The Heisman Trophy may be the most coveted trophy in all of sports.
Ten of the last 11 winners of this priceless award have been quarterbacks. And since 1950, only one time has a non-offensive skill player — e.g., quarterback, running back or wide receiver — claimed the historic award (Charles Woodson, 1997). Yes, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, few players touch the ball more than a workhorse running back. But just because big uglies, heavy-hitters and pass rushers don't often get the famed trip to Radio City Music Hall in New York City, it doesn't mean they don't deserve it.
So expect to see more than just signal callers, pass-catchers and tailbacks on Athlon Sports' conference-by-conference Heisman Contenders.
The Big Ten's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:
1. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (SR)
There is no player in a better Heisman situation in the Big Ten than Robinson, but because Montee Ball was so unstoppable a year ago, they are essentially 1a and 1b. Shoelace has the NCAA records, the electric, big-play, highlight-reel skills needed to enthrall voters, a better chance at a Big Ten title, has multiple national showcase games in and out of conference and plays the all-important quarterback position (11 of last 12 winners). If he can stay healthy, Robinson will have the slight edge over Wisconsin’s workhorse.
2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (SR)
It is nearly impossible to argue with Ball’s production. But the 2012 Badgers are not going to be the same team that set school records for scoring two years in a row. Gone is uber-leader Russell Wilson, offensive genius Paul Chryst and three first-team All-Big Ten blockers. Ball will still post big numbers this fall, but a 1,700-yard, 18-TD season will pale in comparison to his 2011 output — and won’t get him back to New York.
3. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska (SR)
Sexy Rexy Superman Burkhead is arguably the most complete football player in the nation. He has every skillset a coach can ask for in a workhorse feature back: Strength, size, toughness, durability, vision, instincts, quickness, hands and leadership. For Burkhead to make it to NYC in December, however, he will likely have to lead his team past Michigan and into the Big Ten title game. A tall order until the defense improves its overall play.
4. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (SO)
If Heisman voters are trying to find a darkhorse from the Big Ten, they need to look no further than Ohio State’s quarterback. Miller showed flashes of brilliance as only a true freshman on one of the worst Buckeye teams in two decades. And now he has spread guru Urban Meyer tailoring his high-powered attack to Miller’s perfectly suited dual-threat skillset. This team could have the best record in the league, but Ohio State’s offensive leader will have to overcome the program’s current sanctions on his way to the Big Apple.
5. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska (JR)
The Huskers’ quarterback is finally an upperclassmen and will have to show improved consistency and accuracy in the passing game to get into the Heisman mix. However, he has electric play-making ability and is poised for his best season yet at the helm of a program known for its dual-threat Heisman Trophy signal callers. With the Big Ten’s top receiving corps around him, Martinez has a chance to silence all of his critics in 2012. And potentially win a conference title as well.
6. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State (JR)
There are some focus and consistency concerns with Bell, but should things fall into place for the tailback, the junior could be in for a massive year in East Lansing. The Spartans will boast a potent offensive line and will have to turn to the running game in order to break in a new quarterback and receiving corps. Which is exactly how Mark Dantonio wants to win games anyway. There are few running backs with as much upside as Bell in this league.
7. John Simon, DL, Ohio State (SR)
One of the most competitive and dependable defensive lineman in the nation is also one of the strongest players in the history of the Buckeye program. Now, permanently on the edge, Simon is virtually unstoppable. Ohio State should have the top defense in the Big Ten and the burly D-lineman, while not the most talented, is the clear leader of the unit. Offensive tackles beware.
8. James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa (SR)
In a league loaded with explosive athletes under center, Vandenberg is the best pure passer. In fact, he is one of the only true pocket passers in the entire conference. He has a solid duo to throw to in Keenan Davis and C.J. Fiedorowicz, but could be hurting for offensive support otherwise. Replacing record-setting wideout Marvin McNutt without the help of a traditionally potent Iowa rushing attack (12th in Big Ten in rushing last fall and no Marcus Coker) will be tough. It is unfortunate that Vandenberg isn’t playing in a vintage Hawkeye attack, otherwise, he could be a Big Ten POY candidate.
9. Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan (JR)
The Wolverines have been looking for a Mike Hart replacement for half-a-decade and Brady Hoke might have found one in Toussaint. The junior-to-be was downright dominant down the stretch last year — rushing four times for 120 yards or more in the final six games. Certainly, this offense will miss David Molk but the O-Line still has enough beef to be very successful in 2012.
10. Silas Redd, RB, Penn State (JR)
It is unfortunate that Redd’s numbers and national awareness won’t match his overall level of talent. He is a power back who would be a top Heisman contender on most Penn State teams. This, obviously, isn’t your regular Nittany Lion squad. The Leaders Division could be wide open, however, and if PSU makes a push for the league crown it will come squarely on the wide, powerful shoulders of Silas Redd.
11. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
The original Honey Badger is a relentless machine who is constantly around the football and wrecking havoc in the opposition’s backfield. He is a rare big-play athlete at a position that gets little to no Heisman appreciation.
12. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds with extremely athletic speed and agility, Gray has the upside to post huge numbers in the Twin Cities this fall. He rushed for 327 yards and three touchdowns on 54 carries in the final two games of the year. If he can only win a few games and be a consistent passer.
13. Travis Frederick, OL, Wisconsin (JR)
A consensus second-team All-Big Ten pick as a guard, Frederick now slides inside to fill the massive void left by Peter Konz. He will be the best player on the best line in the league.
14. Johnathan Hankins, DL, Ohio State (JR)
Arguably the top defensive line prospect in the league, Hankins is a projected top ten pick after dropping weight in the off-season. Simon might be the heart and soul, but Hankins could be the difference maker.
15. Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern (JR)
Few quarterbacks enter their first year under center with this type of stat line: 135 att., 654 yards, 9 TD rushing, 43 rec., 466 yards, 3 TD receiving and a tidy 6:1 TD:INT ratio. Wildcats quarterbacks are also incredibly productive and Colter might be the most talented in recent memory.
16. William Gholston, DL, Michigan State (JR)
Is right there with Hankins for most physically gifted prospect in the league. But Gholston has to mature on and off the field to realize his full potential as a three-down defensive monster.
17. Stephen Houston, RB, Indiana (JR)
A junior college transfer, Houston got the green light from Kevin Wilson a third of the way into 2011. He responded with 856 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in eight games.
18. Danny O’Brien, QB, Wisconsin (JR)
He is not even close to Russell Wilson so the comparisons end with the fact they are fellow ACC graduates. But he showed some talent as a freshman and will now be in the most stable, best situation of his career.
19. Jacob Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin (JR)
Until the end of the season, Abbrederis was leading the nation in punt returns. He also rarely drops a pass, runs perfect routes and can even make some plays in the rushing game. He could easily be the top wideout in a league devoid of talent at the position.
20. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
This Boilermaker shouldn't get drafted too far behind Gholston, Hankins and Simon come April 2013. And in a league stacked with defensive line talent, Short has a chance to push for top honors.
21. Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois (JR)
Which quarterback will Illinois get this fall? Scheelhaase has been both an inconsistent passer and electric game-changer in the same season. The new coaching staff will stablize the junior-to-be in 2012.
22. Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State (SR)
Jacob Pedersen might be the most complete tight end but Stoneburner is the most talented pass-catcher of the bunch — and is named the best, too. He posted eight catches, 93 yards and four touchdowns in the first two games of last year. Look for more of that this fall as Miller develops around him.
23. Tre Roberson, QB, Indiana (SO)
Part of the reason Gunner Kiel is on a different campus in Indiana was the emergence of the speedy Roberson. Try 419 yards rushing in seven weeks as the starter. Kevin Wilson will be better prepared to utilize his developing quarterback’s skills this time around.
24. CJ Barnett, S, Ohio State (JR)
The Buckeyes defense should be the top unit in the Big Ten and Barnett is the physical and vocal leader of the secondary. He plays all over the field.
25. James White, RB, Wisconsin (JR)
Expect new coordinator Matt Canada to utilize more two-back sets than his predecessor did and it means more touches for White. He could also be used in the slot as a pass catcher as well.
Other Names to Watch:
Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa (SR)
Very talented pass-catcher needs to take final step in development.
Denicos Allen/Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State (JR)
Explosive sack artists and dependable tackling machine are both stellar.
Jacob Pedersen, TE, Wisconsin (JR)
Long line of All-American Badgers tight ends continues with Pedersen.
Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State (SR)
Likely the best pure coverman in the Big Ten.
Ricky Wagner, OL, Wisconsin (SR)
Possibly the most Sunday talent of any blocker in the league.
Related: 2012 Athlon Sports Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Team Previews
-by Braden Gall