Ohio State Buckeyes: Ryan Shazier

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.

Joshua Perry building on momentum

March, 25, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Some changes were subtle, some were more obvious for Joshua Perry as he replayed his first season as a full-time starter on video from beginning to end.

Early in the season, the Ohio State linebacker might not have always been as quick to react, didn’t appear to be playing with much confidence and was occasionally prone to missing tackles or assignments, though not all of that is perhaps as clear to anybody else as it is Perry.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Perry
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAfter playing a variety of roles last season, Joshua Perry will now be tasked with filling Ryan Shazier's shoes.
What might be easier to decipher is his shift across the defensive formation, starting on the strong side then picking up a few more responsibilities in the middle as his familiarity with the speed of the game and production both increased. That transformation is still on display and spilling over to the spring. Perry has moved again, this time to the weak side, where he is trying to keep the ball rolling after his solid finish last season by tackling both everything he sees and the challenge of replacing Ryan Shazier, Ohio State’s most prolific defender.

“A lot of times you don’t want to necessarily look back and harp on negative things, but you need to take the negatives and the weaknesses and know what they are so you can make them into strengths,” Perry said. “I’ve taken some time and done that, and overall it’s just the intensity of the game and playing with my fundamentals that has really changed. When I can do that, I gain confidence to be able to go harder every play.

“You know, the sky is the limit for me, I think.”

The Buckeyes are counting heavily on Perry to get closer to his ceiling as a junior, particularly since the defense, as a whole, largely struggled to even get off the ground last season.

Perry played a part in those issues at times, and even when he started to turn the corner individually down the stretch, it wasn’t enough to offset problems elsewhere as Ohio State was gashed for piles of yardage and 115 points during its last three games.

Perry was actually turning in his most productive run of the year over that period with 22 tackles, chipping in a pair of tackles for loss and making his only sack of the season in the loss to Clemson. While the Buckeyes lost two of those three games, Perry’s personal numbers might help provide something of a springboard as he tries to fill the enormous statistical void left by Shazier’s early departure to the NFL.

“Right now, I’m trying to get that comfort level to where I can just see the play and react, be downhill,” Perry said. “If I need to cover, I’m going to go cover, but I want to do everything fast and with reckless abandon.

“That’s the thing, I had that comfort level towards the end of the year to be able to play a little bit faster, know my assignment and just go. ... But it’s all a process. When it clicked [last year] is not necessarily as important as keeping the momentum and the consistency going.”

Perry’s bit of forward progress from the end of the season is an encouraging sign for an Ohio State defense still trying to rebuild a unit of linebackers that has been hit hard by injuries, transfers and lack of development over the last few seasons, but it’s the latter that will be more critical for him if he’s going to deliver like his predecessor.

Shazier’s consistency was unmatched on the Ohio State roster, and few players around the country were able to contribute in the variety of ways he did as a sideline-to-sideline tackler, playmaker in the backfield and vicious hitter capable of forcing four fumbles. But Perry has made it clear he has no problem stepping into those shoes this spring to continue the ongoing transformation that has been documented on the game film, even when it’s not always plain to see.

“I mean, they were pretty big changes, to a certain point,” Perry said. “But there’s definitely still a lot of changes that can be made.

“Last year, I did all right, I got a little momentum heading into the end of the year and I think that’s carried over a little bit. But I can’t stop now.”

Early OSU observations: No. 1

March, 14, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There isn’t much to work with heading into spring break, but Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking the week off did give at least a peek at some new faces and a couple changes. While the Buckeyes are refreshing and gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s outfit.

No. 1: Darron Lee emerging at linebacker

Finding the right position that would best allow a versatile athlete like Darron Lee to thrive is a win. The fact that it also happens to be at a position where Ohio State has perhaps its most pressing need might make it the most critical victory of the preseason, even after just one week without contact.

There is certainly plenty left for Lee to prove, starting with putting on pads and actually tackling people to show that he might really be the answer OSU desperately needs to fill out the rotation in the depth-challenged linebacker unit. But based on the way he turned heads during the offseason program and his appearance with the first-team defense in the spot formerly held by do-it-all dynamo Ryan Shazier, Ohio State might have already found a solution. It's one that wouldn’t require leaning heavily on incoming freshmen making an overnight transition to life in the Big Ten.

Lee played in two games last fall so he doesn’t have all that much experience to offer. But after settling in at linebacker following a high school career that included time at quarterback, wide receiver and safety, the sophomore has had time to get acclimated to the position. He also bulked up to 225 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame without losing the speed that allowed him to be a playmaker in the secondary at the previous level.

Considering how valuable Shazier’s mobility was both in pass coverage and, more importantly, as a disruptive force blitzing the quarterback and diagnosing running plays in the backfield, Lee’s athleticism could make him the perfect fit.

There’s still a long way to go, even just before spring camp ends in April. But Lee’s early appearance in the starting lineup could pay significant dividends by August.
Over the last couple of weeks, we've taken a look in video form at the biggest shoes to fill on each Big Ten team this spring and who the replacements might be.

SportsNation

Who leaves the biggest shoes to fill in the Big Ten this spring?

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    30%
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    19%
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    17%
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    16%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,693)

Which player's empty cleats will be the most considerable this spring? Let's consider these options:
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson: The two-time Big Ten receiver of the year left early for the NFL and left Christian Hackenberg without his favorite target. Watch the video here.
  • Michigan LT Taylor Lewan: In case you didn't notice, the Wolverines' offensive line wasn't very good last season, and that was with an All-American left tackle. Lewan will likely be a top 15 NFL draft pick. Watch the video here.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis: The former walk-on-turned-superstar was the Badgers' only real threat at wideout the past two years, leaving a gaping hole at the position. Watch the video here.
  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: Where oh where would the Buckeyes' defense -- and its underachieving linebacker unit -- have been without Shazier last season? The Buckeyes might have to find out this spring. Watch the video here.
  • Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: While the Spartans know how to reload on defense, it's never easy to replace a player the caliber of Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Watch the video here.

Vote now in our poll.
The NFL scouting combine is done, pro days are taking place around the Big Ten, and Todd McShay has another version of his NFL mock draft. Big Ten fans will have to scroll past the reshuffled top 10, as no players from the league appear -- despite some good performances from Taylor Lewan, Ra'Shede Hageman and others at the combine.

Here's how McShay sees things going for Big Ten prospects:
  • No. 12: Michigan OT Taylor Lewan to New York Giants
  • No. 20: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard to Arizona
  • No. 22: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby to Philadelphia
  • No. 29: Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman to New England

Lewan holds steady from McShay's previous mock, but Dennard and Hageman both move up and Roby enters the mix after being left out.

It would be exciting to see Dennard playing opposite Patrick Peterson in Arizona, and New England could be a great spot for Hageman.

Mel Kiper's latest Big Board, by the way, lists Lewan at No. 7, Dennard at No. 18 and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier at No. 25.
The 2014 NFL scouting combine is all wrapped up, and the countdown to the draft has begun. Monday, we looked at how Big Ten offensive players performed in the key drills. Now it's time to see how the defenders -- linemen, linebackers and defensive backs -- fared in their testing. Here are the full results for each participant.

TOP PERFORMERS

[+] Enlarge Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier finished first in the vertical jump among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine.
Overall (all positions)

  • Ohio State CB Bradley Roby finished seventh in the 40-yard dash at 4.39 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley tied for second in bench-press repetitions with 36; Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman tied for 10th with 32.
  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier ranked first in the vertical jump at 42 inches; Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished second at 41.5 inches.
  • Shazier ranked sixth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 10 inches; Jean-Baptiste tied for 10th at 10-8.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson tied for ninth in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.0 seconds.
  • Robinson tied for ninth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds; Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis finished 12th at 11.39 seconds.
By position (linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties)

Safeties: Minnesota's Brock Vereen finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.47 seconds), first in bench-press repetitions (25), tied for 10th in vertical jump (34 inches), tied for 10th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), second in three-cone drill (6.9 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis finished 11th in the 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press repetitions (15), tied for third in vertical jump (36.5 inches), fourth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches), tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.05 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds).

Linemen: Minnesota's Hageman tied for third in bench-press repetitions (32), tied for seventh in vertical jump (35.5 inches) and tied for 14th in broad jump (9 feet, 6 inches).

Linebackers: Iowa's Anthony Hitchens finished 15th in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (23) and tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.15 seconds); Michigan State's Max Bullough tied for first in bench-press reps (30), finished 15th in three-cone drill (7.22 seconds) and tied for 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.3 seconds); Wisconsin's Chris Borland finished fifth in bench-press repetitions (27), 14th in three-cone drill (7.18 seconds) and 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.27 seconds); Ohio State's Shazier tied for eighth in bench-press reps (25), finished first in vertical jump (42 inches), first in broad jump (10 feet, 10 inches), fifth in three-cone drill (6.91 seconds) and ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds); Iowa's James Morris tied for 14th in vertical jump (34.5 inches) and seventh in three-cone drill (6.94 seconds); Iowa's Christian Kirksey tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches).

Cornerbacks: Ohio State's Roby tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press reps (17), tied for sixth in vertical jump (38.5 inches), tied for ninth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard tied for 13th in 40-yard dash (4.51 seconds) and tied for 13th in bench-press reps (15); Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste finished first in vertical jump (41.5 inches) and tied for third in broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches); Purdue's Ricardo Allen finished ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).

There were some good performances from Big Ten defenders, particularly from the Ohio State pair of Shazier and Roby, but also from Minnesota's Vereen and Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste, who both likely helped their draft stock. On offense, Penn State's Robinson certainly stood out, along with Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

Check out all of ESPN.com's NFL draft coverage here.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Ohio State

February, 21, 2014
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video
ESPN.com reporter Austin Ward talks about Ohio State's effort to replace Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker this spring.
The NFL scouting combine -- also known as the world's most dissected job interview session -- began Wednesday in Indianapolis, and workouts begin Saturday. The hopefuls include 36 players from Big Ten schools, 38 if you count Maryland and Rutgers.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsFormer Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will work out as a receiver at the NFL scouting combine.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the league's contingents run, lift, jump and shuttle for NFL executives:

  • How many first-rounders can the Big Ten produce? Last year was arguably the worst draft in league history, as only one player -- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick -- heard his name called on opening night, and not until the 31st pick. The conference should definitely do better in the first round this year, with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard widely viewed as locks to go early. Some others could work their way into the first round with strong showings in Indy, including Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (whose physical-freak traits should translate well into workouts), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Carlos Hyde and Penn State receiver Allen Robinson.
  • Speaking of Robinson, he's one of eight Big Ten players who will work out as a receiver, and that group includes ultra-productive college wideouts such as Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Indiana's Cody Latimer. This is viewed as a deep draft for receivers in general, so the Big Ten contingent will have to post good times in the 40 and other drills to stand out.
  • One player who will work out as a receiver is Northwestern's Kain Colter, who primarily played quarterback in college. Colter, of course, has been in the news because of his fight to unionize college football players. How will NFL general managers and executives view the stance taken by Colter, who should interview extremely well? And how will he perform as a wide receiver in drills?
  • Linebacker is probably the strongest group the Big Ten will send to Indianapolis, which is fitting because that was the best position group in the league in 2013. Many scouts already love Wisconsin's Chris Borland, but his height could remain an issue for some. I think his overall athleticism should shine through this weekend and relieve some of those questions. Michigan State's Max Bullough has excellent height and size, but faces some concerns over his lateral quickness and probably even more regarding his Rose Bowl suspension. Will Bullough publicly reveal the reason for his suspension? It will also be fun to see how Iowa's standout trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens compares in their testing.
  • Lewan figures to go in the top 15, but he does have some character issues to address in his interviews. Speaking of offensive linemen, how healthy is Nebraska All-American guard Spencer Long after his season-ending knee injury? Ohio State's Jack Mewhort was a great leader for the Buckeyes but must show he's athletic enough to play tackle in the NFL. And after interviewing Penn State's John Urschel, will some team ask him to skip his playing days and just run their front office?
  • Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz earned rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. While he wasn't hyper-productive in the passing game with the Hawkeyes, some team easily could fall in love with his size and athleticism and make him an early-round pick.
  • Defensive back is another deep group from the Big Ten, with seven players invited. Dennard simply needs to not hurt his stock, and Roby could improve his after a good, but not great, junior season. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be intriguing with his 6-foot-3 frame, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks' tall defensive backs. Guys such as Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis, Minnesota's Brock Vereen and Purdue's Ricardo Allen are viewed as late-round picks at this point; they need to make an impression and not lose any more ground in the eyes of scouts.


All these questions and more will begin to be answered this weekend.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
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Had to knock these out real quick before doing the lunch links in our new ice dancing blog.

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.
We're filling our football void by reliving the 2013 season and its best individual performances.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier helped Ohio State hold Indiana's powerful offense to 14 points.
Our list of the 10 best performances by a player takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game and tries to identify record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games from league players. Players are limited to one entry on this list for variety's sake.

We head back to the defensive side of the ball for this next entry:

No. 7: Shazier gives IU nightmares

Who and against whom: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier was all over the field as the Buckeyes' defense shut down Indiana's high-scoring offense in a 42-14 win on Nov. 23.

The numbers: Shazier had 20 tackles, including 16 solo stops, plus five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a sack and a pass breakup.

A closer look: Shazier won Big Ten player-of-the-week honors for his game against Illinois on Nov. 16, when he collected 16 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. A week later, he would top himself.

Let's not forget that Indiana's offense was very, very good in 2013 -- one of the best in the country, in fact. And Ohio State's defense, as we saw down the stretch, was downright shaky. But Shazier nearly single-handedly bottled up the Hoosiers with his ferocious, swarming play. He tied the school record for total tackles and tackles for loss. He became the first Buckeye to record 20 tackles since A.J. Hawk in 2004 and the first to have 16 solo tackles since Tom Cousineau in 1978.

I thought Shazier should have been the Big Ten defensive player of the year. On this November day in Columbus, at least, there was no one better.

More top performances:

Christian Kirksey vs. Nebraska

Jared Abbrederis vs. Ohio State

Braxton Miller vs. Penn State

Players to watch in spring: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
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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.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.

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