Penn State Nittany Lions: Derrick Wells

It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Malik Golden, Trevor Williams, Adrian Amos, Jesse Della Valle, Ryan Keiser, sojourn shelton, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Gareon Conley, Jabrill Peppers, Cam Burrows, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Darius Hillary, Mark Murphy, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Cedric Thompson, Raymon Taylor, Dezmen Southward, Doran Grant, Daniel Jones, Jarrod Wilson, Dymonte Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Kurtis Drummond, V'Angelo Bentley, Dwight White, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Landon Feichter, Tim Bennett, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Derrick Wells, Nate Hammon, Austin Hudson, Armani Reeves, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Corey Cooper, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Josh Mitchell, Kenny Mullen, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Nadir Barnwell, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Will Likely, Zach Dancel, Zane Petty

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
11:00
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Saturday, 1/10
Monday, 1/12