Unit Rankings: 2012 Big Ten Wide Receivers

Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis is one of the Big Ten's top leading receivers.

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.

Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.

Ranking the Big Ten's Receiving Corps for 2012

1. Nebraska —In what could be considered the weakest position in the Big Ten, the Huskers claim the top slot almost by default — and upside. Kenny Bell led the team in catches and yards as only a freshman, becoming only the second player to do so at Nebraska. He is explosive and dynamic enough to be used in a variety of ways and has gotten bigger and stronger this offseason. Fellow sophomore Jamal Turner has loads of ability and dynamic potential, but needs to work on being more physical and consistent. Seniors Quincy Enunwa and Tim Marlowe offer veteran experience and both do all of the little things coach Rich Fisher wants from his wideouts. Expect to see Taariq Allen and Tyler Evans receive plenty of time as well. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed form one of the best tight end duos in the nation. Reed has rare physical talents that need to be utilized by Nebraska and quarterback Taylor Martinez more.

2. Northwestern – The words “absolutely loaded” aren’t used to often in Athlon Sports preview magazines when talking about the Wildcats, but Pat Fitzgerald has more talent at the position than maybe any Northwestern team in history. And this, despite losing Jeremy Ebert to graduation and Kain Colter to the quarterback position. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones can be special players, and the duo will dominate the slot in Evanston. Speedy Tony Jones returns after missing all of last year with an injury, and Rashad Lawrence is looking to bounce back after a sluggish sophomore season. Without tight end Drake Dunsmore and boasting a a six- or seven-man rotation, expect to see the Cats in plenty of four- and five-wide receiver sets. Juniors Mike Jensen and Drew Moulton and freshmen Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Cameron Dickerson will be waiting in the wings.

3. Wisconsin — While he may not be the most talented or explosive player, Jared Abbrederis is likely the top wide receiver in the Big Ten. He is extremely dependable, leads by example and rarely makes mistakes, and he also is a big-play threat in the punt return game. He could easily lead the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2012. Behind him, however, there is little proven depth. Jeff Duckworth will start opposite Abbrederis, while Manasseh Garner and Kenzel Doe are the only other returning wideouts who caught a pass last year (two each). Isaiah Williams and Marquis Mason could work their way into the starting rotation as well. That said, in a system known for its tight end use and running game, fans can expect to see Abbrederis on the receiving end of most of Danny O’Brien's passes. Speaking of tight ends, Jacob Pedersen is the next great player in a long line of UW TEs. He caught eight touchdowns as a sophomore and will be more of a target this fall. Pedersen is the complete package at tight end.

4. Iowa — Marvin McNutt would overshadow nearly anyone who has played in a Hawkeye uniform having  departed Iowa City as the school’s all-time leading receiver in a variety of categories. However, it appears that Keenan Davis is poised to deliver on his immense talent this fall. He will need to continue to step up his game as he is now the No. 1 option. Sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley played in all 13 games as a freshman and will likely be asked to do more this season. Steven Staggs and Jordan Cotton give the two-deep an experienced feel. The development of tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz could be a game-changer for this offense if he can live up to his lofty recruiting status. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis says “in 39 springs, I’ve never had a tight end like C.J. with his size and ability to play at the line of scrimmage and stretch the field.” With the top pure passer in the Big Ten under center, Iowa should feel pretty comfortable with its plethora of emerging talent.

5. Ohio State — The leading receiver for the Buckeyes caught only 14 passes last year, but the potential and growth (and overall lack of elite options in the league) give OSU the No. 5 group in the Big Ten. Jake Stoneburner exploded at the start of last year, but went missing after Braxton Miller took over. Expect Urban Meyer to work the talented tight end into the gameplan on a more regular basis this fall. Fellow tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett will play plenty of snaps as well. On the outside, there is a jumbled mix of undeveloped potential and muddled depth charts. Devin Smith led the team in all three major categories as only a freshman and should be better while juniors Philly Brown and Chris Fields need to turn into leaders. True freshman Mike Thomas, at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, might be the wild card after performing extremely well in spring football. A big-bodied down-the-field threat is what this offense is missing and Thomas could be that for Meyer.

6. Michigan — Roy Roundtree is a bizarre case study. He was an All-Big Ten performer as a sophomore (72 rec., 935 yards), but plummeted back to Earth last fall, (19 rec., 355 yards) while Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon took on bigger roles. Gallon is back opposite Roundtree and offers intriguing play-making skill. Yet, it is Roundtree that could push this unit into the Big Ten’s top tier of pass-catchers. Sophomore Jerald Robinson is a big body that Brady Hoke wants to get involved in the vertical passing game and Jeremy Jackson will get plenty of looks as well. Brandon Moore and Ricardo Miller will take over for the departed Kevin Koger at tight end.

7. Purdue — Junior O.J. Ross and senior Antavian Edison are about as good a 1-2 punch as there is in the Big Ten this fall. The two combined for 77 catches, over 900 yards and three touchdowns with a revolving door at quarterback all season. The trouble for Purdue is depth. Gary Bush, Tommie Thomas, Raheem Mostert and Shane Mikesky need to step into bigger roles this fall. Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes do offer some dependability and upside at the tight end position.

8. Michigan State — This is going to be a huge rebuilding project for Mark Dantonio after losing B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin to the NFL. Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler have loads of talent, but need to develop into consistent playmakers on the outside. Keith Mumphrey and Andre Sims Jr. also provide plenty of upside. Although there is some potential with the returning receivers, the addition of former Tennessee Vol DeAnthony Arnett to the unit has to make Spartans fans more comfortable with their receiving corps. No returning receiver caught more than four passes last year while Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., posted 24 catches, 242 yards and two scores as a true freshman last year for Tennessee. He almost instantly becomes the most experienced and talented option on the roster. Dion Sims is now an upperclassman and is poised for his best season at tight end. Look for this group to develop quickly and rapidly move up these rankings.

9. Penn State — Only one player returns to the wide receiving corps with at least five catches last season. Devon Smith was expected to start, but he left the team in late June. Justin Brown, who has been a complementary piece, will need to step up and be the deep threat that Derek Moye was, while also emerging as a leader with very little experience around him. Shawney Kersey, Alex Kenney, Allen Robinson and Christian Kuntz will all get a chance to start as well. Meanwhile, Bill O’Brien plans to refocus on the tight end position — a la his former employer, the New England Patriots. Junior Garry Gilliam might have the most talent, but he needs to stay on the field after dealing with injury issues, while Kevin Haplea boasts the most experience. Now, if someone could just get them the football.

10. Indiana — Converted quarterback Kofi Hughes may not have the elite game-changing ability Kevin Wilson is looking for, but he will likely be the best IU receiver. He built a tremendous rapport with freshman signal caller Tre Roberson, as his eight-catch, 147-yard performance against Ohio State indicates. He can also be used in unique ways with his ability to run and throw the football from the wideout position. Duwyce Wilson might be the most gifted player on the two-deep, but he has to prove he is healthy after missing spring with a knee issue. Expect Cody Lattimore, Jay McCants and Jamonne Chester to figure prominently into the mix as well. Tight end Ted Bolser can expect the biggest boost from new coordinator Seth Littrell, as the pro-style attack will feature the tight end more prominently.

11. Illinois — Replacing A.J. Jenkins will be a tall order for new head coach Tim Beckman. Spencer Harris is a junior who posted 26 catches a year ago. Darius Millines is also an upperclassman who had 19 receptions last fall, while sophomore tight end Jon Davis posted 22 receptions as a freshman a year ago. These three should be Nathan Scheelhaase’s top targets. The most intriguing development, however, could be the usage of cornerback Terry Hawthorne. The coverman was a star pass-catcher in high school and could be used on both sides of the ball. His raw play-making ability might be too much to keep him out of the offensive gameplan. Ryan Lankford should also see a big role, as a host of talented but unproven underclassmen fill the two-deep.

12. Minnesota — Only one returning receiver has caught a touchdown on this roster - senior Brandon Green. Speed demon Marcus Jones will control the slot but has to stay healthy after dealing with a torn knee ligament a season ago. Former junior college transfer Malcolm Moulton can make plays, but he has to be more consistent while Devin Crawford-Tufts also needs to continue his development in a big way. Freshman Andre McDonald could be a wild card at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, while John Rabe and Drew Goodger are expected to get the reps at tight end. Quarterback MarQueis Gray is a senior and should have his best year, but Minnesota needs players to step up around him for the Gophers to improve in 2012.

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

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