The Big Ten is short on proven quarterbacks for 2016, but there’s no question the league is stacked with talent on defense. Of Athlon’s projected top 10 players for this season, six come from defense, including standout cornerbacks Desmond King (Iowa) and Jourdan Lewis (Michigan). Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett gets the nod as Athlon’s top overall player, with teammates Pat Elflein and Raekwon McMillan also appearing in the top 10.
With the season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the best players in the nation within each conference. How did we come up with these rankings? Many factors were considered. Overall talent, production, level of competition, position importance and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what players accomplished in 2015. Here’s a look at the top 35 players in the Big Ten for 2016:
Ranking the Big Ten's Top 35 Players for 2016
35. Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
Price has started every game over the last two years and joins Pat Elflein as the Buckeyes’ only returning starters on the offensive line for 2016.
34. Montae Nicholson, DB, Michigan State
Nicholson is one of the rising stars on coach Mark Dantonio’s defense. In his first full season as a starter last year, Nicholson recorded 83 stops (2.5 for a loss), one forced fumble and three interceptions.
33. Jake Replogle, DL, Purdue
Replogle quietly turned in an outstanding 2015 season. In 12 games, Replogle created havoc against opposing offensive linemen and recorded 14 tackles for a loss. He needs another big reason for Purdue’s defense to take a step forward on the stat sheet.
32. Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
New Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow should be targeting Cobbs early and often in 2016. As a sophomore last season, Cobbs recorded 60 catches for 1,035 yards and four scores.
31. Jordan Westerkamp, WR, Nebraska
In addition to making highlight-reel catches, Westerkamp is clearly one of the Big Ten’s top all-around receivers. Westerkamp caught 65 passes for 918 yards and seven scores and tied for third among Big Ten players with 17 catches of 20 yards or more last season.
30. Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska
Gerry has started every game for the Cornhuskers over the last three years, recording 199 tackles (12 for a loss), 1.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups and nine interceptions. He leads an improving Nebraska secondary for 2016.
29. Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State
Godwin led the team with 69 receptions for 1,101 yards and five scores last fall. Those numbers could tick even higher in 2016 if Penn State’s offense finds the right mix under new play-caller Joe Moorhead.
28. Jehu Chesson, WR, Michigan
With Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt returning, Michigan should have one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps in 2016. Chesson led the team with 764 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches last fall, while grabbing 50 receptions over 13 games.
27. Ryan Glasgow, DL, Michigan
Glasgow’s impact on Michigan’s defense goes well beyond what appears in the box score. The Illinois native was the anchor on the interior of the Wolverines’ defensive line last season but missed the final four games due to injury. While Glasgow was sidelined, Michigan gave up 300 rushing yards to Indiana and Ohio State, surrendered 118 to Florida in the bowl game and 70 to Penn State. Getting Glasgow back in the lineup and at full strength is critical for the Wolverine run defense.
26. Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska
This is a bit of a projection, but the guess here is Armstrong delivers a standout year in his final season on campus. Armstrong threw for 3,030 yards and 22 scores in 2015 but has to do a better job of holding onto the ball (16 picks). Another offseason working with coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf should pay dividends.
25. Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa
The Hawkeyes lose two standouts up front in Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe, but this unit remains strong with three returning starters. Welsh is versatile enough to start at any position on the line and appears to be penciled in as a guard for 2016. He’s started 19 games over the last two years.
24. Brian Allen, OL, Michigan State
Replacing Jack Conklin and Jack Allen won’t be easy, but Michigan State has a good foundation in place with Brian Allen returning after starting 13 games over the last two years. The Illinois native is versatile enough to play guard or tackle and is a third-team Athlon Sports All-America selection for 2016.
23. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
Madre London and Gerald Holmes should see their share of carries, but Scott is ready to take control of the Michigan State backfield. Scott scored one of the most important touchdowns in program history with a one-yard plunge to beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship last year. He finished the season with 699 yards and 11 scores and should easily exceed 1,000 as the Spartans’ go-to back this fall.
22. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Clement was poised to become Wisconsin’s next star running back in 2015, but his season was derailed by a sports hernia. With a full year to recover, Clement should resemble the running back that rushed for 949 yards and nine scores (as a backup) in 2016.
21. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
There were a few question marks surrounding Iowa’s linebacking corps last season, but any concerns about this group were quickly erased by Jewell’s emergence. In 14 appearances last year, Jewell recorded 126 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and registered six pass breakups. He’s firmly in the mix as one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers for 2016.
20. Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin
Assuming T.J. Edwards returns early in the year from an offseason foot injury, the Badgers should have the Big Ten’s top linebacker unit. Biegel has been a playmaker for the Wisconsin defense over the last two years, accumulating 30.5 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks.
19. Dawuane Smoot, DL, Illinois
Smoot might be the Big Ten’s most underrated player. After recording 40 tackles (15 for a loss) and eight sacks last season, the Ohio native should continue to develop into a force under new coach Lovie Smith.
18. Sam Hubbard, DL, Ohio State
All signs point to a breakout year from Hubbard. He flashed potential in 13 appearances last season, ranking second on the defense with 6.5 sacks and eight tackles for a loss. The scary part for the rest of the Big Ten? Those numbers came as a backup.
17. Tyquan Lewis, DL, Ohio State
Joey Bosa left for the NFL, but the Buckeyes have their next wave of standouts ready at end. Lewis shined on the other side of Bosa in 2015, recording 14 tackles for a loss and eight sacks.
16. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Jackson finished second among Big Ten running backs with 1,418 yards last season. The junior has reached 1,000 yards in both of his seasons on campus and is also a key cog in the passing game as a receiver out of the backfield (43 catches).
15. William Likely, CB, Maryland
New coach D.J. Durkin was instrumental in helping Michigan’s defense rank among the nation’s best last year. While Durkin needs time to rebuild the roster, there are enough returning pieces to expect improvement in 2016. One of returning players for Durkin to build around is Likely – a two-year starter for the Terrapins at cornerback. Likely is also one of the nation’s top return men and claimed the Big Ten’s Rodgers-Dwight Award for the conference’s best return specialist in 2015.
14. Riley Bullough, LB, Michigan State
Bullough is the anchor for one of the nation’s top linebacker units. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 106 stops (7.5 for a loss), four sacks and two forced fumbles in 2015.
13. C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Beathard’s emergence was a big reason why Iowa won the Big Ten’s West Division and nearly earned a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2015. In 14 appearances last year, Beathard threw for 2,809 yards and 17 scores and added 237 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. With Beathard at the helm, the Hawkeyes increased their plays of 40 yards or more from 12 in 2014 to 17 last fall. Beathard battled injuries last year but never missed a start and ranked third among Big Ten quarterbacks with a 61.6 completion percentage.
12. Chris Wormley, DL, Michigan
Michigan’s defensive line is among the nation’s best for 2016. Wormley shared the team lead in sacks (6.5) but led all Wolverine defenders with 14.5 tackles for a loss. The senior is an All-America candidate this fall.
11. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Butt was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award (nation’s top tight end) last year after catching 51 passes for 654 yards and three scores. The senior is due for another standout year and is a second-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016.
10. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Penn State’s ground game is in good hands with Barkley leading the way over the next couple of years. The Pennsylvania native emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top running backs as a true freshman in 2015, ending the year with 1,076 yards and seven scores.
9. Dan Feeney, OL, Indiana
Feeney has started every game in his Indiana career and has been a model of consistency and standout play for coach Kevin Wilson. According to the Hoosiers’ sports information department, Feeney has allowed just one sack in his career.
8. Pat Elflein, OL, Ohio State
Elflein has been a stalwart on Ohio State’s offensive line since the end of the 2013 season. After starting all 28 games at guard over the last two years, Elflein is moving to center for 2016.
7. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense returns only three starters, but new play-caller Greg Schiano isn’t hurting for talent. One of the returning starters is McMillan, who emerged as one of the nation’s top linebackers in 2015. In 13 appearances, McMillan recorded 119 stops, 1.5 sacks and four pass breakups. He also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last year.
6. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker experienced a breakout year in his first season as a full-time starter. The Miami native ranked third among Big Ten defenders with 120 tackles and registered 20.5 of those stops for a loss. He’s one of the nation’s top returning linebackers for 2016.
5. Jabrill Peppers, LB, Michigan
Peppers is one of the nation’s best all-around players and is slated to slide to linebacker from safety under new coordinator Don Brown. In 12 appearances last season, Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups. Peppers is a two-way threat for coach Jim Harbaugh and will once again see time on offense after a limited package of plays last fall.
4. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
McDowell is the next star for coach Mark Dantonio’s defensive line at Michigan State. The Detroit native checks in at 6-foot-6 and 276 pounds but is versatile and athletic enough to play on the edge or on the interior. After recording 41 stops (13 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks last year, McDowell is primed for an even better 2016 campaign.
3. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Lewis started all 13 games for the Wolverines last year and earned second-team All-America honors after accounting for 52 tackles, 20 passes defended and two interceptions. The Detroit native also excelled in coverage, as Pro Football Focus indicated he allowed just 33 completions on 90 targets in pass coverage last year.
2. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
King filled the trophy case in Iowa City last year with a plethora of postseason honors, including first-team All-America honors and the Jim Thorpe Award, which is awarded to the nation’s best defensive back. King is a lockdown corner for coach Kirk Ferentz and finished 2015 with 72 tackles and eight interceptions.
1. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
After splitting time with Cardale Jones in 2015, Barrett is back as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Buckeyes. And now that Barrett is a full year removed from the leg injury that ended his 2014 campaign early, the junior is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks once again. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett accounted for 3,772 yards and 45 overall scores and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.