As usual, the Big Ten should produce plenty of elite defensive talent this season. Ohio State's John Simon and Michigan State's William Gholston should be two of the top defensive ends in college football, while Purdue's Kawann Short should be a household name by the end of the year. The offensive side of the ball isn't bad, but the conference lost several key offensive linemen and receivers.
Compiling the top 50 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings.
Here are five factors that contributed to the criteria for the rankings:
1. Projection on 2012 Performance
2. Importance to team
3. Positional importance
4. NFL Draft stock
5. Career performance
Athlon's Top 50 Big Ten Players for 2012
1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball emerged as one of the elite tailbacks in his junior season at Wisconsin, leading the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and an astounding 33 rushing touchdowns. His 39 total TDs last year tied the NCAA record originally set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has rushed for at least 100 yards in 16 of the last 20 games dating back to November 2011. Don’t be surprised if Ball is on the podium in New York in early December accepting the Heisman Trophy.
2. Denard Robinson, QB Michigan
The man they call Shoelace has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football over the past two seasons. Robinson has struggled at times with consistency in the passing game, but he led the nation last year by averaging 15.3 yards per completion and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Robinson does his best work on the ground, however; he has rushed for 3,229 yards on a 5.9-yard average in his three years in Ann Arbor.
3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State
Simon is the key player on a veteran Ohio State defensive line, ranked by Athlon as the best in the Big Ten. This wrecking ball is as difficult as anyone in the country to block from the outside. He’s improved each year, topping out at 16 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and three pass deflections last season. Urban Meyer’s background is on offense, but he has a knack for utilizing great pass rushers like Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss at Florida.
4. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
Entering his junior season, Gholston appears to be only scratching the surface of his potential. The Michigan State coaching staff wasted no time in getting the Detroit native involved as a freshman, as Gholston played in 10 games and recorded 13 stops. In his first year as a starter in 2011, he recorded 70 tackles, five sacks and 16 tackles for a loss last season. Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season and should be in the mix to earn All-American honors in 2012. Without Jerel Worthy plugging the middle, opposing offensive lines will devote more attention to Gholston’s side. Despite a few more double teams coming in his direction, the junior is poised to have his best overall season, which could be his last in East Lansing with NFL scouts already raving about his potential.
5. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
Burkhead thrived in his first full season as Nebraska’s No. 1 back, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 106 yards per game in Big Ten play and earned first-team all-conference honors last season. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez should get better as a passer in 2012, the Cornhuskers will lean heavily on Burkhead to win games. The senior is capable of recording 300 overall carries and will also be a factor in the passing game, as evidenced by his 21 receptions last year. Burkhead is a sleeper candidate to watch in the Heisman race and should be one of the Big Ten’s top offensive players this season.
6. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin
Entering his third season in the starting lineup, Wagner will anchor what should be the best offensive line in the Big Ten from the all-important left tackle spot. A 6-6, 322-pound fifth-year senior from West Allis, Wis., Wagner arrived in Madison as a walk-on tight end but has made a successive transition to the offensive line. He started at right tackle in 2010 but made the move to the left side last fall to replace former All-American Gabe Carimi.
7. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
With his combination of size and athleticism, Short is drawing attention from NFL scouts and is expected to be a first-round pick in 2013. The East Chicago native has started all three seasons at Purdue and is coming off his best year, recording 54 stops, 17 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Improving the run defense is one of the top priorities for coach Danny Hope this season, but Short’s return to West Lafayette should help the Boilermakers improve on last year’s statistics (9th in the Big Ten in rushing defense). Short was named Purdue’s team defensive MVP last season and is an Athlon second-team All-American for 2012.
8. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
Hankins is developing into the next great defensive lineman to come out of the Ohio State program. In his first year as a starter last fall, the Michigan native recorded 67 total tackles, including 14 for a loss and three sacks. The large but nimble Hankins has slimmed down to 317 pounds for his junior season. “Hank is now a little less of an immovable object and more of an unstoppable force,” says Ohio State center Corey Linsley.
9. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
After missing most of the 2010 season with shoulder injuries, Borland returned to action last fall and developed into a big-time playmaker at middle linebacker. The Ohio native led the team in tackles for a loss (19) and forced fumbles (5) and ranked second in the Big Ten in total tackles (143). Borland was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick in ’11 and has been named a third-team 2012 preseason All-American by Athlon Sports.
10. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
The exodus of quality players at Penn State has just begun, but so far the Nittany Lions’ star linebacker is staying put. An outside linebacker, Hodges led Penn State with 106 tackles last season as the defense ranked 20th nationally in yards allowed per game (323.9). When the dust settles with the roster at Penn State, Hodges, who also had 10 tackles for a loss last season, might be one of the few in contention for All-Big Ten honors or more.
11. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
The other half of one of the most devastating linebacking duos in the nation, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. Last year, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the Big Ten (and ranking third in the nation) with 150 tackles. With some issues on the defensive line and in the secondary, Taylor and fellow backer Chris Borland will need to be at their best in 2012.
12. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
After starting most of last season at left guard, Frederick slides over to center to replace Peter Konz, a second-round pick by the Falcons in the 2012 NFL Draft. Frederick is not entirely new to the position, however; he started two games at center in ’11 — vs. Penn State on Nov. 26 and the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Michigan State. A 6-4, 328-pound junior, Frederick earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall.
13. Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State
A third-year starter, Adams leads the top secondary in the Big Ten. NFL scouts will watch Adams closely in his final season on campus, a year after the Spartans ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense. He doesn’t have the gaudy interception numbers (though he had three in each of the last two seasons), but he’s an elite cover corner and stands out in run support.
14. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan, a 6-8, 302-pound junior, has started 22 games over the past two seasons at left tackle. A second-team All-Big Ten pick last season (by the coaches), Lewan will be asked to be the leader of the Wolverines’ offensive line following the graduation of Rimington Award-winning center David Molk.
15. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
Since stepping onto campus in 2010, Allen has been an impact player for the Boilermakers’ defense. He earned freshman All-American accolades in 2010 by starting 12 games and returning two interceptions for a touchdown. Allen followed up his standout freshman year with a solid sophomore season, recording 81 tackles and three interceptions. Allen has been picked to the Thorpe Award watch list (the nation’s top defensive back) and is an Athlon first-team All-Big Ten selection for 2012.
16. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Based upon his performance in 2011, ranking Miller among the top 20 players in the Big Ten is probably a stretch. However, that’s where projecting for 2012 comes into play. Urban Meyer’s spread attack should jumpstart Ohio State’s offense, while turning Miller into one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks. The sophomore should have no trouble surpassing last season’s 1,159 passing yards and will top over 500 yards on the ground once again in 2012.
17. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
With Denicos Allen, Bullough makes up half of an elite linebacker tandem, and with the rest of the Spartans ‘backers, he’s in the middle of the best unit in the Big Ten. Bullough is a standout play-caller on the field and excelled as a run-stuffer for a unit that allowed 100.5 rushing yards per game (first in the Big Ten, ninth nationally).
18. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Buchanan has intriguing size and ability for the pro ranks, but he elected to stay at Illinois rather than follow linemate Whitney Mercilus to the NFL Draft. Back for his senior season, Buchanan will try to show he can be a team’s top pass rusher after working aside Mercilus last season. Buchanan’s 7.5 sacks were less than half of Mercilus’ total (16) but still ranked fourth in the Big Ten.
19. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
In a league that features Gerald Hodges, Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, it’s easy for Brown to be overlooked for preseason accolades. However, the junior should be one of Illinois’ top players in 2012. Brown recorded 108 tackles and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season, along with earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Look for the Memphis, Tenn. native to raise his profile even more in 2012.
20. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Roby was a consensus three-star recruit out of Suwanee, Ga., but he must have learned something in his redshirt season in Columbus. The sophomore stepped right into the starting cornerback job last season. After finishing with 47 tackles and three interceptions in 2011, the new staff hopes to take advantage of Roby’s playmaking ability in his second season on the field.
21. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Martinez, who arrived at Nebraska as an athlete, has been one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation over the past two seasons. His efficiency was down a bit in 2011, but his yards passing (2,089) and touchdown passes (13) were up. He continues to be a threat in the running game, with 1,839 yards and 21 touchdowns during his career.
22. James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa
The Big Ten may have the nation’s best collection of athletic quarterbacks, so it may be tempting to overlook the league’s best dropback passer. Vandenberg was the Big Ten’s third-leading passer at 3,022 yards last season and was second only to Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins in attempts and completions. Vandenberg will be even more of a key player for the Iowa offense this season, but he’ll have to improve his play on the road and overcome the loss of clutch receiver Marvin McNutt. The concerns about the offensive line and rushing attack will only add to the pressure on Vandenberg's shoulders in 2012.
23. C.J. Barnett, S, Ohio State
Barnett missed all but two games of 2010 but didn’t miss a beat when he returned to the Buckeyes last season. He led Ohio State with 75 tackles and provided his share of thundering hits in the secondary. He also had interceptions against Miami and Michigan State.
24. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
With Devon Still moving on to the NFL, it’s up to Hill to become Penn State’s leader in the trenches. He recorded 59 stops and 3.5 sacks last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Hill will likely see more double teams without Still, but the 6-foot-1 senior should be able to finish his career by pushing for All-American honors in 2012.
25. Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa
Hyde has been a mainstay in the Hawkeyes’ secondary over the past two seasons, with 25 starts at cornerback and two at safety. Last season, he tied for first in the Big Ten in passes defended (11) and added three interceptions. He is a 2012 preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick by Athlon Sports.
26. Spencer Long, OL, Nebraska
A walk on from Elkhorn, Neb., Long didn’t even see any game action until last season when he started every game at guard. Long was a key blocker for an offense that averaged 217.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked third in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation.
27. Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State
After playing mostly on special teams in 2010, Allen was one of the Big Ten’s top breakout performers last year. He played in all 14 contests, recording 83 stops, 18.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. Allen doesn’t have prototypical size, but his speed and athletic ability allows him to wreck havoc in opposing backfields.
28. Isaiah Lewis, S, Michigan State
Lewis quietly earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 74 tackles and four interceptions in his first year as a starter. The junior is regarded as one of the biggest hitters in the Big Ten and will have to assume more of a leadership role in 2012 with the departure of Trenton Robinson.
29. Chris McDonald, OL, Michigan State
McDonald has been a nearly automatic presence in the Spartans’ starting lineup, making 17 consecutive starts and 26 overall at right guard. With a new starting quarterback, McDonald may have to pave the way for running back Le’Veon Bell to carry the offense.
30. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
A former high school quarterback, Abbrederis gives the Badgers a big-play threat in the passing game. Last season, he caught 55 passes for a team-high 933 yards and eight touchdowns, and his 17.0 yards-per-catch average ranked second in the Big Ten behind Michigan’s Junior Hemingway.
31. Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
The emergence of Touissant in late October took some of the pressure off quarterback Denard Robinson in the Michigan offense. He rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Purdue on Oct. 29 and then went on to run for 508 yards in the month of November, more than anyone in the Big Ten not named Montee Ball.
32. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
With Kirk Cousins finishing his eligibility in East Lansing, the focus for Michigan State’s offense will shift back to the rushing attack. Bell is expected to be the Spartans’ workhorse in 2012 after rushing for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, the junior brings an intriguing blend of power and speed and should surpass 1,000 yards for the first time in his career this year.
33. Jacob Pedersen, TE, Wisconsin
Pederson was a reliable red zone threat for former Badger quarterback Russell Wilson, with eight of his 30 receptions resulting in a touchdown. The 6-4, 240-pound Illinois native caught at least one pass in all but one game — with a high of six for 80 yards and two scores vs. Oregon State — and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.
34. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ record-breaking receiver Marvin McNutt drew most of the attention last season, but Davis had the breakout season. Davis finished with 50 catches last year, after catching 15 total passes his first two seasons on campus. His 713 receiving yards and 14.3 yards per catch were respectable stats for a No. 2 receiver. Now, Iowa will learn how he takes to being No. 1.
35. Christian Bryant, S, Ohio State
With all four starters returning, Ohio State should have one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. Bryant emerged as a key cog in the secondary last year, recording 69 stops and one forced fumble. The junior may not accumulate many interceptions, but he should be a force against the run, while delivering plenty of big hits.
36. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
With the departure of three starters, Urban Meyer hopes Mewhort will emerge as the offensive line's leader in 2012. Mewhort started all 13 games last season and will slide from guard to left tackle in 2012.
37. Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
One of three returning starters and two starting tackles on the Illinois defensive line, Spence started at defensive tackle since Day One of his redshirt freshman season in Champaign. The 6-1, 300-pounder recorded 69 sacks last season, a high number for an interior lineman, and helped anchor a defense that ranked seventh nationally.
38. James Morris, LB, Iowa
An ankle injury hindered Morris at times last season, but he still managed to finish with 110 tackles. The junior is an Athlon Sports third-team All-Big Ten selection for 2012 and will have an active year around the line of scrimmage with Iowa replacing three starters on the defensive line.
39. Brett Maher, K/P, Nebraska
Replacing Alex Henery was no easy task, but Maher asserted himself as one of the top kickers in the nation last season. He connected on 19 of 23 field goals and averaged 44.5 yards per punt. Maher was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last year and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012.
40. Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska
The son of the Cornhuskers’ Outland and Lombardi winner Dean Steinkuhler, Baker began to make a name for himself over the second half of last season with five tackles for a loss and two sacks in the final six games of the season.
41. Cameron Meredith, DE, Nebraska
Along with Steinkuhler, Meredith will form the core of a Nebraska defensive line that must improve against the run. A starter the last two seasons, Meredith finished last season with 58 tackles and five sacks.
42. Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State
Stoneburner ran into some off-the-field trouble in the offseason but is expected to return to the roster in time for the opener against Miami (Ohio). The Dublin, Ohio native has 37 career catches for 445 yards and is expected to have a more prominent role in the offense in 2012. New coach Urban Meyer is installing a spread attack but Stoneburner’s athleticism and speed will be too attractive to keep on the bench. The senior could be Ohio State’s leading receiver in 2012.
43. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers’ middle linebacker improved as 2011 went along, as he averaged eight tackles per game in November (compared to 5.8 in the first eight games of the season). He’ll need to carry that into 2012 with Lavonte David gone.
44. Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois
Hawthorne was a highly decorated recruit in 2009, but he’d yet to live up to that billing until late last season. His 39-yard interception return for a touchdown turned the tide for the Illinois in the bowl game and prevented a losing season.
45. James Ferentz, C, Iowa
With three starters departing, Ferentz must be Iowa’s leader on the offensive line. He has started the last 26 games and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch for 2012. Ferentz will be coached by his brother (Brian) and his veteran presence will be crucial for Iowa’s offensive line.
46. Daimion Stafford, S, Nebraska
Stafford was a huge contributor in his first year after transferring from Chaffey College. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after recording 80 tackles in 13 games. Look for Stafford to be an even bigger contributor now that he has another offseason to get acclimated to life in the Big Ten.
47. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
With Johnny Adams and Dennard returning to man the cornerback spots in East Lansing, Michigan State should have one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. In his first year as a starter in 2011, Dennard recorded 42 tackles and three interceptions and returned one of his picks for a touchdown in the win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Dennard should be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors this year.
48. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota
Gray is far from a finished product, but there's also a lot of potential. He closed out 2011 by posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts against Northwestern and Illinois and finished the season with 2,461 overall yards. Gray needs to become a better passer, but he should have a solid all-around senior season.
49. Chris Norman, LB, Michigan State
The rangy Norman is entering his third season as a starter for a veteran linebacker unit. He finished last season with 76 tackles despite missing two games with a shoulder injury.
50. Jordan Kovacs, S, Michigan
The Ohio native has started 33 of his 37 career games, including 12 games in 2011 and 12 in ’10. He ranked second on the team in total tackles last season with 75 and was third on the team with eight tackles for a loss. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last fall.
Team Breakdown of Athlon's Top 50 Big Ten Players for 2012
Illinois - 4
Indiana - 0
Iowa - 5
Michigan - 4
Michigan State - 9
Minnesota - 1
Nebraska - 8
Northwestern - 0
Ohio State - 8
Penn State - 2
Purdue - 2
Wisconsin - 7
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