Every team has that one guy who needs to show up every week and get his job done at the highest level in order for his team to have success. Sometimes that player is simply the most talented one on the team, i.e. the quarterback. Other times, the most important player is one who simply plays a key role in the game plan and scheme from week to week. It's that guy who your team simply can't afford to lose in order for the team to meet its full potential.
Whatever the case, these guys from each Big Ten team need to show up and play at the highest possible level in order for their teams to have success in 2017.
Dwayne Lawson, QB, Illinois
Lawson isn't even on campus yet, as he is still ironing out some academic issues. Even so, he's still the most important player for the Fighting llini heading into 2017, as he would give them a true dual-threat, game-changer under center and the only offensive weapon that might keep defensive coordinators up at night.
Marcelino Ball, LB/S, Indiana
The Hoosiers have successfully installed a lethal offensive scheme over the past few years. They should be fine on that side of the ball this fall, especially with an experienced quarterback under center. The defense is going to be what makes Indiana a legitimate threat to knock off some of the big boys in the Big Ten East. For former defensive coordinator now head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme to function at its highest level, Ball needs to excel as both a run stopper and an enforcer over the middle against the pass.
Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
Wadley is going to be the focal point of pretty much everything the Hawkeyes do offensively. He is a game-breaker, and he'll have the luxury of running behind what should be another outstanding Iowa offensive line. That said, he's going to need to carry this offense on his shoulders and make his own holes as well. His situation in 2017 mirrors that of Ameer Abdullah's senior year at Nebraska a couple of years back. Without Wadley, Iowa would be in serious trouble.
Caleb Henderson, QB, Maryland
Second-year head coach DJ Durkin has the Terrapins on the brink of becoming the Northwestern of the Big Ten East – an unpredictable team and tough out each week. There is plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and it'll be up to Henderson to deliver the football to those playmakers. His level of efficiency will be the difference between Maryland hanging out in the basement of its own division and making another trip to a bowl game.
Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan
The Wolverines are young and talented, but they will need some time to mesh and grow. In the meantime, Gary is the only truly elite player Michigan currently has at any position. He'll need to assert himself early, dominate games and set the tone for a very green defensive unit. If he's not up to the task, the growth of this team may be severely stunted.
Brian Allen, C, Michigan State
The Spartans are young and the cupboard is pretty bare in East Lansing – particularly on offense. Allen will be the center, but he'll also be the leader in both the huddle and the locker room. His resiliency and mentorship – along with his play on the field – will be the difference between the Spartans returning to bowl eligibility and the wheels falling off the wagon by mid-October.
Steven Richardson, DT, Minnesota
Richardson should be one of the best defenders in the conference, if not the nation. The Gopher offense should be able to score with most opponents, but Richardson's ability to disrupt opposing offenses and dominate the trenches could be the difference between the Gophers finishing in the middle of the Big Ten West and Minnesota making a trip to Indianapolis in head coach P.J. Fleck's first season.
Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska
Mike Riley has experienced receivers, backs and linemen. Now he has a quarterback who appears to perfectly fit his offensive scheme. After transferring in from Tulane and sitting out a year, Lee secured the starting job in the spring based on his maturity, leadership and grasp of the offense. His ability to successfully operate under fire will be the difference between Riley finding himself on the hot seat and the Cornhuskers being the surprise team of the Big Ten in 2017.
Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern
If you stripped away the colors and logos of the uniform and just looked at the Wildcats on paper, it would be tough to argue against Northwestern being the favorites in the Big Ten West heading into the season. Thorson is a big reason for that. Now in his third season as the starter, we're starting to hear whispers of him looking like a guy who could be playing on Sundays. If he continues his current trajectory of improvement, Pat Fitzgerald's team has a chance to be special in 2017.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes are going to be in the College Football Playoff discussion for most of the year once again, and Barrett is why. He's the best dual-threat quarterback in the country not named Lamar Jackson and, truth be told, he might even be better than last year's Heisman winner. Perhaps more so than any player in the country, Barrett's performance will dictate how his team's season pans out.
Trace McSorely, QB, Penn State
McSorely exploded onto the scene in 2016 and immediately elevated the Penn State program. His team is absolutely loaded this year, and it will be McSorely's ability to repeat and possibly improve on his performance from last season that will determine whether or not the Nittany Lions are going to be realistic national title contenders.
Grant Hermanns, OT, Purdue
The Boilermakers could be sneaky good in 2017, especially on offense. For that to be the case, quarterback David Blough is going to need time in the pocket to analyze and subsequently carve up opposing defenses. Although he’s just a redshirt freshman, Hermanns figures to have a huge role in helping Blough succeed. The elite high school wrestler possesses the rare athleticism for the position and the ability to win every one-on-one battle he faces. If he can reach his full potential, the Boilermakers could flirt with bowl eligibility.
Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in head coach Chris Ash’s debut season, but Grant is one reason to be excited about this team this fall. When healthy, the speedster is one of the tougher receivers to cover in the conference. His presence and the extra attention he draws from defenses will open up other opportunities for an underrated cast of teammates. Without Grant in the lineup, moving the ball could become a problem for this offense, regardless of the opponent.
Olive Sagapolu, DT, Wisconsin
The Badgers’ offense is what it is: a heavy dose of rushing behind a solid line sprinkled in with a couple of playmakers in the passing game. On defense, Wisconsin was one of the nation’s best last season, but some key pieces are gone. Sagapolu is one player that could make sure Wisconsin’s defense stays among the FBS’ best. He has the look of an elite defensive tackle who can both penetrate the pocket and occupy extra linemen in the process. If that's the case, Wisconsin could have all of the tools to compete with and defeat any team in the country.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also covers the Big Ten for Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa's SB Nation blog. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.