Who would have guessed that the Big Ten would leave this past week’s NFL combine with a legitimate claim to being the fastest conference in college football?
When the participants in this month’s dose of football methadone were first starting their college careers the Big Ten was largely thought of as a step behind its BCS brethren. The league built on a brand of beefy offensive linemen and physical play lacked the most important ingredient in modern football: speed. The results from the 2017 combine provide another argument that the Big Ten has closed that gap, and they explain why its wedged itself back into the conversation for the best football product in the country.
Three of the top five 40-yard dash times in this year’s draft class belong to Big Ten player. Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick ran it in 4.28 seconds -- the fastest time for a defensive back in the past 12 years and second only to John Ross' record-breaking 4.22 this week in Indianapolis. Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel (4.31) and Marshon Lattimore (4.36) weren’t far behind.
That’s a far cry from the fall of 2013 when NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt wrote that most of the conference’s skill players were "plodders" and that the league was too slow to have a realistic shot at competing with other top flight programs.
"Because of the way football is played today offensively, where players are spread out all over the field, really good Big Ten teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin will always be sizable underdogs against their SEC, Pac-12 -- as well as many of their ACC and Big 12 -- counterparts," Brandt wrote at the time. "And it all comes down to two things: speed and quickness."
The evidence suggests he wasn’t wrong. Consider that in 2013 the fastest Big Ten player at the combine was Michigan’s Denard Robinson. His time of 4.43 seconds ranked 21st in that group and would have fallen in a similar spot this year. In 2014, instead of three finishes in the top five, the third best time for the conference ranked 34th overall.
That year only four recent alumni of the league finished in under 4.5 seconds. This time around there were 10 sub-4.5s. Only the Pac-12 produced more.
Along with the top-end burners, one of the Big Ten's most impressive shows of speed this week came from its linebackers. Jabrill Peppers' 4.46 was the fastest time any linebacker has clocked in the past decade. Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan finished third in the position group with a time of 4.61 seconds.
In the 20-yard shuttle, which is probably a more realistic measure of the quick bursts and change of direction that help a middle linebacker track down tacklers, Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Michigan's Ben Gedeon tied for the top time in their position group (4.13 seconds). Among the linebackers, Watt also finished tied for first in the broad jump and second in the three-cone drill. Gedeon led all linebackers with 27 reps on the bench press and was also deemed a top performer in the vertical jump.
The Big Ten’s best players have gotten faster over the past five years. Much of that has to do with an infusion of new coaches who have increased the competition on the recruiting trail. One of their biggest selling points over the past couple years has been the ability to shepherd players into the NFL. Their pitch in that regard is only getting stronger. Ohio State sent the largest contingent of players to the combine in 2016. Michigan had the biggest group this year. If you were paying attention to how many combine updates were coming from either program’s social media feeds this past week, you know the Big Ten's pitch is also getting louder.
The perception of the Big Ten as a place for slow, old-school football has changed, and that should only help to make the league continue to get faster in the years to come.