Northwestern's success this fall hinges largely on the health of quarterback Clayton Thorson
No matter what college football program you cheer for, more likely than not there's one player that can help build positive momentum. That happens to be the case for each and every school in the Big Ten. While not every team is going to be able to claim a double-digit-win season or a New Year's Six bowl appearance, they can certainly exceed expectations.
Here are the players that can wrap a bow around every Big Ten team's starting 22 on the way to bigger and better things:
Illinois: Cam Thomas, QB
After missing two years with torn ACLs, wide receiver Mike Dudek deserves a good year. If he’s going to have one, it’ll be thanks to the arm of his quarterback. Thomas, a sophomore, was the only scholarship quarterback with the Illini this past spring which means even if Illinois can sneak someone else on campus, he’s got the leg up and it’s a good bet that he’ll be Lovie Smith’s starter.
You know how that old cheer goes? “Cam, Cam, he’s our man! If he can’t do it…” Well, if he can’t do it, Illinois may be headed for another two-win season.
Indiana: Marcelino Ball, LB/S
A freshman All-American, Ball notched 75 tackles and two interceptions in 2016. Last season was far less kind to the Roswell, Georgia, native as he missed all but the Hoosiers’ first three games thanks to a leg injury. Indiana needs leadership in a big way considering only three starters return on defense and given the role Ball is expected to fill at Husky back, where he will shift between playing linebacker and safety.
Iowa: Nick Neimann, LB
The Hawkeyes rightfully pride themselves on their linebackers and unfortunately, their top three from last season (Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann) are all gone. This means every starting spot is up grabs heading into the fall, and there are plenty of candidates.
Enter sophomore Nick Niemann, Ben's younger brother. He saw extensive special teams action last year which should serve him well as Iowa looks to refortify a position that has long been a strength. Kirk Ferentz needs one of the linebackers to emerge as a leader while also making plays. Should Niemann follow in his brother's footsteps, it’d be just what the doctor ordered.
Maryland: Kasim Hill, QB
After leading the Terrapins to a bowl game in his first season, DJ Durkin's team took a step back in 2017, finishing just 4-8. The good news is that Durkin and his staff were able to land a top-30 recruiting class and the goal is to build on that momentum by getting off to a good start on the field.
After being ravaged by injuries last season, Durkin is hoping for better health and more production from his quarterbacks. To that end, much of the attention will focus on Hill, who was the 10th-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
Michigan: Shea Patterson, QB
Patterson won his appeal for immediate eligibility and is the heavy favorite to seize the Wolverines' starting quarterback job. Michigan will be trotting out one of the nation’s best defenses this season and if Jim Harbaugh’s going to maximize his team's potential, the Ole Miss transfer needs to have an impressive year.
Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black give Patterson an incredibly talented duo of receivers to connect with while running back Karan Higdon forces defensive coordinators to respect his presence in the backfield. Patterson also is capable of making things happen with his legs.
Michigan State: Jacub Panasiuk, DE
What’s the difference between “great” and “elite?” For Michigan State’s defensive line, that’d be Panasiuk. The sophomore will be battling for the starting defensive end role opposite Kenny Willekes. However, if he can hold Justice Alexander at arm’s length, Panasiuk could easily be a key part of a defense that only looks to improve after a 2017 season in which the Spartans finished seventh in the nation in yards allowed per game and second against the run.
Minnesota: O.J. Smith, DT
While a 3-star recruit, Smith was deemed worthy enough to be brought into the Alabama football program. That’s like being hand-picked to dine with modern-day college football royalty.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in Tuscaloosa, but where he failed in the SEC, he may thrive in the Big Ten. That’s the hope P.J. Fleck has, anyway. A 6-foot-2, 309-pound behemoth, Smith looks to help solidify the inside of the Golden Gophers’ defensive line where he will replace Steven Richardson, who is trying to make the Los Angeles Chargers' roster.
Nebraska: Adrian Martinez, QB
With any other head coach in town, Martinez’s hype likely overshadows everyone else in Lincoln, football player or otherwise. Instead, the true freshman will have to settle for being the likely starter of Scott Frost's team looking to implement his unique style of offense in the Big Ten.
Martinez has already drawn comparisons to former Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez (no relation) for his mobility, though ideally, his passing doesn’t include the “YOLO-Bombs” that Bo Pelini’s Martinez was well known for. If any quarterback on Nebraska’s roster can get the Huskers to a bowl, it’s No. 2.
Northwestern: Clayton Thorson, QB
The Wildcats have managed two 10-win seasons in the past three years and have won their last two bowl games. For that momentum to continue, not only will Thorson have to take his game to the next level, but Pat Fitzgerald has to replace running back Justin Jackson’s output.
Fortunately, Jeremy Larkin showed promise and should be able to pull enough attention away from Thorson that the senior will be able make plays. The quarterback also will have to show that he's fully healed from the torn ACL he suffered in late December in the bowl game.
Riding an eight-game winning streak into 2018, the Wildcats have to hit the ground running. Northwestern not only faces Purdue on the road in a Thursday night season-opener but then squares off against a Duke team that it lost to 41-17 a year ago.
Ohio State: Baron Browning, LB
Once again, the Buckeyes are the favorite to represent the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff despite needing to replace six starters on defense. And technically it could end up being seven as middle linebacker Tuf Borland suffered an Achilles injury in the spring, which puts his 2018 season in jeopardy.
Browning and Justin Hilliard will compete for Borland's starting spot, a battle that won't be settled until fall camp. While both came to Ohio State as 5-star prospects, Browning appears to have a slight advantage and certainly has the frame (6-3, 238) to man the middle of the Buckeyes' 4-3 alignment.
Penn State: Miles Sanders, RB
A former 5-star prospect and the top-rated running back in the class of 2016, Sanders’ (above, right) job is simple: pick up where Saquon Barkley left off. Okay, maybe it’s not as simple as it sounds, but the junior could be the next best thing to getting Barkley back for another year.
This could be Sanders' breakout year, especially with quarterback Trace McSorley taking some of the pressure off of him. With those two in the backfield, scoring points should not be a problem for Penn State's offense.
Purdue: Lorenzo Neal, DT
The Boilermakers will lean heavily on Neal as he is one of four returning starters on defense and will serve as the anchor up front. Neal and middle linebacker Markus Bailey are the only two back from a Purdue front seven that more than held its own last season. Outside of Neal and Bailey and the two starting safeties (Jacob Thieneman, Navon Mosley), the rest of the Boilermakers' defense will be long on potential but short on experience.
Rutgers: Artur Sitkowski, QB
The Scarlet Knights doubled their win total from year one to year two in the Chris Ash era, so obviously, an eight-win Rutgers team will be 2018’s Cinderella, right?! Well, maybe not, but a step in the right direction could begin with starting Sitkowski, the highly-regarded quarterback that played for IMG Academy last year. Ash could redshirt Sitkowski and let senior Giovanni Rescigno mentor him, but the opportunity is there to build a foundation for the future, similar to what Nebraska and Maryland are hoping to do with their quarterbacks.
Wisconsin: Dontye Carriere-Williams, CB
With cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal gone, the Badgers are looking to reload at the position and quick. Carriere-Williams appears to have one of the spots locked down considering that the only returning starter is senior safety D’Cota Dixon.
As a redshirt freshman, Carriere-Williams played in all 14 of the Badgers’ games, registering 30 tackles (22 solo), six pass breakups and an interception. Wisconsin was stout on defense last season, including fifth nationally against the pass. It's now up to Carriere-Williams and the rest of the young Badger defenders to maintain that level of performance.
-- Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces), and keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts on his Patreon page.