With Montee Ball
gone, James White finally has his chance to shine at Wisconsin. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Will the 2013 season be Braxton Miller's swan song as quarterback at Ohio State? Miller enters the year as a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy after leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 campaign in 2012. He is a strong-armed, ultra-athletic QB with decent size (6 feet 2 inches, 215 pounds) and a knack for delivering clutch plays when Ohio State needs them.
And yet, his NFL stock remains largely unsettled. The reason behind that is Miller's passing prowess has not yet caught up to his ability as a runner. So, can he develop into a Russell Wilson/Robert Griffin-style QB, capable of making the throws necessary to succeed as a runner in the NFL? Or will he go the way of former Buckeye Terrelle Pryor, himself a stellar athlete, who admitted just this summer that he's still not really comfortable throwing the football?
NFL scouts will be watching ever so closely in 2013, especially should Miller hint at all about leaving Ohio State a year early.
Similar questions will follow the QB of Pryor's arch-rival, Michigan's Devin Gardner. A redshirt junior, Gardner also could bolt for the NFL following this season, his first full year at the helm of the Wolverines' offense. Like Miller, he is a phenomenal athlete -- 6-4, 210, and he spent the early parts of last season at wide receiver with Denard Robinson at QB.
Round 1 of Miller vs. Gardner was a thriller last year in Columbus. Round 2, up in Ann Arbor this November, might be even better.
And now, a few other Big Ten names to remember:
Illinois: Jonathan Brown, OLB.
Clearly the top draft prospect on a rebuilding Illinois roster, Brown plays with the instincts of an NFL linebacker. The Illini have moved him around quite a bit, even within games, from his outside linebacker spot to the inside and even down as a stand-up rusher. Brown is listed at 6 feet 1 inches, 235 pounds and really seems bigger than that on the field. Chalk that up, perhaps, to his speed.
It would be nice to see Brown show more consistency from play to play -- at times, he'll lose his assignment or struggle to fight through blocks. He should be the leader of the Illini's 2013 defense, though, with a shot to climb in the 2014 draft.
Indiana: Stephen Houston, RB.
Houston (6-0, 230) is on track to be someone who can round out an NFL team's depth chart at running back, because of his all-around game. In two seasons with the Hoosiers, Houston has averaged 27 receptions and just shy of 800 yards rushing. Nothing particularly jumps off the screen in Houston's game -- though he does plant and turn upfield well -- but the total package is appealing. He'll need a strong senior season and positive showing pre-draft.
Iowa: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE.
Just another guy in the long line of Iowa tight ends. Fiedorowicz should join the likes of Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler and Brandon Myers at the next level, and he has the potential to be a real solid pro.
Standing 6-7, 265, Fiedorowicz caught 45 passes for 433 yards last season, numbers that could rise if Iowa seeks to take more advantage of him. Fiedorowicz has great hands and loves to stick his nose into the mix as a blocker. There are athletic limitations to his game, made more evident by Iowa's apparent lack of interest in trying to use him on deeper routes. Fiedorowicz has the look of a mid-round prospect who could stick in the NFL for years and years.
Michigan: Michael Schofield, OT.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan is the big ticket on Michigan's offensive line, but Schofield (6-7, 304) started all 13 games on the right side last season and is a legit prospect in his own right. Although Schofield displayed the footwork necessary to excel in the Wolverines' Robinson-led attack, he might be primed to explode in a more pro-style look with Gardner at QB.
Schofield started 10 games at guard during his redshirt freshman season, then slid back to his more natural tackle spot last season. He moves really well for his size with the motor to finish plays. If Lewan slips at all, Schofield may not even be that far behind him in coming off the board.
Michigan State: Max Bullough, LB.
The Spartans' stout defense features a pair of standout linebackers in Bullough and OLB Denicos Allen. Both should be drafted in May, likely well before Day 2 is over. Bullough is the man in the middle of Michigan State's 4-3 attack, and he helps orchestrate coverages and play calls from that spot.
Actually, there is very little he doesn't do there. Bullough (6-3, 245) finished 2012 with 111 tackles, including 12.5 for loss. He's a prototypical inside linebacker -- tough, aggressive with a nose for the ball, solid tackler and decent dropping in coverage. His game reminds me a bit of Manti Te'o in that he has little bits and pieces of his game that need to improve, but overall plays a near-perfect middle linebacker.
Minnesota: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT.
Get ready to hear a lot about Hageman in the coming months. The 6-feet-6-inch, 311-pound defensive tackle is a freak athlete, one who probably will steal the show at the combine -- attribute that to his background as a tight end prior to converting to the D-line. Two different pro scouts mentioned Hageman as a possible first-round pick in a recent post by CBS's Dane Brugler, and the shoe fits. Hageman, who had 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks last season, is still in the developmental phase of learning how to play tackle, too, so the sky is the limit.
Nebraska: Spencer Long, G.
Long (6-4, 315) brings that nasty factor that NFL teams covet in their interior linemen -- he'll block to the whistle and maybe even a second beyond. Nebraska loves to run the football, so Long has extensive experience in all facets of that game, including as a pulling blocker. He does that well, moving his feet to get out in front of the play and finding someone to lay a helmet on.
It's actually in the trenches that Long probably needs to show improvement to climb in the first couple rounds. He occasionally struggles keeping people in front of him and moving the pile forward, though he is successful enough at it to warrant attention from any NFL team needing guard help.
Nebraska's other extremely intriguing draft prospect: QB Taylor Martinez. He's never shown a particular knack for being able to throw the football, but he is an elite athlete. His NFL future may follow a similar path to that of ...
Northwestern: Kain Colter, QB.
How much fun is this guy to watch? The 6-0 Colter served as Northwestern's starting QB last season but actually ran the ball more times than he threw it (170 attempts to 149), then mixed in 16 catches for good measure. He racked up 43 receptions in 2011, to go along with 82 passes and 135 rushes, and Northwestern continues to utilize him all over the field, from QB to running back to wide receiver.
He may have a hard time getting to the NFL as a quarterback, which makes his experience elsewhere extremely valuable. Whereas Denard Robinson entered the draft extremely raw as a pass-catcher and just learning how to play running back, Colter has shown he can do both. Colter is an electrifying athlete, one who makes big plays over and over again, no matter where he's lined up.
Ohio State: Ryan Shazier, OLB.
Odds are that Shazier will be the second Buckeye off the draft board, behind another junior who figures to turn pro: CB Bradley Roby. A case probably could be made for the 6-2, 222-pound Shazier, who chalked up 115 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and five sacks last season.
Quite simply, Shazier is a sensational athlete, which is why he both thrives in Columbus and has a future as a weakside linebacker at the next level. His rapid-fire approach to defense can backfire from time to time, as he'll overrun plays in an attempt to get to the ball. Another year developing his game could turn Shazier into an immediate-impact NFL player.
Penn State: John Urschel, G.
Penn State's football website refers to him as "the embodiment of a student-athlete", an apt description given Urschel's success on the football field and, more to the point, his excellent work off it. Urschel graduated in May with a 4.0 GPA, which is just the type of note that NFL teams will love to see.
Add in his size (6-3, 301) and his steady play along the Nittany Lions' front, and Urschel has a ton working for him. We're not talking about a guard in the dominant mold of a Chance Warmack here. Rather, Urschel is to his position what Fiedorowicz is at tight end -- a player who will settle in with a franchise for a decade or so as a stabilizing force.
Purdue: Ricardo Allen, CB.
Undersized at 5-9, 186, Allen's best bet to stick in the NFL likely will come as a slot/nickel corner. He could thrive there, given his quickeness in coverage and run support, though Allen also might be able to hold his own lined up outside. He has seven interceptions during his Purdue career, with four touchdown returns. Allen is smaller but plays faster than former teammate Josh Johnson, a 5-11 CB who went undrafted this year before signing with San Diego.
Wisconsin: James White, RB.
Will White finally get his day in the Wisconsin sun? He has more than 2,500 career yards rushing and has scored 33 touchdowns, but White was the Robin to Montee Ball's Batman over the past two seasons. This year, he may split carries with rising sophomore Melvin Gordon.
And, honestly, that could be the best utilization of White: as the speed guy in a backfield combo. White has a knack for breaking off big plays, to which his career 6.1 yards-per-carry average will attest. Whether the exciting 5-10, 195-pound RB can be a 250-plus carry back is another story. He'll get a shot in the NFL, especially if he proves to be a better receiver than his numbers show (eight catches last season).