Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: The End Of The Big Ten Nadir?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.)
After basketball greatly helped the reputation of the conference, Big Ten football has stayed in the public consciousness of late with news of the impending college playoff, future division realignment and beefed up league schedules.
Also, there were reminders that two newbies – Rutgers and Maryland – will arrive to the scene next year to help the Big Ten reach super-conference status.
Member schools, as usual, tapped into the Big Ten Network for more program exposure and fans were able to see their teams on display in the spring, when the outlook is always as chipper as a Disney movie full of forest animals.
It was turning into a very positive offseason for Jim Delany and the Big Ten until the evil NFL draft – which sent Bambi and Thumper scurrying back to the thicket.
ESPN’s cast of thousands, along with NFL Network, shoved the three-day draft right down our sports-loving pie-holes. The massive coverage and follow-up by the rest of the sports newsworld seemed to illuminate one over-aching and over-hyped point: Damn, that SEC is good.
This, of course, is at the expense of everyone else, most notably the Big Ten.
While a record 63 Southeastern Conference players were plucked in last week’s draft – breaking the previous high-water mark by eight for any conference in the modern era – the Big Ten managed only 22 picks.
The conference actually produced its lowest total of selected players in 20 drafts dating to 1994 – and even that year the Big Ten sent the top overall pick in Ohio State defensive tackle “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson and totaled eight players in the first three rounds including four first-rounders.
Plus, you may have noticed Nebraska has been added to the conference since then. Big Red’s contribution to this year’s draft was running back Rex Burkead going in the sixth round (190th overall to Cincinnati) and safety Daimion Stafford being chosen in the seventh and final round.
That’s the longest the program had to wait to hear the name of one of its players being selected since 1970.
This year, just seven Big Ten gridders were taken in the first three rounds, the fewest of any BCS conference.
Wisconsin lineman Travis Frederick was the lone first-round pick from the league. He was the surprising choice of Dallas with selection No. 31 overall near the end of the opening round last Thursday.
Also noteworthy (and not in a good way):
* The total of 22 draft picks compares very weakly to the 41 chosen just a year ago – when critics also were bashing the conference. The league had produced a minimum of 27 players who were drafted every year since 1994 – until this year, that is.
* Ohio State’s total of three draftees – DT Johnathan Hankins, DE John Simon and OT Reid Fragel – was below the norm. OSU was in danger of having its smallest draft class since 1968 until Fragel, a converted tight end, was plucked in the seventh round by Cincinnati.
* Michigan, which has produced just five drafted players in the last two years, had just two names go to the podium this year, none in the first four rounds. That also dates to 1968.
* Northwestern, which was 10-3 last year and has been improving its recruiting under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, had no players drafted. Neither did Minnesota or Indiana. Somehow sad-sack Illinois had four make the list, a number it has produced for four straight years and good enough this year to lead the Big Ten pack.
So What’s Wrong?
Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com recently theorized that the positions of quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback are a big part of what’s marring the Big Ten’s reputation as a league that no longer mines an impressive number of skill players. He’s got a good point.
This year, amazingly, the conference didn’t have a single traditional quarterback or receiver taken in the draft. Also, just two corners were drafted and neither of them was named Johnny Adams, the Michigan State cover man who was hyped as a preseason All-American.
Denard Robinson was once a Heisman Trophy candidate and a bona fide star in the league, but following his record-breaking career at Michigan he had to reinvent himself – twice. He worked out at the NFL combine and in front of scouts as a wide receiver yet he ended up being a fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who envision him as a running back.
The Big Ten constantly gets knocked for a lack of speed and then some of its speedsters apparently don’t project on the next level.
Even with that problem, which is a byproduct of the spread system, you’d think the Big Ten would be sending dropback QBs to the pros with some regularity.
Remember all the awesome quarterbacks in the Big Ten in the 1980s? The amazing defensive backs of the 1990s? The emergence of the Big Ten wideout?
Where have you gone, Jim Everett, Charles Woodson and David Boston?
(Well, we know where David Boston is now, but that’s another column altogether.)
It would be easy to blame some of the league’s woes on players leaving too early, but that isn’t really the case. Several draft-worthy players such as Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby stayed put, and all six Big Ten underclassmen who declared for the draft were picked before the end of the fourth round. Plus, early defections affect every major conference in the country, not just the Big Ten.
Impatience is another potential factor, especially considering former Penn State wide receiver Justin Brown and ex-Michigan men Ryan Mallett and Michael Cox are among the several who transferred out of the league in recent years and managed to be selected in the draft.
Ohio State always seems to have its share of talented players who decide not to wait around and still make it to the league. Duron Carter and Lamaar Thomas are possible examples, though they signed deals as undrafted free agents this week.
The Big Ten’s recent woes in recruiting nationally, on the field and in producing pros seems cyclical at this point. Topflight talent sees there is exposure all over the country, listens to all the Big Ten bashing and decides to play elsewhere. The league is cracked for being slow and lacking explosive players and then the draft, which is based on measurable and upside as much as anything, seems to confirm the label.
Losses in high-profile regular-season contests and bowl games don’t help the situation. Plus, some coaches seem to be caught in traditional recruiting comfort zones – even with half the league copying the open attacks seen throughout the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12.
Urban Meyer intends to change that trend – actually has vowed to change it. He’s challenged his coaching staff to comb to country for playmakers and doesn’t care who he torques off to get them.
Brady Hoke also has Michigan on a good recruiting plane. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has a good batting average when it comes to luring and producing quality players.
However, there’s no question the recent coaching unrest, which has even affected the league’s most high-profile programs, has taken a toll.
Meyer and Hoke had a few messes to clean up and several others are still just getting established in the league.
Plus, the Penn State scandal and ouster of legendary coach Joe Paterno is perhaps the biggest black eye in the history of Big Ten football and has been damaging to the league in this PR-driven era. It also figures to crush the program into oblivion for a while, even though new coach Bill O’Brien was a near miracle worker by wading through all the mire well enough to lead the Nittany Lions to an eight-win season in 2012.
This year, Wisconsin and Purdue are starting over with new coaches. With that changeover aside, the coaching carousel has slowed this season and there is more continuity.
Several, including Ohio State, return their entire coaching staffs intact. That settle-down effect will help.
Also, new faces aren’t always detrimental to the makeup of a conference. In terms of player personnel, the Big Ten has showcased several defensive linemen and running backs and continues to crank them into the professional world.
MSU’s Le’Veon Bell and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball were two of the first three running backs selected in last weekend’s draft and each could be on the brink of a very productive pro career.
Despite the loss of those quality running backs others such as OSU’s Carlos Hyde are ready to emerge as the next group of 1,000-yard plowhorses. Hey, it’s the Big Ten. It’s still got something on which to hang its hat.
Creating New Legends?
Even if the conference really has been as weak as it’s been in decades, as some have suggested, better days appear to be right around the corner. That’s especially true in the Legends Division (the short lifespan of which is about to expire after this season).
For example, Northwestern is coming off a 10-win season and its first bowl victory since the Truman administration. Some national writers are daring to list the Wildcats as a top-25 teams heading into the 2013 season.
Like Northwestern, Michigan State’s roster features 16 returning starters including specialists. Dantonio is hell-bent on making it to the Rose Bowl and he’s had this program on the cusp of that goal in recent years.
Iowa and Michigan each have 14 returning starters, many of them with all-league potential.
Minnesota has 17 starters back and should be respectable. The quarterback spot is up for grabs but the emerging signal caller will be surrounded by TB Donnell Kirkwood, TE Drew Goodger, and WR Derrick Engel, which could be a handful for several teams.
Nebraska returns just 12 starters but several key members of the offense including I-back Ameer Abdullah, quarterback Taylor Martinez, and receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.
The challenge will be rebuilding the defense. In the Cornhuskers’ four losses last year they allowed an average of, get this, 53.5 points per game. So much for the Blackshirts.
The bad news is Nebraska lost eight starters on defense – or is that the good news?
I guess the point is this: Can it really get any worse?
Look for Michigan’s Devin Gardner and MSU’s Andrew Maxwell to be more settled in at quarterback this season. UM also returns talented runner Fitzgerald Toussaint, who had a throwaway 2012.
There are actually some defensive standouts in this division, including Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens.
Finding Actual Leaders?
As for the Leaders Division, let’s get the unpleasantries out of the way first.
The Illini are still a mess. Nine of their 10 losses last year were by double digits and they went oh-fer in league play – 0-8.
We have no idea if Tim Beckman can prove his worth as a Big Ten head coach and the fact that he recently welcomed in five JUCO transfers and hired five new assistant coaches are continued signs this program is still under a major reclamation project.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin will try to either find a new identity or attempt to maintain the old one without head coach Bret Bielema. Penn State, as previously mentioned is going to continue to feel the sting of major NCAA sanctions and recruiting challenges.
Indiana and Purdue, as is usually the case, are so-so at best.
With that said, there is still a sliver of potential here.
Illinois can at least boast having a four-year starting quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase. If the offensive line isn’t an abject disaster and the running back tandem of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young excels, Scheelhaase may be able to once again show he’s got some game-changing ability.
Indiana is returning 21 starters and lost just three – although one of them, DT Adam Replogle, will be tough to replace. Still, six defensive starters were sophomores last year and one was a freshman, so there is legitimate hope that group can learn after taking its lumps in 2012.
Plus, IU quarterback Tre Roberson is back from a broken leg and will retake the reins of an offense that was actually fairly explosive last season without him.
Penn State lost QB Matt McGloin and LB Michael Mauti but still can field 16 starters from a year ago. In an attempt to keep his team on point, O’Brien promoted defensive backs coach John Butler as his new defensive coordinator after Ted Roof left to take the DC job at Georgia Tech.
It’s hard to flower the outlook at Purdue considering the Boilermakers ranked 11th in the league in defense last year and lost DT Kawaan Short, one of the top playmakers on that side of the ball.
Oft-injured Rob Henry could play QB but several key members of the offense have departed. The Boilermakers clearly have a steep climb back to respectability.
However, there is excitement in West Lafayette because of the arrival Darrell Hazell, a seven-year Ohio State assistant.
Hazell worked wonders at Kent State, taking over a program that had just one winning season since 1987 before his team went 11-3 and played for the MAC title in 2012.
And let’s not forget Wisconsin gets to carry itself as winner of the last three Big Ten championships.
The Badgers have nine starters returning to their offense, seven to the defense, and both kick specialists. Among the returnees are WR Jared Abbrederis and MLB Chris Borland.
Athletic director Barry Alvarez has deep belief in new head coach Gary Andersen, who had head-turning results at Utah State.
Carrying The Banner
So that’s an outline of sorts of what has ailed the Big Ten in recent years and why the recent mediocrity may be coming to and end.
The reality, though, is that the onus is now squarely on Ohio State. The Buckeyes need to dominate at least their side of the conference and stay right in the midst of the Big Ten race or the critics of the league will ramp up the volume once again.
If OSU maintains the appearance of a top-five team all season, some pundits may actually overlook the relative weakness of the Leaders Division.
Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com recently hailed Ohio State as the team to beat next season. He also came up with a preseason top-25 with Michigan at No. 9, Nebraska at No. 22, Northwestern at No. 24 and Wisconsin at No. 25.
Those teams will try to earn their rankings while Ohio State will try to vanquish all challengers.
On paper, there is plenty of reason to like the Buckeyes. Not only are they coming off a 12-0 campaign and have perhaps the nation’s most driven coach in Meyer, they could light up the scoreboard this season.
Braxton Miller was a top-five Heisman Trophy finalist last year and will work behind an offensive line that has four senior starters. The receiving corps is vastly improved, the tight end position is in good shape and Hyde and a slew of talented running backs are ready to rumble.
If the defense … well, you know the rest.
The Buckeyes can play for crystal football if they play their cards right. The league could do itself a favor if several teams won prominent bowl games, especially with the College Football Playoff on the horizon.
Come next spring, perhaps the Big Ten will redeem itself when the NFL draft reconvenes.
Ironically, Rutgers produced seven picks in the draft last week.
Whether or not any Big Ten school fares that well next year remains to be seen, but Ohio State is a strong early candidate. Athlon Sports recently rated the top 75 prospects for next year and the list included three Buckeyes projected to be 2014 first-rounders: Miller (No. 12 overall), Roby (No. 14) and linebacker Ryan Shazier (No. 21).
The publication labeled South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney in the top spot but also gave top-10 mention to Michigan OT Taylor Lewan (No. 7). Minnesota DT Ra’Shede Hageman checked in at No. 72.
The conference has plenty more talented upperclassmen who could shoot up the draft boards including Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard.
It’s plausible to believe the Big Ten could produce 7-10 players in the top three rounds of next year’s draft. That’s a lot better than two, and would be a very good sign that the tide is shifting back to its rightful place.
Now, about the recent bowl game showing …
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.