The SEC rules the recruiting rankings, but three big-time Big Ten signees from the last two seasons could play major roles in how the league is decided.
Michigan and Ohio State are both plugging in five-star signees from the class of 2012 in redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis and sophomore defensive end Noah Spence. And although Penn State can’t go to to the postseason, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg could determine the Big Ten race as the Nittany Lions face Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Those names aren’t the only ones who could determine the Big Ten title. We’ve picked six players from six Big Ten contenders who may be pivotal to league or division titles.
As a refresher, our criteria for pivotal players is:
1. He plays for a conference or division contender.
2. He is an unproven commodity in some way.
3. He plays at a position his team needs to perform in order to win a division or conference title.
We’ve looked at pivotal players for contenders in the ACC, the American, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, and finally we turn our eye to the Big Ten.
Zaire Anderson, LB, Nebraska
Nebraska played four games where the Cornhuskers allowed more than six yards per play, and lost all five (UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Georgia). Linebacker will be a major question as the Cornhuskers rebuild with only four returning starters on the defense. Anderson started at one point early last season before missing most of the year following knee surgery. While recovering, he gained 22 pounds without losing speed, and he’s drawn comparisons to another prominent junior college transfer linebacker, Lavonte David.
Riley Bullough, RB, Michigan State
Le’Veon Bell accounted for 78.6 percent of Michigan State’s rush attempts and 91.9 percent of the Spartans’ yards on the ground. Unless Michigan State is turning to the Air Raid, Mark Dantonio needs to find production at running back to replace Bell. If Bullough has a familiar name, it’s because his brother Max is a starting linebacker. There may be a familiar style of play from Riley, though on the opposite side of the ball. A former linebacker, Riley is a bruiser. The redshirt freshman Riley will be the lead back in a committee approach to the position.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
The transfer of Steven Bench left Penn State without experience at quarterback, so the assumption is that the Hackenberg era will begin immediately. While Penn State doesn’t exactly begin the season with a gauntlet, the Nittany Lions face Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., and two teams that can score in UCF and Kent State. Hackenberg’s importance to the program is a long-term storyline, especially as sanctions will cut deeper in his upperclassman seasons. But how he performs early as a rookie will determine momentum for his first season in Happy Valley.
Darius Hillary, CB, Wisconsin
Don’t be too concerned with a backfield that loses Montee Ball and must decide on a quarterback. Wisconsin’s defensive backfield is a major concern. Three starters were gone last season, and two key players the Badgers expected to start won’t be on campus (Reggie Mitchell and Donnell Vercher). Hillary played in every game last season as a redshirt freshman, recording 23 tackles, mostly early in the season. Hillary and Peniel Jean are further on the spot to solidify the cornerback position in a secondary that includes one sure thing in safety Dezmen Southward.
Tony Jones, WR, Northwestern
Tony Jones has deep-threat capabilities, but he averaged only 11.6 yards per catch last season. Sure, much of this will be on starting quarterback Kain Colter’s ability to get the ball downfield as much as Jones’ play, but averaging better than six yards per pass will be critical if Northwestern is going to challenge for a Legends Division title.
Kyle Kalis, OG, Michigan
All three of the Wolverines’ starting interior offensive linemen are gone, so any could be pivotal to Michigan’s hopes of winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. We’ll point to right guard Kyle Kalis, who was a top-three guard in the class of 2012. Michigan tailbacks averaged only 72.8 rushing yards last season, but the Wolverines think they can turn that around with more consistency from Fitz Touissaint and the arrival of freshman Derrick Green. Kalis delivering on his immense talent could go along way to reestablishing the run at Michigan.
Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State
Urban Meyer went to great lengths to get Spence out of Pennsylvania during his first recruiting cycle, and now the defensive end should be ready to deliver. Spence has all-conference honors or more in his future, but it may need to happen now as the Buckeyes replenish their entire starting defensive line. He’s a pivotal player, but also one of the breakout candidates in the league.