The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.
Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.
Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.
Let's get to the rundown.
1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.
3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.
4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.
5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.
6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.
7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.
8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.
9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.
10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.
12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.