College Football's Pivotal Players: Seven for the Big Ten

Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase could play major role in conference race

On Monday, teams around the nation will move from preseason camp mode and into game-week preparation.

We’re starting to see coaches name starting quarterbacks and settle on position battles.

Although questions are still out there before the season, some weigh more heavily than others. As the preseason winds down, we’re picking who we believe to be “pivotal players,” or in other words, key players who need to step up where their teams need them most.

Athlon Sports’ characteristics of a “pivotal player:”
• He plays for a conference or division contender.
• He plays at a position of weakness for his team.
• He’s an unestablished player with potential to solidify his team’s position of weakness.

We begin our look at pivotal players with the Big Ten with more conferences to follow.

BIG TEN PIVOTAL PLAYERS
Will Campbell, DT, Michigan
The rebuilding project on the Michigan defense isn’t as serious as it was last season when defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moved the Wolverines from 110th to 17th nationally in total D. Defensive tackle Mike Martin is the biggest absence on a line without three starters. Campbell was a five-star recruit in 2009, but he has yet to start a game. Coaches have praised Campbell’s renewed sense of urgency in the weight room during the offseason. He’ll be under pressure to prove it on the field or risk losing playing time to freshman Ondre Pipkins.
Related: Michigan’s Pipkins among key freshmen in the Big Ten

Greg Garmon, RB, Iowa
The Iowa running back curse struck again earlier this week when Berkeley Hill was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Since the start of 2012, Marcus Coker and Mika’il McCall transferred, Jordan Canzeri suffered a torn ACL, and De’Andre Johnson was dismissed. Now, Damon Bullock is the Hawkeyes’ top running back, but he has merely 20 career yards. Garmon, though, was a highly touted recruit out of Erie, Pa. Garmon (and Bullock) could give Iowa such much-needed  balance with returning quarterback James Vandenberg. Then again could Garmon, who had a drug-related arrest during the summer, be another of the curse?
Related: Iowa may have trouble competing with top of Big Ten, says opposing league coach

Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State
The Spartans have the defense and offensive line to contend for a division and conference title again, leaving the most glaring question mark at quarterback. What the junior Maxwell, a two-year backup to Kirk Cousins, lacks in starting experience he has in ability. He’s a strong-armed quarterback who is more athletic than his predecessor. And he already received the leadership vote of confidence when he was named a team captain. Perhaps the next question is who will emerge at receiver.
Related: Michigan State a darkhorse title contender

Danny O’Brien, QB, Wisconsin
With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin is an overwhelming favorite to repeat as Leaders Division champion. The Badgers ability to contend for a Big Ten title may depend on O’Brien, who was formally announced as the starting quarterback early this week. No one is expecting O’Brien to match Russell Wilson’s gaudy benchmarks for efficiency, but O’Brien probably will need to perform better than his 56.7 percent career completion rate (and certainly better than his 10 interceptions last season with Maryland). O’Brien already surprised the coaching staff -- which includes first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- with his ability to throw on the run.
Related: Montee Ball tops Big Ten player rankings

Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue
Purdue has one of the nation’s elite defensive tackles in Kawann Short, but production has been paltry at defensive end. Russell played his freshman season in 2011 with foot injury, but he flashed his potential in the bowl game against Western Michigan. He’ll have to do more -- especially against division favorite Wisconsin’s offensive line in particular -- if Purdue is going to surprise and compete for the Leaders Division.
Related: Purdue QB Henry among top players returning from injury

Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois
Scheelhaase might be one of the biggest benefactors of Tim Beckman’s arrival at Illinois. Though Beckman has a defensive background, he ran a high-flying offense at Toledo and brought in former West Virginia and Vanderbilt assistant Chris Beatty and former LSU and Florida assistant Billy Gonzales to run the Illinois offense. Illinois should have the defense to win in the Big Ten, so Illini need Scheelhaase to improve his consistency to contend in the division. Scheelhaase was dreadful last season during Illinois’ six-game losing streak, throwing nine interceptions to two touchdowns and averaging only 4.8 yards per attempt. The junior averaged 8.6 yards per attempt in Illinois’ seven wins.
Related: Don’t overlook Illinois’ defense

Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska
Taylor Martinez’s development at quarterback will get more attention, but the Cornhuskers may be more concerned with the run defense. Nebraska ranked eighth in the Big Ten in run defense, allowing 158.5 yards per game and 23 total touchdowns. And that was with star linebacker Lavonte David. Steinkuhler emerged late last season with five tackles for a loss and two sacks in the final six games. Play like that over a full season would be a boon to the Nebraska D.
Related: Big Ten questions: Will Nebraska’s defense improve in 2012?

Other “Pivotal Players” so far:
ACC
 

-David Fox 

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