgia. All on the same day. Would that be compelling TV or what? (And yes, I know it's not going to happen!)
Adam Rittenberg: It would be extremely compelling TV and, unfortunately, it will never happen. Although SEC teams will have more nonleague games to schedule than their Big Ten counterparts, I could never see that league getting on board with a scheduling agreement like this one. There are other nonleague rivalries (Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech) that would take priority, and I just can't see too many SEC teams leaving the comforts of the South to play Big Ten opponents on the road. Maybe the playoff and its purported emphasis on schedule strength changes things.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting proposal, Bill. It could provide a more comprehensive gauge on which teams truly deserve to be part of the playoff. I actually like having nonleague games sprinkled in later in the season as some teams improve gradually. Some early season nonleague contests are really misleading. If logistics didn't matter, maybe this plan could work. I wish there was more flexibility to do short-notice scheduling in college football, but when you have big stadiums and big money on the line, it's difficult, if not impossible.
Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I certainly considered the possibility of a Penn State tight end breaking out this season, although 1,000 yards is a very lofty mark. Ultimately, Breneman would really have to separate himself to have a chance to catch so many passes from his buddy Christian Hackenberg. Breneman was hurt when I watched PSU practice this spring, and James looked like the best receiving option on the field. He's a beast at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds -- a matchup nightmare. So while Breneman could become a superstar, I don't know how Penn State ignores James. And then there's Carter, who has 54 receptions in his first two seasons. I expect all the tight ends to play and likely limit one from producing way more than the others.
1. Ban oversigning. Eat it, Team SEC.
2. Create an early signing period.
3. Quit tinkering with rules just for the sake of tinkering. Touchback placement comes to mind. "Safety" has become the catch-all justification for every bit of tomfoolery the rules committee wants to try.
4. Expand playoff to 8 teams.
5. No polls until after Week 4.
6. USC, Texas, Nebraska, PSU, Miami, etc. return to normal and help beat some humility back into the University of SEC. A thousand years of darkness for Michigan. Reversion to pre-1993 historical means for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
7. Honestly wouldn't mind Boston College in the B1G, albeit for selfish hockey reasons.
Adam Rittenberg: Wow, a lot of thoughts here, Joe. I'll tackle a few of them. I agree on the early signing period, but as I'll write later this week, moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year is even more important, especially for Big Ten schools. I can't agree more with pushing back any sort of poll or getting rid of them entirely. They have way too much significance in shaping the way teams and leagues are viewed. Looking at your list for No. 6, it's amazing how college football's power structure has shifted. You likely won't see any of those teams mentioned as likely playoff contenders this season. Times have changed.
Adam Rittenberg: Bold statement, Isaac. I like Arneson, too, and he could have a much bigger role in the offense this season. I don't know if Wisconsin will pass the ball enough for any player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, but the uncertainty at wide receiver creates opportunity for players like Arneson, who has only 10 career receptions, four for touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he has more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess (still technically a tight end), Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and possibly several others, but his numbers will go up.
Can multiple Buckeyes get involved in the passing game?
Ohio State finally lived up to its seemingly annual pledge to get the tight end position involved in the passing game. The next step is getting more than one of them rolling as a target to really expand the arsenal of an offense that can clearly create mismatches with size, strength and reliability in its impressive collection of athletes.
Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have both made it well known how much they value a versatile chess piece at tight end, a player who can line up all over the field and wreak havoc on defenses by creating mismatches in both the passing and rushing games. And the threat of Heuerman and Vannett as receivers combined with their above average blocking has surely helped tip the scales for the dynamic ground game over the past two seasons.
But as the spread offense continues evolving under Meyer, there's no doubt he'd like to see more passes flying at his tight ends, particularly after getting a couple glimpses at the explosiveness Heuerman can provide down the field with outings like his 116-yard performance against Purdue and with a 57-yard touchdown catch against Clemson.
And while Vannett is unlikely to evenly match the production of Heuerman, unleashing the two at the same time can create all kinds of problems for a defense that must account for a pair of players who stand taller than 6-foot-5 and can stretch the field with their legs while at the same time providing Ohio State the flexibility to shift to a power formation depending on the personnel lining up against them. That may require getting Vannett a few more touches than the 17 he's had over the past two years to keep a defense honest, and Heuerman could no doubt use a couple more also.
The Buckeyes might even throw redshirt freshman Marcus Baugh into that mix, giving them three big guys with speed to make them even harder to defend at tight end. But they laid the foundation by establishing one of those Buckeyes as a legitimate, consistent threat a year ago -- and if they can do the same with a second, an already dangerous offense will hit an even higher level.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.
Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.
“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”
Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.
“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”
This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.
“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”
An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.
“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”
Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.
The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.
“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”
Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.
“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”
By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.
“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- 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.
“... 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.
H-B Curtis Samuel
- An early enrollee, Samuel showed off his straight-line speed with one of the longest touchdowns of the open scrimmage on Student Appreciation Day, taking a handoff up the middle on a fourth-and-short situation and never looking back on the way to the end zone. Samuel's athleticism drew rave reviews even before he hit the practice field, and after being initially slowed by a hamstring injury last month, he put it on full display by bursting through the hole and pulling away from defenders in front of several thousand fans. Even more people will be watching at the Horseshoe, and Samuel will no doubt have a few chances to show what he could bring to the Ohio State offense as a first-year contributor at the hybrid position along with Dontre Wilson.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Gregory PayanCurtis Samuel showed his potential in a run in a scrimmage last week.
- The redshirt freshman started his career on the wrong foot off the field, but if Baugh can avoid any more of those missteps, he clearly has the talent to make things happen on the turf for the Buckeyes. Ohio State already has two talented players ahead of him at one of its deepest positions, but with Jeff Heuerman currently on the shelf following foot surgery, Baugh has benefited from the additional reps and is building a case to be included in the game plan in some fashion along with Nick Vannett. Even before Heuerman was injured, Baugh was turning heads by teaming with reserve quarterback J.T. Barrett for some long gains through the air, and more passes figure to be coming his way in the spring showcase.
- The fifth-year senior has had to patiently wait his turn, but his time appears to have finally arrived this spring as he prepares for his final season with the program and a likely role in the starting lineup. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner has had a magic touch at right tackle during his two seasons with Ohio State, turning former tight end Reid Fragel into a professional prospect with just one year to work with him and then bringing Taylor Decker quickly up to speed last season in his first year as a starter. With Decker switching over to the left side, Baldwin has earned praise for his work with the starters and will have one more chance in live action to solidify that role as his own heading into the offseason.
- Northwestern players returned to practice and faced questions about the possible formation of a union.
- Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman is out for the rest of the spring after a foot injury. Joey Bosa is going to be a marked man this year.
- Michigan punter Will Hagerup worked his way back from a suspension after a year away, which included time working at a steel plant.
- Michigan State's Lawrence Thomas is motivated to prove that he's healthy and that he can have an impact on the Spartans' defense.
- Nebraska is going with a youth movement on its offensive line.
- A crowded group of running backs is vying to jostling for the No. 1 spot at Purdue.
- Iowa overspent its budget on the Outback Bowl trip.
- Wisconsin's receiving corps, already wildly unproven, is down to four healthy players right now.
- The offensive line could be a major problem for Penn State this season.
- Rutgers cornerback Nadir Barnwell has grown after a difficult freshman campaign.
- Indiana's Shane Wynn is working as an outside receiver despite his 5-foot-7 frame.
Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?
Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.
Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.
Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.
Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.
SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.
Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.
Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.
QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn
The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.
2. Ohio State
QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith
You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.
3. Michigan State
QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett
The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James
The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs
Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.
QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess
Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).
QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft
New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.
No. 3: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35, Jan. 3
How it went down: How would Ohio State respond after losing in the Big Ten title game and seeing its national title hopes go down the drain?
Yet, even though the Tigers statistically dominated most of the first half, Braxton Miller put Ohio State up 22-20 at halftime with a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Heuerman and then a 3-yard scoring run with 12 seconds left. The Buckeyes led 29-20 and had forced a punt from Clemson in the third quarter, but Corey "Philly" Brown fumbled away the return.
Then things really got wild. Clemson scored two touchdowns in less than two-and-a-half minutes to regain the lead, followed by another lead change on Miller's throwback pass to Carlos Hyde for a score. Tajh Boyd capped a tremendous night by throwing for the game-winning touchdown with 6:16 left, and the two teams traded interceptions on three straight possessions late.
It was a wild game full of huge plays and momentum swings, and Miller got beat up and battled through injuries. Ohio State showed that it wasn't quite national championship worthy, especially on defense. But the Buckeyes helped provide a thoroughly entertaining end to the BCS era.
Player(s) of the game: Boyd and Sammy Watkins share the honors, as they both fed off one another while feasting on the Buckeyes' defense. Watkins broke Orange Bowl and school receiving records with 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Boyd went 31-of-40 for 378 yards through the air, ran for 127 yards and had six total touchdowns.
Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 1,003 yards of offense and 204 penalty yards.
They said it: "It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn't finish," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It was right there."
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- Nebraska flipped a defensive end who'd been committed to Central Florida after a hush-hush visit to Lincoln.
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- James Franklin and his Penn State assistants are cleaning up on the recruiting trail. Franklin will attend tonight's State of the Union address.
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