Big Ten Football: Top 10 Athletes in the Conference

Derek PiperCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2012

Big Ten Football: Top 10 Athletes in the Conference

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    The Big Ten Conference has seen its share of outstanding athletes on the football field through the years.

    From the speedy Michael Bennett, to the elusive Desmond Howard, to the human steamroller Ron Dayne, there has been no shortage of mind-blowing talent on the gridirons of the Midwest.

    This season will be no different. While the SEC takes pride in sporting the nation's best combination of size and speed in shoulder pads, Big Ten fans have a great deal to be excited about for Saturdays to come.

    Here are the top 10 athletes that Big Ten football has to offer in 2012.

10. Michael Buchanan (Illinois, DE)

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    The Fighting Illini have been a NFL defensive lineman factory the past two seasons, with Corey Liguet and Whitney Mercilus selected in the 1st round in back to back years.

    Now, it is Michael Buchanan's turn to wow the NFL scouts.

    Buchanan was named second team All-Big Ten in 2011, tallying 7.5 sacks, which ranked fourth in the conference.

    The senior defensive end possesses rare speed (4.7 seconds 40-yard dash, according to scout.com) for his 6'6", 240 pound frame.

    His ability to blow by offensive tackles is a big reason why nfldraftscout.com ranks him fourth among defensive ends in the 2013 draft class.

9. Montee Ball (Wisconsin, RB)

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    Wisconsin's Montee Ball had a historic year in 2011, tying Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 touchdowns on the season.

    How impressive is that? Ball had more touchdowns than 42 FBS schools for the season.

    Now, the 2012 Heisman candidate is back to give Big Ten defensive coordinators fits one last time. The senior running back needs only 18 touchdowns to break the NCAA career record for touchdowns.

    Ball will certainly be the first running back drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft, as nflscoutdraft.com ranks him first in the class.

    It seems almost insulting to list the conference's best player as the ninth best athlete, but Ball's pure athleticism is not flashy.

    His speed is good but not great (4.57-second 40-yard dash, according to nfldraftscout.com). He packs a great stiff arm but is not overwhelmingly strong.

    I guess he'll just have to settle for being one of the greatest college running backs of all time.

8. Braxton Miller (Ohio State, QB)

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    Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller had big shoes to fill last season, replacing Terrelle Pryor as the Buckeye's signal-caller.

    Miller was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2011, throwing for nearly 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Miller also dazzled with his feet, leading the Buckeyes in rushing yards (695) and touchdowns (7).

    Miller's dual-threat ability makes him a handful for opposing defenses, and with a year of experience under his belt, he should be even better this season.

    Scout.com's Scott Kennedy described Miller as,

    "A true dual-threat quarterback, Miller could beat a team without rushing for a yard and is athletic enough to run a wishbone."

    Miller's sub-4.5 speed, in addition to his arm strength, makes him one of the best athletes in the conference, and even the country.

7. Terry Hawthorne (Illinois, CB/WR)

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    Illini cornerback Terry Hawthorne has yet to live up to his hype coming out of high school.

    The former four-star recruit, according to scout.com, is looking to change that in his final season.

    Hawthorne came to Champaign as one of the top athletes in the 2009 recruiting class. Naturally a wide receiver, Hawthorne switched to cornerback to fill team needs as a freshman, but he is expected to contribute on offense this season.

    "You'll definitely see cornerback Terry Hawthorne moving over for 10 plays or more," The News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote.

    That is good news for an offense in need of weapons.

    Coming out of high school, Hawthorne was described by scout.com's Allen Trieu as, "a big play waiting to happen."

    With his 4.5-speed and elusiveness with the ball, the Illini hope Trieu is right.

6. MarQueis Gray (Minnesota, QB)

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    There hasn't been much for Minnesota Gophers fans to get excited about through the past few seasons, besides a beautiful new stadium.

    However, senior quarterback MarQueis Gray will surely grab their attention this season.

    Gray, a former wide receiver, is an athletic freak and hopes to harness his passing skills in his second season under center.

    The dual-threat quarterback threw for nearly 1,500 yards last season, in addition to almost 1,000 yards rushing.

    Standing at 6'4", 245 pounds, combined with his sub-4.6 speed, Gray is extremely difficult for defenses to bring down.

    Gophers head coach Jerry Kill expressed his excitement in his quarterback at Big Ten Media Day, saying in an article on espn.com,

    "I think that he'll be a very, very exciting football player to watch, not only in the Big Ten but throughout the country."

5. Johnny Adams (Michigan State, CB)

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    The Michigan State Spartans defense was one of the best in the country last season, ranking sixth in the NCAA in yards allowed.

    Returning nine starters this season, the Spartans are loaded once again.

    One of the standouts is cornerback Johnny Adams, who joins teammates William Gholston, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen on the Bednarik Award watch list for the nation's top defender.

    Running a 4.42-second 40-yard dash (according to nfldraftscout.com), Allen is one of the fastest players in the Big Ten.

    Opposing offenses shied away from Allen last season, as he only picked off three passes in 2011, but that is what happens when you are the conference's best cover-corner.

    According to nfldraftscout.com, Allen ranks as the second best corner in the 2013 NFL Draft class.

    The fifth-year senior has a knack for big plays, and will surely be a key in what the Spartans hope to be a memorable season.

4. Kawann Short (Purdue, DT)

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    Big Ten offensive coordinators cringed when they heard the news that Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short was returning for his senior season.

    Standing at 6'3", 315 pounds, Short is a one-man wrecking crew in the middle of the Boilermakers defense.

    Short does even more damage in the weight room. According to Brian Bennett's article on espn.com,

    "He squats over 600 pounds, bench presses in the 400s and has nimble feet as a former standout high school basketball player."

    Short led the Boilermakers with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last season, but is looking to do more than that in 2012

    If so, he could be one of the top picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. According to nfldraftscout.com, Short is the second-ranked defensive tackle in the class.

    Running backs have nightmares of meeting this guy in the hole.

3. William Gholston (Michigan State, DE)

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    There are few players who look like gladiators on the football field. Michigan State's defensive end William Gholston is one of them.

    With his imposing 6'7", 278 pound frame, Gholston is one heck of an athletic specimen.

    Gholston led the Spartans with 16.0 tackles for loss last season, including a Spartans' bowl record five tackles for loss against Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

    While critics have called Gholston a "dirty player", he said, in an article by Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, he is not going to change the way he plays.

    "The style that we want to play is very simply 'smashmouth.' We want to hit you and keep hitting you and keep hitting you and wear you down as the game winds down."

    According to nfldraftscout.com, Gholston is the third best defensive end in the 2014 draft class.

    NFL scouts will surely keep an eye out for Gholston this season, but then again, how could you miss him?

2. John Simon (Ohio State, DE)

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    Ohio State has had its fair share of workout freaks. However, defensive end John Simon is one of a kind.

    According to Bruce Feldman's article on cbssports.com titled "The 10 craziest athletes in college football", Simon could bench press 225 pounds 31 times at the age of 16.

    Now, according Buckeyes strength coach Mickey Mariotti in Feldman's article,

    "Simon benched 225 38 times, timed a 4.6 40 and broad jumped more than 10 feet."

    On the field, Simon is nearly as impressive. As a junior, Simon had 17 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.

    This season, opposing quarterbacks hope that Simon will leave them in one piece.

    According to nfldraftscout.com, Simon ranks as the third best defensive end in the 2013 NFL Draft class.

1. Denard Robinson (Michigan, QB)

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    Every season there are one or two must-see players that mesmerize the entire college football audience.

    Dual-threat quarterbacks Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III did just that the past two seasons on their way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

    Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is hoping he can do the same.

    Robinson returns for his senior season as the nation's most exciting player to watch. Robinson led the Wolverines in 2011 with more than 2,100 yards passing and more than 1,100 yards on the ground, tallying 36 total touchdowns.

    Running a 4.39-second 40-yard dash (according to nfldraftscout.com), there is no faster player in the Big Ten than Robinson.

    The senior quarterback also possesses rare "make-you-miss" elusiveness that makes catching him as hard as snatching a fly with your fingers.

    The Wolverines are anticipating a huge season in Ann Arbor in 2012. Tough non-conference tests with Alabama and Notre Dame will be a good early test.

    "Big Blue" will need Robinson, the conference's best athlete, to be on top of his game for their lofty expectations to become reality.