BY MICK MILLER
COLLEGE FOOTBALL INSIDERS
BIG TEN WRITER
The Big Ten continues to cultivate, and the National Football League salivates. Some of the top talent and impact players that college football has to offer comes from the Big Ten, which produced 32 players in the 2007 NFL Draft, including two of the top five in Wisconsin left tackles Joe Thomas (#3) and Penn State’s Levi Brown (#5). In all, six went in the first round, with Ted Ginn of Ohio State (#9), Michigan’s Leon Hall (#18), Anthony Spencer of Purdue (#26) and Ginn’s fellow OSU wide out Anthony Gonzalez (#32).
This year’s crop is just as bountiful as these ten players will provide teams at the next level cornerstones to build upon.
1. Jake Long, OT, Michigan – The draft status of both Thomas and Brown gives us an idea into the draft potential of Long. It was Long, not Thomas, who won the conference’s Lineman of the Year award, to go along was First-Team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American selections. Considering where Thomas and Brown were selected, Long’s potential certainly places him in the top five.
2. Dan Connor, LB, Penn State – Although Buffalo Bill draftee Paul Posluszny got all the print, Connor had the better season from the opening kick. He also was a Bednarik finalist last season and his 113 tackles (including nine for a loss) has placed him 99 tackles behind Posluszny’s newly established school record. Some experts consider him a better linebacker prospect than Posluszny.
3. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State – The Bronco Nagurski Award (nation’s top defensive player) winner had a solid 2006 season and led the Buckeyes with five interceptions from his linebacker spot as he chalked up 115 tackles and four sacks to boot. Said to be not as athletic as former first rounder A.J. Hawk, he will be equally productive in college and at the next level.
4. Justin King, CB, Penn State – How happy is the valley with this Thorpe Award candidate and possibly the first defensive back off the board when he decides to leave for the pros? King has the size (6-0, 186), the speed (4.38) and versatility (Dean’s List in ’05 and Academic All-Big Ten in ’06) to improve on a 2006 when he was selected to the Second Team All-Big Ten. Claiming to be the healthiest he has ever been, coaches are expecting a monumental year.
5. Jack Ikegwuono, CB, Wisconsin – Big (6-1, 199 lbs) and fast, Ikegwuono ran down Arkansas all-world running back Darren McFadden from behind on the opening drive of the Capital One Bowl when it appeared to be a sure touchdown. This play not only displayed the measurables, but showed the type of heart this Badger plays with as well. It fueled the Badgers to a 17-14 win in the bowl game and will carry over into this season. He only had two interceptions, as teams simply threw away from him.
6. Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State – Another big (6-1, 202 lbs) corner who simply takes half the field away from opposing offenses. With 4.3 speed and solid tackling ability, he has NFL written all over him. He had four interceptions last season, including a 61-yard for a touchdown on one of his picks. Jenkins was First Team All-Big Ten and after a huge sophomore year, the sky is the limit.
7. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – A Second Team All-Big Ten selection last season, Gholston led the Buckeyes with 8.5 sacks while starting all 13 contests. The 6-4, 260 pound junior runs a sub-4.7 forty and looks to pick up the slack on a defensive line that lost three seniors. Having the benefit of a redshirt freshman year could vault Gholston into the first round in the 2008 NFL Draft.
8. Chad Henne, QB, Michigan – A starter since his freshman year, Henne had a solid 2006 with 2,508 yards, 22 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. In his three seasons in Ann Arbor, he has thrown for 7,777 yards, 70 touchdown passes, and 28 interceptions. With an intact offense coming back and some shootouts bound to come his way this season, Henne could topple all of the Michigan passing records this season and take his place amongst other NFL Wolverine quarterbacks.
9. Alex Boone, OT, Ohio State – A mountain of a man in the midst of a Buckeye reload could be a top ten pick in the 2008 Draft if he comes on with a strong junior campaign. Considered the best offensive line prospect since Orlando Pace, who himself went number one overall. A poor showing in the National Championship loss to Florida has placed a chip on his shoulder and he is out to prove himself.
10. Mario Manningham, WR, Michigan – Derailed by injury last season, Manningham stepped his summer training regimen by working out with quarterback Chad Henne and the rest of the Wolverine receivers on routes, fundamentals, and overall conditioning. At 6-0 and 181 pounds, Manningham is electric on the outside and opens everything up for the Maize and Blue underneath. A big game performer in the clutch, he is looking to explode this season and take his place amongst the greats at the U of M at the receiver position.