Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011

Can Denard Robinson repeat last season's success?

Can Denard Robinson repeat last season's success?

By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden), Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Big Ten.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska (SR)
2010 stats: 70 tackles, 17 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 10 QBH, 1 FF
Even without Ndamukong Suh by his side, Crick remained one of college football’s top defensive tackles last year. He has started 28 consecutive games, while collecting 32 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks in his career. Crick has earned first-team all-conference honors in each of the last two years and was a semifinalist for the 2010 Lombardi Award. He was a key reason why Nebraska ranked 11th in total defense and allowed only 17.4 points per game last season.

Why he’s ranked 1st: The Cornhuskers own one of the nation’s top defensive lines this year. Crick will receive plenty of attention, but the emergence of Baker Steinkuhler should allow Nebraska to own one of the top interior tandems in college football. Crick should have no trouble earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and should take home some hardware from the defensive awards handed out at the end of 2011.

2. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (JR)
2010 stats: 2,570 yds., 18 TDs, 11 INTs, 1,702 rush yds., 14 TDs
It’s a safe bet Robinson will be one of the most-watched players in the Big Ten this year. Michigan is shifting from a spread attack to a pro-style offense under new coordinator Al Borges. Although Robinson is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football, Borges and new coach Brady Hoke wants to keep him on the field all year. Robinson missed snaps due to injuries in 10 of Michigan’s 13 contests, which is something the Wolverines cannot afford in 2011. Robinson was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in Heisman voting last season. He also became the first player in NCAA history to post at least 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in a single year.

Why he’s ranked 2nd: The Big Ten is deep at quarterback this year, but Robinson gets the nod as the best one. Although his rushing totals may diminish, the junior will still have plenty of opportunities to test defenses with his legs. He also showed marked improvement as a passer, completing 62.5 percent of his throws and led the Big Ten with 328.6 total yards per game. Keeping Robinson healthy is priority No. 1 for Borges in 2011. However, Michigan still needs a big year from the junior to compete for the Big Ten title and he should continue to build upon a solid 2010 campaign.

3. Dan Persa, QB, Northwestern (SR)
2010 stats: 2,581 yds., 15 TDs, 4 INTs, 519 yds., 9 TDs

Just how valuable is Persa to Northwestern? With him in the lineup, the Wildcats went 7-3. Without Persa, Northwestern was 0-3. An Achilles injury against Iowa forced Persa to miss the final three games of last year, but he is expected to be 100 percent in time for the season opener. Persa earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and set a conference record for completion percentage (73.5). He also finished ninth nationally in passing efficiency (159.04) and ranked second in the Big Ten in total offense with 310 yards per game.

Why he’s ranked 3rd: Persa is one of the most valuable players in college football. Without Persa, Northwestern is likely struggling to achieve a winning record. With Persa, the Wildcats have a chance to win the Legends Division. All signs point to the senior making a full recovery from Achilles surgery, which should give him a chance to finish as the Big Ten’s best quarterback in 2011. The senior is also a darkhorse Heisman candidate. 

4. Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin (SR)
2010 stats: 3,563 yards, 28 TDs, 14 INTs, 435 rush yards, 9 TDs

All Wilson did last season for NC State was lead the ACC in total offense at 307.54 yards per game. The All-ACC performer scored at least three touchdowns in seven different games and topped 300-yards passing in seven games as well. Shifting to Madison, the offense will obviously be a more run-oriented attack, however, Paul Chryst has proven he will let his quarterbacks throw it around.

Why he’s ranked 4th: Wilson has 8,545 career passing yards, 76 career passing touchdowns, 1,083 yards rushing and 17 more scores on the ground. He instantly becomes the most prolific passer in Badgers’ history the second he steps onto the field. With a stellar offensive line and outstanding running backs, the UW offense should be explosive. The play-action game should be wildly successful in 2011 for the team to beat in the Leaders Division.

5. Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State (SR)
The All-American center helped lead the Buckeyes to 220.1 rushing yards per game last fall, good for 14th nationally. Brewster also helped Ohio State rank 11th overall scoring offense at 38.8 points per game, which also placed second in the Big Ten. Brewster and the offensive line pushed the Buckeyes to a 12-win season (including the first bowl win over an SEC team in school history).

Why he’s ranked 5th: The mainstay at center in Columbus, Brewster is the first-team preseason All-American center heading into 2011. A frontrunner for the Rimington Trophy, the senior heads what is ranked as the league’s top offensive line heading into the fall. More importantly, he will have to become a leader for the deficient Buckeye offense during the first five weeks of the season.  

6. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska (SR)
2010 stats: 152 tackles, 15 TFL, 6 sacks, 10 PBU

Coaches never know what to expect from JUCO transfers, but David was an instant impact player for Nebraska last year. He collected 152 tackles (a Nebraska single-season record) last season, which also ranked third in the nation behind Boston College’s Luke Kuechly and Washington’s Mason Foster. David posted eight games with at least 10 tackles and earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors.

Why he’s ranked 6th: With the move to the Big Ten, Nebraska’s defense may have to play more 4-3 alignments, which is a switch from the 4-2-5 used in Big 12 play. David added some weight to help with the physical offenses the Cornhuskers are likely to see in the Big Ten, but the conference shift shouldn’t have much of an impact on his game. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American and will contend for the conference and national lead in tackles.

7. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State (SR)
Adams is slated to miss the first five games of the season thanks to an NCAA suspension. However, his inclusion on these rankings is a testament to his sheer talent. He was one of only three Big Ten linemen to receive first-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media, and the other two were All-Americans. The Buckeyes’ running attack ranked 14th in the nation last season, averaging more than 220 yards per game.

Why he’s ranked 7th: The Buckeyes’ offensive line is ranked third in the country by Athlon, and Adams is one of its key components. He made enormous improvement between his sophomore and junior seasons, and being forced to sit out the first five games should have him ready to hit the ground running against Nebraska on Oct. 8.

8. Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa (SR)
2010 stats: 68 tackles, 4 INT, 1 TD, 6 PBU
Prater made the All-Big Ten first team last season after flashing a knack for the occasional big play. He ran an interception back for a 33-yard touchdown against Penn State, and had another one that led to a score against Michigan State. A sure tackler, Prater made 50 solo stops last season, ranking fourth among Big Ten cornerbacks. He helped spearhead a pass efficiency defense that ranked in the top 25 nationally.

Why he’s ranked 8th: Prater is a preseason second-team Athlon All-American. Despite not being on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, he is on the list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award.

9. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska (SR)
2010 stats: 30 tackles, 4 INT, 1 TD, 7 PBU
Nebraska’s secondary is considered the best in its new conference and among the top five in America, and Dennard is the group’s primary engine. The defense was third in the nation in pass efficiency and fifth in passing yardage allowed. Dennard helped Prince Amukamara hold Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon down last October, with the bulk of his production coming on a flea flicker and a late consolation score. Dennard also scored on a pick-six against Washington.

Why he’s ranked 9th: Dennard is a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon, and should help Nebraska contend for the Big Ten title in its initial season. He sits on the preseason watch lists for all the major defensive awards.

10. Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State (SR)
2010 stats: 2,825 yards, 20 TD, 10 INT
Cousins was an honorable mention choice for All-Big Ten last season, leading the Spartans to their first-ever 11-win season. He finished in the top 20 nationwide in passing efficiency. Cousins also had three games with three touchdown passes and added 331 yards in a come-from-behind win over Northwestern. Cousins has a chance to leave Michigan State as its all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and completions. His current 64 percent completion rate already ranks first in Spartan history.

Why he’s ranked 10th: The Big Ten has a highly talented crop of quarterbacks this season, and Cousins may be the best pure pocket passer of the group. His numbers may not explode off the page in the Spartans’ well-balanced offenses, but he was certainly strong in the clutch last season, posting a 70 percent completion rate and a 170.1 efficiency rating in the second half.

11. David Molk, C, Michigan (SR)
The 2010 first-team All-Big Ten center helped to lead what turned out to be the No. 1 offense in the conference. The Wolverines averaged 488.7 total yards per game, 238.5 of which coming on the ground – ranking Big Blue 13th in the nation. Molk paved the way for record-breaking playmaker Denard Robinson and his 2,053 rushing yards.

Why he’s ranked 11th: The three-year letterman at center enters his final season with 29 starts under his belt. The offensive line was, a short time ago, a major area of concern for the Wolverines but has quickly become an area of strength due in large part to Molk’s play over the football. He was named an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American this summer.

12. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa (JR)
Reiff is the anchor for one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines. He has started 24 games over the last two years, with 16 of those coming at left tackle. Reiff earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season. The junior is one of the top underclassmen at tackle and with another big year, could decide to leave for the NFL Draft. Reiff is considered a future first-round pick by most scouting services.

Why he’s ranked 12th: Iowa always seems to develop talent on the offensive and defensive lines, and Reiff is no exception. The junior should be one of the Big Ten’s top linemen this year and is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American. 

13. John Simon, DL, Ohio State (JR)
2010 stats: 57 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, INT, TD
All Simon does is simply make plays. The 6-foot-2, 270-pound tackle showed as a sophomore that his freshman contributions were no fluke. He disrupted backfields all season, posting a solo tackle for a loss in eight different games. He improved from 16 tackles to 57 in his first taste of full-time action. He even returned his lone interception for a touchdown. The Buckeyes ranked third in the nation in rushing defense, fifth in scoring defense and fourth in total defense a year ago.

Why he’s ranked 13th: While not a prototypical sized defensive tackle, Simon might be the strongest player on the Buckeye roster. He can play up the field or against the run – inside or out. After playing a big role as just a freshman, and then wrapping up a solid sophomore campaign, Simon is in for big things in 2011 as the leader of the Ohio State defensive line, 

14. Vince Browne, DE, Northwestern (SR)
2010 stats: 58 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 2 FF

Browne has been an underrated player in the Big Ten over the last two seasons, but should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. He has 16 career sacks, which ranks fifth in school history. Browne led Northwestern with seven sacks last year, which also tied for second in the Big Ten. He also tied for third in the conference last season with two forced fumbles.

Why he’s ranked 14th: Bolstering the pass rush and improving the run defense are two key areas for Northwestern to focus on this year. Browne should provide his share of pressure off the edge, but he needs some help. Although the senior may not be a household name, expect him to push for 10 sacks this year and a spot among the Big Ten's top defensive linemen.

15. Daniel Herron, RB, Ohio State (SR)
2010 stats: 1,155 yards, 16 TD, 19 rec., 180 yards
The man they call “Boom” is another Buckeye forced to miss the season’s first five games via suspension, and that will snap a highly impressive streak. Herron scored touchdowns in 12 straight games last year, falling short only in the opener against Marshall, which got out of hand early anyway. In the middle of the streak, he had three straight two-score games against Indiana, Wisconsin, and Purdue. He ran for 175 yards against arch rival Michigan, going over 1,000 for the season and 2,000 for his career in high style.

Why he’s ranked 15th: If not for the suspension, Herron would be a threat to gain over 1,000 yards for the second straight season. If the Buckeyes’ passing game is weakened by uncertainty at quarterback, he may still get the chance anyway. Herron earned his nickname by running through tacklers, but he’s also an underutilized receiving threat who can do serious damage if he’s left covered by a defensive back.

16. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State (JR)
2010 stats: 40 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 sacks
Worthy enters his third year as a starter seeking to improve a resume that already features an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection and several freshman All-American honors from the 2009 season. He led the entire Spartan team in sacks and led the defensive linemen in tackles and tackles for a loss. For proof of his athleticism, consider the sight of a 310-pound defensive tackle getting his hands on and bringing down Michigan’s electric Denard Robinson.

Why he’s ranked 16th: Worthy is on Athlon’s All-Big Ten first team defense, pushing the likes of Michigan’s Mike Martin and Nebraska’s Baker Steinkuhler to second team. Mammoth ends Tyler Hoover and William Gholston will keep Worthy from facing too many double teams, giving him every opportunity to match or exceed last year’s production.

17. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (JR)
2010 stats: 996 yards, 18 TD, 16 rec., 128 yards

Only Illinois’ Mikel LeShoure scored more touchdowns in the Big Ten than Ball – and that was basically in the final five weeks of the season. Ball scored 14 times in the final five games of 2010 and rushed for 777 of his 996 yards over that span. Of Ball’s 163 carries, 114 came in the final five games.

Why he’s ranked 17th: Ball’s hot stretch to push Wisconsin into the Rose Bowl prompted the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, John Clay, to leave early for the NFL (he wasn’t drafted). Ball has the size and speed combo that Paul Chryst craves from a bulk ball-carrier, but also has great hands as a receiver coming out of the backfield. With the stellar offensive line returning to Madison, expect big things from the first-year (co-) starter.

18. James White, RB, Wisconsin (SO)
2010 stats: 1,052 yards, 14 TD, 11 rec., 88 yards, 329 KR yards

The consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year burst onto the scene instantly, rushing 11 times for 59 yards and catching three passes for 37 yards in his first career game in a Big Red uniform. After missing the Purdue game with a injury, White returned to the lineup as John Clay was nursing his own ailments. In three wins to cap the regular season, White rushed 62 times for 459 yards and five touchdowns.

Why he’s ranked 18th: As only a freshman, White proved to be the perfect compliment to the traditional bigger, bulk Badger backs Clay and Montee Ball. In only his fourth career game, White posted his first career 100-yard effort and scored four touchdowns. He has the speed to hit the edge, the strength to get the tough yards, can pickup the blitz and catch the football very well. To steal a quote: “With the stellar offensive line returning to Madison, expect big things from the first-year (co-) starter.”

19. Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois (SR)
Allen paved the way for the No. 1 rushing attack in the Big Ten a year ago at 246.1 yards per game - clearly space for tailback Mikel LeShoure to lead the Big Ten in scoring (20 TD). At over 32 points per game, the Illini finished 26th nationally in scoring offense.  

Why he’s ranked 19th: The preseason first-team All-Big Ten offensive tackle returns to what could be the surprise offense in 2011. The three-year starter will once again lead a powerful ground game, but his most important task in 2011 will be protecting sophomore sensation quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. With the help of Allen, and new running back Jason Ford, Illinois should once again post crooked numbers on a lot of scoreboards.

20. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska (SO)
2010 stats: 1,631 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs, 965 rush yards, 12 TDs

In the first seven games of Martinez’s Cornhuskers career, all the youngster did was rush for 870 yards and 12 touchdowns culminating in a 323-yard, 5-TD aerial assault on Oklahoma State fans in Stillwater. The talented quarterback tweaked an ankle early on against Missouri and never fully recovered. A national television disrobing by head coach Bo Pelini on the sidelines in College Station proved Martinez still has much still to learn.

Why he’s ranked 20th: Even with plenty of great options under center in the Big Ten, Martinez might have the most upside. He has tremendous raw athletic ability, perhaps the best chance at a championship and should post huge numbers both through the air and on the ground. For this to happen, however, he needs to prove he is mentally and physically healthy and mature.

21. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue (SO)
Allen was named to multiple freshman All-American teams and the media’s All-Big Ten second team after starting all 12 games as a true freshman. He led the conference in interception return yardage, running two of his three picks back to the house.

22. DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State (SR)
Posey managed 53 catches for 848 yards and seven touchdowns, but all of those numbers will be hard to repeat after he serves his five-game suspension. He’ll still be the first option in the Buckeyes passing game as soon as he gets back in the huddle.

23. Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State (JR)
Baker was fourth in the Big Ten and 30th nationally at more than 92 yards per game. His highlight game was a four-touchdown, 179-yard domination of Minnesota. With Kirk Cousins sharing his backfield, defenses can’t stack up, meaning Baker should be able to deliver an encore this year.

24. Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois (SO)
Scheelhaase closed 2010 on a tear, posting 13 of his 17 passing scores over the final seven games. He also posted three 100-yard rushing games over the last six contests. The competition wasn’t particularly difficult during that span, but Scheelhaase showed improvement. Expect the sophomore to take another step in his development and lead Illinois to another bowl in 2011.

25. Mike Martin, DT, Michigan (SR)
If Michigan is to compete for the Big Ten title, the defense needs to show marked improvement. Martin is the team’s top defensive lineman and one of the conference’s top run-stuffers. New coordinator Greg Mattison plans to move Martin around the line, which should allow him to wreck havoc on opposing offensive lines. 

26. Jeremy Ebert, WR, Northwestern (SR)
Ebert was Dan Persa’s go-to guy last year, catching 62 passes for 953 yards and eight scores. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season. With Persa expected to be 100 percent, the senior should be one of the conference’s top receivers in 2011.

27. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin (JR)
The Badgers starting right tackle will shift to the left side this fall and lead the way for one of the nation’s top backfields. Wagner anchors what is ranked in the preseason as the nation’s No. 6 offensive line heading into 2011.

28. Trenton Robinson, S, Michigan State (SR)
The second-team all-conference safety returns to what secondary coach Harlon Barnett says is the best defensive backfield group he has had in five years. His 76 tackles make him the leading returning tackler on the team.

29. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska (JR)
As a second-string sophomore, Burkhead finished 10th in the Big 12 in rushing (955 yards). There isn’t anything on the field he can’t do, so fans should expect big things from the new Nebraska starting running back.

30. Joel Foreman, OG, Michigan State (SR)
With 39 starts departing the Spartan offensive line, big things will be needed from the experienced left guard. Protecting Kirk Cousins and opening holes for Edwin Baker will be paramount for the preseason first-team All-Big Ten blocker.

31. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State (JR)
32. Derek Moye, WR, Penn State (SR)
33. Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa (SR)
34. Antonio Fenelus, CB, Wisconsin (SR)
35. Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin (JR)
36. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin (JR)
37. Brian Peters, S, Northwestern (SR)
38. Al Netter, OT, Northwestern (SR)
39. Nathan Williams, DE, Ohio State (SR)
40. Marcus Coker, RB, Iowa (SO)

Just Missing the Top 40

Drew Astorino, S, Penn State (SR)
Damarlo Belcher, WR, Indiana (SR)
Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin (SR)
Jordan Mabin, CB, Northwestern (SR)
Cameron Meredith, DE, Nebraska (JR)
Kyler Reed, TE, Nebraska (JR)
Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan (JR)
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue (JR)
Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska (JR)
Devon Still, DT, Penn State (SR)
Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin (SR)

More Big Ten Content:

Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Top 25 Players of BCS Era

Best Quarterback in the Big Ten?

Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?

Illinois: A Sleeper Team?

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<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Big Ten.</p>

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