Weekend watching: Big Ten draft prospects

The Big Ten Conference Championship features 18 players that have draftable grades assigned to them by lead NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. He breaks down the matchup and the players to watch that could be in the NFL draft next spring.

Below, I take a look at this week’s conference championship matchups from a draft perspective, examining the talent on those teams that are being analyzed by NFL teams, along with their current status on our draft board.

Ohio State (11-1) vs. Wisconsin (10-2)

The playoff selection committee is banking on the Badgers defeating the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title clash to end any controversy over its placement of Texas Christian in the four-team playoff format. Wisconsin is much like Missouri, hoping that a two-loss season will be enough to help it sneak into the playoffs. But like the Tigers, even in victory, UW will have to settle for a Jan. 1 bowl appearance instead.

Two things that are hindering OSU’s argument to be included in the battle for the national title is that the committee might be concerned that the loss of star quarterback J.T. Barrett will greatly impact the Buckeyes offense. The real factor for both Ohio State and Baylor “looking into the candy store” rather than sitting down at the soda fountain is the team’s strength of schedule. Below shows th strength-of-schedule ranking for the top 10 teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks:

Rank  Rating 1-1011-25 26-40High LowLast
1Alabama (11-1) 25.51-1 5-02-0 111 1
2Oregon (11-1) 25.01-0 2-12-0 19 3
3Texas Christian (10-1) 23.11-1 1-02-0 339 5
4Baylor (10-1) 22.92-0 0-01-1 19 2
5Georgia (9-3) 21.61-0 2-22-1 415 4
6Mississippi (9-3) 20.61-1 2-23-0 221 7
7Oklahoma (8-3) 20.40-2 0-13-0 113 6
8Auburn (8-4) 19.51-2 3-21-0 19 9
9Ohio State (11-1) 19.41-0 0-00-0 732 8
10Michigan State (10-2) 19.30-2 0-01-0 1027 11
NOTE: 1-10 indicates record vs. teams rated first to 10th in 2014…11-25 is the record vs. teams rated 11th through 25th…26-40 is the record vs. teams rated 26th through 40th…High indicates team’s highest rank in 2014…Low indicates the team’s lowest rank…Last indicates team rating on the previous week’s chart.

The Big Ten Conference Championship sees Ohio State return to the contest for the fourth time, while Wisconsin returns for the third time, including the title clashes in 2011 and 2012.

While Ohio State’s future appears to be in good hands, the quarterback who got it to the title clash, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, will be on the sidelines after he suffered a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan. Losing Barrett takes his 2,834 aerial yards with 34 touchdowns and 938 rushing yards with 11 more scores out of the offensive equation.

That leaves the Buckeyes with a sophomore quarterback (Cardale Jones) who has made just 10-of-17 throws this season, good for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He’s now given the task of leading an offense that ranked fifth in the nation in scoring (44.1 ppg), 11th in rushing (257.4 ypg) and 11th in total yards (503.4 ypg).

Ohio State will have to revert to a ground game, given Jones’ lack of experience and the Badgers’ No. 17 ranking against the pass this season (188.3 yards per game). Ohio State will need a big day from tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 1,182 yards with 10 scores (6.0 ypc) on 197 totes this season. He’s also become a valuable safety-valve receiver, snatching 26 throws.

Jones needs to develop instant chemistry with his receivers, but that unit has little to offer in the quality or depth department. While five pass catchers pulled in at least 20 balls each, the leading receiver was flanker Michael Thomas. The sophomore unseated senior Devin Smith for the starting assignment, pulling in 40 balls for a 16.0-yard aveage and eight scores.

Smith emerged in the slot, as his average of 25.5 yards per catch (26 for 662 and eight touchdowns) ranks second in the FBS ranks. (Miami’s Phil Dorsett is averaging 26.6 yards.) With those impressive numbers, combined with his 4.46 speed, the bowl season and all-star games could see him elevate his draft status from a late-round pick into the mid-rounds.

At tight end, Jeff Heuerman is regarded as a quality blocker, but he’s not much of a pass catcher, even though he did pull in 17 passes for a 12.2-yard average and two touchdowns this year. He seems sluggish getting into his routes and might not be fully recovered from offseason foot surgery that limited his appearances early in the schedule.

Still, Heuerman is a tough and physical receiver when working in a crowd. He has good hand/eye coordination to catch outside the framework and has some shake to elude after the catch. He will not win many foot races, but turns it up hard and will bleed yardage after the catch. He is more of a power runner who breaks tackles, rather than tries to slip by and avoid defenders.

As a blocker, he is on the defender quickly and follows up with good strength, leverage and active feet. Heuerman works hard to sustain, showing good balance. He does an effective job adjusting to the linebacker in space to finish his block. He has more than enough size to wall off the linebacker, and can pancake the bigger defensive linemen with his frame structure, leading to his draft status as a projected fourth-round target.

The OSU offensive line is young, led by left tackle Taylor Decker and center Chad Lindsay, both emerging junior talents. There have been whispers that Decker might opt to leave school early for the NFL, but as well as he’s played this year — he gave up just two of the 23 sacks allowed by the front wall — he still needs to refine his footwork before he can be considered anything more than mid-round material.

The defensive line is led by sophomore All-American defensive end Joey Bosa (13.5 sacks and 20.0 stops for losses), but the youngster might be the front wall’s only starter returning in 2015. Senior weak-side defensive tackle Michael Bennett could be one of the top-40 players taken in the draft, but at 6:02, 288, he will be better served in a 4-3 alignment as an under-tackle.

Strong-side defensive tackle Adolphus Washington shoved 342-pound Chris Carter to the bench, as he’s collected eight stops behind the line of scrimmage among his 39 tackles. He’s feeling out the draft process, but if he bolts as a junior, he can expect to receive a fourth-round draft projection. With Bennett leaving (31 tackles, four sacks), Washington stands to elevate that draft stock, especially with Bosa applying constant pressure next to him on the right side.

The other potential Buckeyes draft picks from their defensive unit are the tandem of Grant and Grant — Curtis, the 240-pound middle linebacker with 49 tackles, and boundary cornerback, Doran, who has posted 48 stops with seven pass breakups and three interceptions. Neither player is expected to be taken until the later stages of the draft, though.

Wisconsin comes into the game sporting a seven-game winning streak. The Badgers will never be known for their aerial attack, which was further hampered by the injury woes experienced by quarterback Joel Stave (shoulder in March) that would keep him on the sidelines for the first four games. The Badgers finished the regular season ranked 117th among the 125 major colleges, averaging 147.8 yards per game passing. In eight appearances, Steve hit on 79-of-136 throws (58.1 percent) for 1,042 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s played better as the season has progressed and has been a key to the Badgers’ late success.

Split end Alex Erickson leads the team with 44 grabs for 651 yards and three scores, but outside of pass-catching tight end Sam Arneson (25 for 331 yards and four scores), no other Wisconsin player reached the 20-reception level. Arneson was often used in a two-tight end format with junior Austin Traylor (two for 20 yards), but neither of those big men are considered anything more than late-round/free-agent material.

The bread and butter of the Wisconsin offense has always been the ground game, led by Big Ten Player of the Year Melvin Gordon, who figures to be the first running back taken in the first round of the draft in three years.

Houston Texans Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt might not be the only family member to play in the NFL next year, as an early-season injury has his brother, Derek, regarded as the best fullback in college, seriously considering bolting college life. Watt was on the sidelines early this year with a right foot injury he suffered in the season opener. The junior also was hampered by hamstring problems last season and could make the move to the pro ranks a year earlier, much like his brother did.

Only three fullbacks were taken in 2013, but the top choice, Harvard’s Kyle Juszczyk, has become an integral part of the Baltimore Ravens’ backfield since they invested a fourth-round choice in him. Only three fullbacks heard their names called during the draft in 2014, but the top selection, Auburn’s Jay Prosch, proved to be a find for Houston in the sixth round, as he opened his rookie season serving as the Texans’ lead blocker for Arian Foster.

While it is doubtful that redshirt sophomore Dan Voltz will leave school early and enter the 2015 draft, many scouts feel that, outside of Auburn’s Reese Dismukes, there is not a finer center in the college ranks. Like most of the Badgers’ blockers playing in the NFL, Voltz excels when blocking in-line, as he sets with a strong base and shows better balance when he sinks his weight and stays low in his pad level. He has the functional hip snap to redirect playing inside the tackles and is quick to recognize twists and games.

Voltz uses his upper-body strength to torque and control defenders when he fires low off the snap. He is quick to get into position and gets his head up instantly after snapping the ball. His hand punch can be violent at the point of attack and he works hard to finish.

Along with Voltz, Wisconsin could see junior left tackle Tyler Marz coveted by NFL teams. Projected as one of the top five tackles in college football, his teammate at the right tackle spot, Rob Haverstein, is gaining late-round draft attention. Still, it is Marz that has drawn favorable comparisons to former Big Ten standout, Jake Long (Michigan).

When he stays square in his base, Marz shows the footwork to get in front on traps and pulls. He is very good with his reach and scoop skills, when he sinks his weight and stays low in his pads (better at gaining advantage and sealing off when getting movement on double teams). He can locate and land in the short-space area (not as effective on the long pull), and is quick to set and recoil with his hands, showing good knee bend setting up in pass protection.

There are no stars on the defensive side of the ball for the Badgers, just a nice array of blue-collar types. Still, that unit recorded 35 sacks (18th in the FBS) with 80 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Overall, they ranked second in total defense (260.3 ypg), second in pass defense (156.6 ypg) and eighth vs. the running game (103.8 ypg). The amazing part of their success vs. the pass was their lack of turnovers in the secondary, as Wisconsin placed 109th in the nation with six interceptions.

The leader of this unit was supposed to be nose guard/under tackle Warren Herring, who was sitting on most draft boards in the mid-round range entering the season. He suffered a right knee injury vs. Louisiana State in the season opener, undergoing surgery. He’s returned to play in seven games this year but is not fully recovered, evident by his limited production to date (12 tackles).

Keep an eye on strong safety Michael Caputo, as the hard-hitting junior leads the Badgers with 93 tackles and has recovered four fumbles. Two linebackers that might be nice camp finds are inside guys, Marcus Trotter, second on the squad with 75 hits, including 10 for losses, and Derek Landisch, who has made 14.5 stops for losses, leading the team with eight sacks to go with 70 tackles, third-best on the team.

Ohio State Featured Prospect

MICHAEL BENNETT: Weak-side Defensive Tackle, 6:02.2-288-4.96

Much like the Patriots’ Tim Jernigan, Bennett is a classic overachiever, a bit undersized, but one that manages to makes plays vs. multiple blockers. He’s been in on 31 tackles this year, making four sacks and 8.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

He had spent his first two seasons with the Buckeyes serving as a key reserve. He delivered 28 tackles with four sacks through his first 21 appearances, but missed four games as a sophomore with a severe groin injury.

Bennett took over left defensive tackle duties in 2013, starting all year, despite having some shoulder issues. He totaled 42 tackles, finishing third on the squad with seven sacks and fourth with 11.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Bennett is a classic under-tackle type who might not have the bulk of normal behemoths that usually occupy the interior spots on an NFL front wall. Despite being undersized, scouts see a lot of Mike Daniels (Green Bay) in his style of play. The big concern with this Buckeye is health – as he was sidelined by groin problems for four games as a sophomore and suffered from shoulder issues last season.

Bennett Positives…Flashes explosion as a bull rusher, and is quick into his second move…Routinely quick off the ball to engage the blocker, he shows good feet in his straight-ahead burst and is sudden in his moves to gain advantage…Quick-twitch type who is active with his hands in attempts to disengage, as he is successful in attempts to gain immediate edge at the snap, along with the quickness to get into the gaps and disrupt…When he stays low in his pads, he can control blockers with his hand quickness…Has good up-field speed and is effective on the bull rush due to good counter moves when pressuring…A lethargic blocker can also lose the battle with Bennett, thanks to his quickness in the gaps, in addition to having the speed to disrupt the plays in the backfield when in pursuit…Does a nice job of using his hands to keep separation and get off the line while controlling the blockers and while he will need to improve his upper-body power, he works hard to rock the offensive tackles back on their heels. Even with just a 32 3/8-inch arm length, he has enough presence to use them well to spit double teams or generate low block protection to keep linemen away from his legs.

Bennett Negatives…Has not been the most durable player for the Buckeyes and he tends to throttle down late in the games…Needs to be more aware of the snap count, as mental lapses have led to more than a handful of offside calls…Has good hand usage, but lacks ideal strength, which sees bigger, more physical blockers lock on and stymie him if he fails to escape reach blocks…Might lack the bulk you look for in a defensive tackle and will more likely move to defensive end or under-tackle in the pros…Does get a little high in his stance and along with his adequate arm length, this allows taller offensive linemen to get into his chest…Can be an efficient leverage player, but when he stands tall, he can look mechanical in his shed…In analyzing Bennett’s previous season game films and medical records, he has had groin and shoulder issues from all the pounding he has taken vs. bigger blockers and this affects his overall performance.

Wisconsin Featured Prospect

MELVIN GORDON: Tailback, 6:00.5-203-4.43

The favorite to win the Doak Walker Award (nation’s top running back), Gordon has mounted a serious challenge for the Heisman Trophy. The Big Ten Player of the Year set school season-records for yards gained rushing (2,260), yards per carry (8.0) and was second on that list with 26 touchdowns. His average of 19.5 yards per attempt vs. Bowling Green (13 for 253) and 16.3 yards per try vs. Nebraska (25 for 408) are the best game averages ever recorded by a Badger.

His five touchdown runs vs. Bowling Green tied a UW game record and his 408 yards vs. Nebraska was the NCAA game record before it was broken the following week. He ranks fourth in school history and eighth in league annals with 4,588 rushing yards, is tied for fifth in the school ranks with 42 touchdown runs and set the Big Ten record with an 8.0-yard career rushing average.

Gordon Positives…The tailback runs with very good balance and has the foot quickness to redirect on the move…He is a sudden runner around the corner, showing good patience waiting for blocks to develop…Can generate a second gear to separate in the open and has the nimble feet needed to make precise lateral cuts…His loose hips and change-of-direction agility makes him elusive avoiding traffic…Has nice feet and above-average balance in his initial burst, doing a nice job of “getting skinny” to pick his way through tight creases…Gets most of his success because of his feel for the rush lanes and does a very good job of setting up his blocks, showing no hesitation running through openings when he locates them…Runs inside with very good body lean and awareness, especially when picking and sliding…His short-area burst lets him bounce to the outside when the middle is clogged…Good downhill runner with the slippery moves and change of direction agility to get through trash…Excellent stop-and-go runner, whose precise cutting agility will generally see the initial tackler overpursue…Extremely effective eluding defenders with his lateral slide and veer moves, combining them with his burst…

Runs with a good pad level and has the strength on contact to break tackles, showing excellent balance and leg drive…Can push the pile on a consistent basis and is a savvy, hard-charging runner with good body control…Squares his shoulders and keeps his pad level down, making it tough for the isolated tackler to bring him down…His balance lets him keep his feet, redirect and race through the cutback lanes to gain additional yardage after contact.

Gordon Negatives…Durability has never been an issue, but he has that high-cut frame that lacks great bulk and, despite his acceleration and burst, he’s not known as a highly effective power runner and has not had the high amount of carries others have had to see if he can withstand over-use…Can be tripped up when he gets too tall in his stance, as he does not always protect his feet from shoestring tackles…Is used mostly on controlled routes, but has not shown great route-running skills and struggles at times when asked to settle underneath and is not always alert to coverage (you will see him run into crowded spots as a pass catcher)…Will sometimes get too fancy and execute multiple moves, allowing the defender to recover.

*GORDON, Melvin Wisconsin TB06:00.5 2034.43 8.31
*VOLTZ, Dan Wisconsin OC6:02.6 3135.44 7.32
BENNETT, Ben “Michael” Ohio State DT06:02.2 2864.96 6.81-2
*MARZ, Tyler Wisconsin OT06:05.1 3215.34 6.52-3
#*WATT, Derek Wisconsin FB06:01.5 2324.67 5.93-4
*DECKER, Taylor Ohio State OT06:06.1 3155.17 5.84
#HEUERMAN, Jeff Ohio State TE06:05.0 2524.68 5.74
*WASHINGTON, Adolphus Ohio State (RE) DT06:02.6 2954.93 5.74
HERRING, Warren Wisconsin DT06:02.3 2905.06 5.64-5
GRANT, Curtis Ohio State MLB06:02.3 2434.59 5.54-5
GRANT, Doran Ohio State CB05:10.2 1964.49 5.45
*CARTER, Chris Ohio State NG06:03.2 3405.45 5.35-6
SMITH, Devin Ohio State WR06:00.4 1994.46 5.16-7
ARNESON, Samuel Wisconsin Sr06:04.4 2444.70 5.07
HAVENSTEIN, Robert Wisconsin OT06:07.7 3385.39 5.07
*TRAYLOR, Austin Wisconsin TE06:02.6 2434.68 4.97
*CAPUTO, Michael Wisconsin SS06:00.5 2064.68 4.87-FA
*MALY, Austin Wisconsin TE06:04.5 2404.75 4.87-FA
SPENCER, Evan Ohio State WR06:01.2 2124.54 4.7PFA
SMITH, Rod Ohio State TB06:02.0 2324.58 4.6FA
LINDSAY, Chad Ohio State OC06:02.0 3025.42 4.6FA
ZAGZEBSKI, Konrad Wisconsin DE06:03.1 2804.92 4.5FA
LANDISCH, Derek Wisconsin MLB05:11.6 2304.82 4.5FA
COSTIGAN, Kyle Wisconsin OG06:04.2 3105.38 4.5FA
#MILLER, Braxton Ohio State QB06:01.4 2154.42 5.84-5
%*SPENCE, Noah (DE) Ohio State OLB06:02.6 2404.68 2.53
BALDWIN, Darryl Ohio State OT06:06.0 3085.27   
CADOGAN, Sherard Wisconsin OLB06:02.0 2364.74  
DOE, Kenzel Wisconsin WR05:07.6 1704.52  
JEAN, Peniel Wisconsin CB05:11.0 1874.55   
KRAMER, Eric Ohio State OG06:03.0 2955.22   
LEWALLEN, Dallas Wisconsin OT06:05.2 3225.29   
McGUIRE, James Wisconsin LS06:01.1 2164.77   
MILLER, Steve Ohio State DE06:03.0 2554.81   
MOORE, J.T. Ohio State TE06:02.0 2604.75   
#*STAVE, Joel Wisconsin QB06:04.2 2275.08   
TROTTER, Marcus Wisconsin MLB06:00.0 2334.76  
NOTE: An * indicates the player is an underclassman…# indicates major injury that could impact draft grade…CL indicates college class…HT indicates height of the player…WT indicates weight…40 indicates 40-yard dash time…225 indicates repetitions in the 225-pound bench press…VJ indicates vertical jump…BJ indicates broad jump…SH indicates 20-yard shuttle…3C indicates three-cone drill…PRO-indicates The NFL Draft Report’s projected pro potential grade (see chart below)…RND indicates the round we project the player to be selected.

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