Big Ten Football: Top 50 Returning Players in the Conference
Just days after the start of a new year and hours after the end of the last Big Ten bowl game there is only one question in mind: What does this all mean for next year?
The 2011 senior class is deep and talented and quite a few players will make the switch to Sundays next year. Behind those departing seniors are three more classes of players looking to either take a step up in production or finally emerge from a reserve roll.
Today, we will look at the 50 best returning players in the Big Ten. These are the players who have already shown a great deal of ability. Some are established starters at their respective positions; others are solid role players that will see a larger opportunity to contribute in the void left by a departing star.
This list is, as these things go, heavy on quarterbacks and running backs—the easiest players to track statistically. Unfortunately that leaves less room for offensive linemen (of which, five are represented).
Finally, in a couple weeks this list could be a little shorter. Some players like Whitney Mercilus, Montee Ball and John Simon could declare for the NFL draft and give up their senior seasons. If players like this return they will unquestionably be some of the best in the conference so their inclusion is still warranted here. If I think a guy could leave he will have an asterisk by his name.
Let's look at who will be the premier players in 2012.
Nathan Scheelhaase: Junior Quarterback, Illinois
The Illinois quarterback has had quite the roller-coaster career in his first two seasons on campus. He started as a freshman and helped lead a strong rushing attack. In 2011 it initially seemed that his one significant weakness—downfield passing—had been sufficiently addressed. That was until the Illinois offense went in the tank halfway through the season and lost six straight games.
When he is playing well there are few quarterbacks more capable of doing damage on the ground or in the air. When he is playing sloppy the offense can quickly ground to a halt. In his third year as a starter and his first under a new coach with some impressive offensive chops, it is a safe bet that Scheelhaase will take another step forward.
Donovonn Young: Sophomore Running Back, Illinois
Coming into the 2011 season the Illini looked to be solid at running back with upper-class bruiser Jason Ford returning flanked by Troy Pollard. While Pollard got plenty of time and Ford plenty of carries, it was the freshman, Young, that solidified himself as a future part of the Illini offense.
Young finished the year with over 400 yards and six touchdowns while averaging over five yards per carry. With both Ford and Pollard graduating, it will be up to Donovonn Young to take up the load next to Scheelhaase. The sophomore looks poised to handle more of the load.
Jonathan Brown: Junior Linebacker, Illinois
After the season Martez Wilson put together at linebacker for the Illini in 2010 it would take a lot to make Illini fans forget about him. Jonathan Brown did his best. In the process, Brown was one of the most disruptive linebackers in the country.
Brown led the conference in tackles for loss and was in the top five in sacks on a defense that made it a season-long habit of hassling quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield. With two years left, Brown has a great chance to get personally acquainted with all the quarterbacks and running backs in the conference.
Whitney Mercilus*: Senior Defensive End, Illinois
And so we come to the first of our "will they or won't they" candidates.
A season ago, Whitney Mercilus was just another name on the depth chart. The 2010 defense had been anchored in the middle by defensive tackle Corey Liuget and middle linebacker Martez Wilson, and those were the holes that most thought needed to be filled. Once the season started, it became clear that Mercilus was making the leap.
He immediately made an impact and was the focal point of Illinois' fast, aggressive defense all season long. Mercilus ends the year with the most sacks in the nation, most forced fumbles and sixth-most tackles for loss.
It is hard to council a player to leave school early, but of any of the crew on the NFL fence, Mercilus has the least to gain by coming back. His team will be in a transition to a new coach with a new defensive coordinator, his incredible statistical production will be hard to equal and Illinois won't be in a position to compete for a Big Ten title next year. It is hard to imagine Mercilus staying another year, and hard to blame him if he doesn't.
Michael Buchanan: Senior Defensive End, Illinois
One of the benefits of playing with an elite defensive player is how much easier everyone else's job becomes. When lined up opposite a terrifying pass-rusher, you will find yourself the recipient of a lot of single blocking. All that matters then is taking advantage of it.
Michael Buchanan did just that. He ended the season in the top 10 in tackles for loss and sacks as part of a defense that was top 10 in sacks, TFLs, pass yards allowed and total offense. If Whitney Mercilus returns for his senior season these two should create of the most most feared defensive end pairings in the country. If not, it'll be Buchanan's turn to command double-teams as "the guy" on the Illinois defensive line.
James Vandenberg: Senior Quarterback, Iowa
With the top of the conference's pass efficiency rating crew graduating this year, you are now looking at the Big Ten's returning leader in pass efficiency. That isn't to say this is undeserved.
James Vandenberg had a solid year in his first as a starter. He was third in pass yards and touchdowns behind two guys with the benefit of an extra game. His accuracy was just south of 60 percent but he only thew six interceptions on the season—the second fewest among the top six in pass efficiency rating in the conference. Vandenberg is now the conference's big, clean-cut, pocket-passer du jour.
Marcus Coker: Junior Running Back, Iowa
If Marcus Coker can avoid what seems to be the curse of the starting Iowa running back, he has a great chance to turn into the conference's next premier feature back. Coker has an advantage that the rest of the backs on the list don't—he isn't splitting carries with anyone (the exception being Silas Redd, who is held down simply by the offense he is on). Coker was second in the conference in rush yards per game and third in touchdowns.
Next year's Iowa team will return enough offensive firepower that the unit as a whole should be expected to improve. If that is the case, Coker is going to be the main driving factor in just how much better the offense is able to perform.
Keenan Davis: Senior Receiver, Iowa
When you are playing opposite Marvin McNutt it is a wonder there are any passes to catch at all. McNutt was second in the conference in receptions per game while easily being James Vandenberg's favorite target.
Despite that, Keenan Davis found a way to be the complementary receiver that the offense needed. Davis ended the year with 637 yards and four touchdowns and is looking at a big opportunity to step up into the upper echelon of the conference. Eight of the Big Ten's top 10 receivers will be gone after this year and Davis is one of two in the top 10 this year that will be back for 2012. With a good portion of his offense joining him, Davis has a good chance to stay in the top 10 in 2012.
Riley Reiff*: Senior Offensive Tackle, Iowa
If there is one player that James Vandenberg is going to be happy to have back in 2012, it is probably the guy protecting his backside, Riley Reiff. The senior left tackle is one of the best pass-blockers in the conference and should help the Iowa offense immensely next year. That is if he returns.
Reiff is currently thought to be one of the best OT prospects in the nation and should he enter the draft, he could very well be a first-round selection.
Micah Hyde: Senior Cornerback, Iowa
The Iowa defense struggled at times in 2011, but a good sign going forward is that the secondary gets another year with Micah Hyde locking down receivers. Hyde is one of the better cover corners in the conference and will be depended on even more heavily with the departure of Shaun Prater from the Hawkeye defensive backfield.
Tre Roberson: Sophomore Quarterback, Indiana
Coach Kevin Wilson came into the season with four potential starting quarterbacks. Luckily for him, he left with one. Tre Roberson eventually got an opportunity to play because of injuries and inconsistent play by those ahead of him, and he soon had the starting job locked down.
In just around one half of a season as the starter, Roberson was able to pass for nearly 1,000 yards while running for almost 500. The Indiana offense is still very much a work in progress, but having Roberson establish himself as a competent starter will help greatly to round the rest of the offense into form.
Stephen Houston: Junior Running Back, Indiana
What will also help is having a consistent No. 1 running back. Indiana has struggled to field a true starting running back the last few years—the closest being Darius Willis, who spent time either injured or on occasion suspended.
Houston had a very good season that culminated with him being 10th in the conference in rush yards with a YPC average of 5.3. Houston might not turn out to be a dominant back, but having a steady running back that it can depend on will go a long ways towards helping Indiana's offense develop.
Denard Robinson: Senior Quarterback, Michigan
There are few players in the Big Ten that have more name recognition than Denard Robinson, and next year he will finally be in a favorable position to truly take complete and consistent command of the powerful Wolverine offense. Michigan will return the majority of its offensive line, its top running back and three experienced receivers. On top of that, Robinson will be in the second year of Al Borges' offensive system, and perhaps more importantly, Borges will be in the second year of his time coaching Robinson.
That the road runs both ways is a testament to just how dynamic Robinson is capable of being. The Wolverine offense started the year hoping to spend more than half its time in traditional under-center formations. By the midpoint of the season, the Wolverines had transitioned to a mostly shotgun-based offense that utilized a great deal of zone-read plays and misdirection—perfectly suited for Robinson's skills.
Conversely, Robinson improved as a passer in the new offense with more and more experience and a chance to get healthy from an early season injury. If the two can continue to mesh well in Robinson's senior year, it could be his most productive yet.
Fitzgerald Toussaint: Junior Running Back, Michigan
While the new offense in Ann Arbor was always slated to include Denard Robinson at quarterback, running back was something of a question mark for the fourth year in a row. The previous years had seen a great deal of running back by committee due to youth and injuries.
However, early in the season Fitzgerald Toussaint began to show the kind of all-around game that would make him a fixture in the backfield all year. By the final game Toussaint was the first 1,000-yard running back in Ann Arbor since Mike Hart, and was just 50 yards shy of leading the team in rushing.
Taylor Lewan: Junior Offensive Tackle, Michigan
The Michigan offensive line also had to work through a transition to a new offensive system, and at times early in the year it struggled, but outside of Rimington Trophy winner David Molk at center, Taylor Lewan was the kind of rock around which one wishes to build a great offensive line.
Lewan was great as a pass-blocker and run-blocker all year and with two years left he could follow in the footsteps of idol Jake Long by the time all is said and done.
Craig Roh: Senior Defensive End, Michigan
Michigan's defensive turnaround was spearheaded by a renewed sense of focus and physicality along the defensive line. This was driven on the interior by tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, but in 2012 that burden is going to pass to the capable shoulders of defensive end Craig Roh. Roh has been a starter ever since he set foot on campus and has managed solid production while growing into the shape and size of a Big Ten defensive end.
Roh ranked behind only Van Bergen in sacks and TFLs this year, and will be the focal point of the Wolverine pass rush in 2012.
Blake Countess: Sophomore Cornerback, Michigan
After two years of futilely trying to cover anyone, the Wolverine secondary turned quite a corner in 2011. Most of that uptick comes from improved play in the front seven and growth among the returning secondary players. However, one area was a bit of a surprise: the emergence of true freshman Blake Countess as a solid Big Ten cornerback.
The last three heralded recruits the Wolverines have introduced into the secondary (Boubacar Cissoko, JT Turner, Cullen Christian) all had 4-star pedigree and all eventually left the program. Countess came in to a deeper, more experienced position group and immediately challenged for playing time. By the midway point in the season he had claimed a starting spot for himself, and the sky seems to be the limit in terms of development.
Le'Veon Bell: Junior Running Back, Michigan State
Entering the 2010 season the Michigan State running back situation was thought to be fairly settled at the top, but like the rival Badgers, a freshman was just too good to keep off the field. That freshman was Le'Veon Bell. Still, this season was supposed to be the Edwin Baker show.
That didn't matter, as the bigger Bell was the more effective runner for the Spartans most of the season to the tune of 900 yards and 11 touchdowns. Bell is nearly 240 pounds and athletic enough to still be an every-down back that blocks, catches passes and carries the ball both inside and outside.
While Baker and third-stringer Larry Caper will always challenge for carries, Bell seems to have finally established himself as a solid No. 1 on the depth chart. With his size and skill set, he will be hard to move.
Jerel Worthy*: Senior Defensive Tackle, Michigan State
Like most dominant defenses, the beating heart of Michigan State's defense lies right in the center. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy has made a momentous climb from under-recruited prospect to all-conference and potential top-10 draft pick.
The defensive tackle has the size to hold up against double-teams and the athleticism to wreak havoc in the backfield. That Michigan State's defensive ends have been so good at getting to the quarterback and the linebackers have been so good at filling running lanes and stopping the ball-carrier all comes down to the man in the middle. Worthy may not have the most eye-popping statistical profile, but he makes life easier on everyone around him while still making key defensive plays that few players in the country are capable of.
Isaiah Lewis: Junior Safety, Michigan State
Isaiah Lewis is the kind of safety that Big Ten defensive coordinators drool over. He isn't the biggest guy on the field (5'10", 195 lbs) but you wouldn't know that from how he plays. Lewis is a pounding downhill safety that thrives in run support while proving equally capable in deep zones or jumping underneath routes for game-clinching pick-sixes (Michigan fans nod somberly).
With a guy like Isaiah Lewis roaming the field as the last line of defense, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi can breathe a little easier—and dial up a few more blitzes.
Max Bullough: Junior Linebacker, Michigan State
No player on the Michigan State defense had a more daunting task than Max Bullough this year. The sophomore only had to follow the most productive linebacker in Michigan State history for a defense that had been built around solid linebacker play.
Bullough never once wavered and put together a great season that proves the defense is in good hands for the next two years. Bullough led the team in tackles while pitching in a handful of sacks, TFLs and an interception for good measure.
William Gholston: Junior Defensive End, Michigan State
After showing glimpses of his immense talent as a true freshman, William Gholston was thrust into the starting role as a sophomore. Gholston is perhaps the most physically impressive player on the Spartan roster, and has more than shown that this season. He spent most of his time tearing off the edge, breaking up plays in the backfield and leading the defensive line in tackles while recording the second-most TFLs on the team.
Gholston, like cousin Vernon, seems almost too big for the college game and whether his junior year is his last in green and white, the Spartans will be glad to have him on their side next year.
Denicos Allen: Junior Linebacker, Michigan State
Allen isn't what you expect to see when you hear "Big Ten linebacker." He isn't particularly tall, just 5'10", and his 220 lbs don't seem sufficient to hold up to the beating that comes along with playing in and around the trenches week in and week out in the Big Ten.
Still, Allen has transcended that to be one of the most disruptive linebackers in the Big Ten. He was second in the conference in sacks this year with 10, second on the team in tackles and fifth in the conference in TFLs at 17. He may not be the biggest linebacker in the conference, but over the next two years the odds are good he puts together a strong challenge for being the best.
MarQueis Gray: Senior Quarterback, Minnesota
The first year under Jerry Kill didn't go as well as Minnesota fans may have hoped, but one positive development was the maturation of quarterback MarQueis Gray over the course of the season. Gray was a bit of an enigma coming into the season. He arrived on campus with considerable hype but eventually moved to wide receiver last year just to get his talent on the field while senior Adam Weber still called the shots from under center.
In his first season as a starter at quarterback Gray had some struggles, but eventually finished the season just short of 2,500 total offensive yards. His passing skills are still raw—Gray's pass efficiency rating is a lowly 93rd in the nation this year—but the quarterback is a powerful runner capable both of picking up tough yards on the inside and beating players to the edge on the outside.
Braxton Miller: Sophomore Quarterback, Ohio State
If there was one thing that had Ohio State fans riveted this year, it was watching the growth of the next great Buckeye quarterback. Braxton Miller was thrown into a terrible situation. The presumed starter was first suspended for the first five games then removed from the team altogether.
Although Miller did enough to warrant consideration for the starting job right out of the gate, experience eventually won out in the form of Joe Bauserman. This meant that Miller spent the first few weeks trying to clean up a Bauser-mess or toiling away in garbage time against terrible teams. Miller's first start? Michigan State. Talk about being thrown to the wolves.
However, through it all, Miller has come out the other side as perhaps the most exciting underclassman in the conference. Miller has all the tools to carry on the on-field legacy of his predecessors Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor—as evidenced by his 695 yards rushing (11th in the conference) for the season, as well as his season-ending three-game passing total of 405 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Miller is growing, and in Urban Meyer's offense that could be a scary thing.
Carlos Hyde: Junior Running Back, Ohio State
Another consequence of the "Tat Five" scandal was that the Buckeyes lost their best rushing weapon for the first half of the season. This didn't make Braxton Miller's (or Joe Bauserman's, for that matter) job any easier this year. Inexperience ruled the day in the Buckeye backfield, but out of that inexperience came a positive contribution from Carlos Hyde.
The sophomore put together a number of solid rushing performances as a placeholder for starter Dan Herron, and still managed to get carries once Herron returned to the lineup. With Herron graduating, it will be up to Hyde to seize the starting job for good next fall.
John Simon: Senior Defensive End, Ohio State
One place where the Buckeyes weren't hurt was along the defensive line; junior John Simon made sure of that. Simon was one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten and led the Buckeyes in both TFLs (15) and sacks (seven). Simon has the talent to eventually play on Sundays and will be the unquestioned BMOC when it comes to the Buckeye defense next year.
Johnathan Hankins: Junior Defensive Tackle, Ohio State
Of course, making Simon's job a little easier is the big man in the middle, Johnathan Hankins. The sophomore jumped into the starting lineup this year and was a force on the inside. Hankins was second only to Simon when it comes to TFLs and sacks on the year. Together with Simon, Hankins should keep the Buckeye defense playing at a high level next year under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Rex Burkhead: Senior Running Back, Nebraska
While Montee Ball was out getting press on the high-flying Wisconsin offense and Marcus Coker was eating up every carry in sight for Iowa, Rex Burkhead was just grinding his way to the third-most rushing yards in the conference.
Burkhead didn't have the benefit of playing in a particularly dangerous passing offense, and he continually had to share carries with quarterback Taylor Martinez. Still, when the Huskers absolutely needed a score or a first down, it was Burkhead who got the call. He was the one who sealed the comeback against Ohio State and he was the one who ran down the throat of Michigan State's defense repeatedly en route to the Huskers' win.
Burkhead isn't flashy, but on 3rd-and-1, it would be hard to find a better back to get the first down.
Taylor Martinez: Junior Quarterback, Nebraska
The other half of the Husker offense isn't quite as dependable, but he makes up for it by being very dangerous. Taylor Martinez has spent his first two years at quarterback trying to prove to people that, no, in fact, he is not a one-trick pony.
That Martinez can run with the best of them is beyond reproach. In the past two seasons he has 1,802 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns. However, the passing game is where fans are still waiting for Martinez to make the leap. This season Martinez completed just over 55 percent of his passes for 1,973 yards and 12 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Both yards and touchdowns are up from his freshman year while interceptions have held steady.
Martinez is still a long way from being a consistently dangerous passing threat, but even with the hiccups and bad decisions, he is the kind of player that can break a big play at any time.
Kenny Bell: Sophomore Receiver, Nebraska
Freshman Kenny Bell arrived in Lincoln just in time to take over as the Huskers' No. 1 receiving threat as well as a good special teams player. Bell led all Husker receivers with 408 yards on 29 catches, while adding nearly 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.
With a year in the weight room, more experience in the offense and more time to mesh with quarterback Taylor Martinez, Kenny Bell could be a breakout star for this offense next year after a very good freshman campaign.
Spencer Long: Junior Offensive Guard, Nebraska
In his short time on campus, Spencer Long has gone from walk-on to all-conference lineman. Not a bad showing from a kid who grew up just a short car ride from Lincoln. Long doesn't yet have any kind of NFL hype, but with a year of starting experience under his belt he is sure to be an anchor on the Husker offensive line for the next two years.
Brett Maher: Senior Kicker/Punter, Nebraska
The only specialist to make it on this list (probably unfairly so to the other good kickers and punters out there, but c'est la vie) wasn't just good—he was great. And he wasn't just great at one thing, either. Brett Maher led the conference in punting with an average of almost three yards better than the next best on the list, and for good measure he had the highest made FG percentage and tied for the most FGs for the season in the conference.
Not bad for pulling double duty.
Cameron Meredith: Senior Defensive End, Nebraska
The Huskers lost a lot when Jared Crick went down with injury early in the season, but thankfully someone was there to pick up the slack. Cameron Meredith led the team in sacks and was second only to Lavonte David in TFLs, en route to being the most productive defensive lineman on the team. With the Huskers losing a lot of top-tier talent on defense next year, Meredith will have to play at a high level from the get-go.
Kain Colter: Junior Quarterback/Running Back/Receiver, Northwestern
When quarterback Dan Persa was held out of the first quarter of the season with an injury, who did Pat Fitzgerald call? When running back Mike Trumpy went down with a season-ending injury four games into the season, who did Pat Fitzgerald call? When Dan Persa's top two receiving targets were covered, whose number did Pat Fitzgerald call?
The answers are surprisingly the same: Kain Colter.
The sophomore was truly a do-everything player for the Wildcats this year. He filled in admirably at quarterback when Persa was injured early (and when those injuries were aggravated later in the season) and he jumped into the lineup at both running back and receiver with no trouble. For the season Colter finished with 1,793 yards of total offense with 654 coming on the ground, 673 coming in the passing game, and 466 coming through the air. Add in his nine rushing, six passing and three receiving touchdowns, and you have probably the most versatile player in the conference.
The only question that remains: Just where do you use him?
Ibraheim Campbell: Sophomore Defensive Back, Northwestern
It is no surprise that coach Pat Fitzgerald would have a hand in producing a young linebacker as good as Ibraheim Campbell. As a freshman Campbell led the team in tackles while contributing 3.5 TFLs and two interceptions. There may be significant question marks on the Wildcats defense, but Campbell isn't one of them and should be a great player for years to come.
Silas Redd: Junior Running Back, Penn State
Perhaps no harder running back job existed in the Big Ten than that of Penn State's starter Silas Redd. The Nittany Lions were far from impressive in the passing game, but unlike the Buckeyes, Redd was the only running threat in the backfield (outside of the more oft-used Wildcat looks later in the season). Fortunately for Penn State, the defense was powerful enough that the team could win behind solid production from a strong feature back.
That is just what Redd was. Redd finished the year averaging just shy of 100 yards rushing per game and was often the focal point of the offense for long stretches. When the Nittany Lions needed to squeeze out a three- or seven-point lead late it was Redd who got the ball. That the Nittany Lions were able to get to nine wins on the year speaks well of just how effective Redd was.
Matt McGloin: Senior Quarterback, Penn State
Say what you will about Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin (and believe me, I have said a lot) but it is hard to argue with the bottom line: When Matt McGloin played quarterback for Penn State this year the team won more than it lost.
That isn't to say he was spectacular, but sometimes being good enough is, well, good enough. McGloin never let the Nittany Lions lose a game in which they were favored, and his absence was quite possibly the one thing that kept Penn State from a win in the TicketCity Bowl.
(Penn State may have technically been the favorite in the Nebraska game—I don't remember—but that game was too weird and too emotional to hold it against any Penn State player.)
With only Rob Bolden on the roster at quarterback, McGloin is very important in the coming year. Bolden is far from ready to be a full-time starter—and may never get there. It will then be up to McGloin to bridge the gap between two coaching regimes and to the next Penn State quarterback, whoever that may be. Luckily, with McGloin at the helm Penn State should be able to win a few games too.
Gerald Hodges: Senior Linebacker, Penn State
The Penn State linebacker to watch coming into the season was Michael Mauti, but an injury early in the year put the Penn State defense in jeopardy of getting worse. That is, until it became clear that Gerald Hodges was a force all his own.
Hodges led the team in tackles by a full 20, was second on the team in TFLs at 10 and tied for second with two other players in sacks at 4.5. Hodges is very well the next great linebacker to come out of Linebacker U. Good thing he will be around one more year; the Nittany Lions will need him.
Sean Stanley: Senior Defensive End, Penn State
Penn State's stifling defense this year was spearheaded by the stellar play of its defensive line. While a lot of the credit goes to Devon Still in the middle and Jack Crawford on the edge, junior Sean Stanley was just as productive and will be taking on a bigger role in 2012. Stanley tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks while adding 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception.
Antavian Edison: Senior Receiver, Purdue
The Purdue offense wasn't known for its downfield passing, but when the Boilermakers did look downfield, it was often Antavian Edison who did the yeoman's work catching the passes. Edison was 12th in the conference in receiving yards and led Purdue despite being second on the team in receptions per game.
Whoever lines up at quarterback next season—be it Robert Henry or Caleb TerBush—will be happy to see Edison split out wide.
Ricardo Allen: Junior Cornerback, Purdue
Someone Big Ten receivers won't be happy to see back on the field is Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen. So far the sophomore has put together quite an impressive career in his first two years. He started every game as a true freshman and was named second-team All-American for it. This year he returned to his starting role and was one of the better lockdown corners in the conference.
Scary thing is, he still has two more years on campus.
Kawann Short: Senior Defensive Tackle, Purdue
The Big Ten was deep on the defensive line this year so when you hear Kawann Short's name mentioned alongside guys like Jerel Worthy, Devon Still and Mike Martin, you know you have quite the player on your hands. Purdue's opponents found that out quickly.
Short had a very good season as a sophomore but raised his game as a junior to tally 6.5 sacks, and 17 TFLs—both in the top 10 in the Big Ten. Short was a handful for interior linemen all year and will be arguably the most important defensive piece for Purdue going forward.
James White: Junior Running Back, Wisconsin
James White certainly has the talent to make this list, but he was sitting squarely on my cut/don't-cut line for a few days. This is probably an unfair place to put a former 1,000-yard rusher that spent this year in the top 12 in rush yards, but sometimes life isn't fair when you have 50 spots for a lot more players.
He was almost out, that is, until he got a boost back on the list. Montee Ball's decision to declare for the NFL draft was a huge hit to the Wisconsin Badger offense going into 2012, but thankfully White is here to help. In 2010 White was the second-leading rusher on the team with over 1,000 yards, and this year he was still able to rush for 683 yards and six touchdowns in a diminished role. No matter my trouble trimming the list, James White is certainly on here for good now.
Jared Abbrederis, Jr; Receiver, Wisconsin
White isn't the only underclassman that has shown a great deal of promise for the Badger offense. Jared Abbrederis, the former walk-on, burst onto the scene in a big way this year. Not only was he a top ten receiver in the conference with 814 yards and seven touchdowns, but he was one of the most dangerous return men in the conference as well. With Nick Toon gone, it will be Abbrederis leading the way among the Badger receivers.
Jacob Pedersen: Junior Tight End, Wisconsin
Helping out Jared Abbrederis and whoever the next Badger quarterback is will be one of the better tight ends in the conference, Jacob Pedersen. Pedersen was one of two tight ends in the conference in the top 25 in total yardage while being fifth in the conference in touchdown receptions.
Pedersen will be a valuable security blanket for whomever is throwing passes next year—the biggest question mark for Wisconsin for the second offseason in a row.
Travis Frederick: Senior Offensive Guard, Wisconsin
One of the foundations on which Wisconsin's wildly successful offense is built is the giant road grating offensive line that the team is able to put on the field year in and year out. Travis Frederick is the next in a long line of powerful, technically sound offensive linemen to come through Wisconsin, and one of four in 2011 to be named to either first- or second-team All-Big Ten.
Peter Konz: Senior Center, Wisconsin
The other returning member of the Wisconsin offensive line with All-Big Ten honors to his name is Peter Konz, the burly Wisconsin center that was able to beat out Michigan's David Molk for first-team All-Big Ten honors by the media, as well as Ohio State's Mike Brewster and Nebraska's Mike Caputo. With the crop of centers in the Big Ten this year, that is quite a stunning achievement.
Konz looks poised to lead another experienced offensive line through Big Ten play next year, and the senior should be a challenger for the Rimington award as well as various All-Big Ten and All-American honors.
Chris Borland: Junior Linebacker, Wisconsin
Wisconsin came into the 2011 season having lost one of the better defensive players of the last decade to wear the red and white. However, what the Badgers got back turned out to do a lot to make up for that loss.
Chris Borland missed a large amount of the 2010 season due to injury after a stellar freshman campaign. This year Borland proved just what Wisconsin missed when he was gone. Borland was fourth in the conference in tackles per game at just over 10 and was fifth in the conference in tackles for loss per game at 1.38. Borland was half of one of the most productive linebacker duos in the country.
Mike Taylor: Senior Linebacker, Wisconsin
The other half of that duo was linebacker Mike Taylor, who led the conference in tackles per game at 10.5, while adding eight tackles for loss and two interceptions. Taylor, along with Borland, should help keep the Wisconsin defense playing at a high level despite the loss of a few contributors in the secondary and along the line.