Big Ten Football: Top 10 Future Stars
For Big Ten football fans, it is never too early to think about the future, even with a few key weeks remaining in the current season.
Fans have been treated to a great season up to this point, but they can't help but think about who will be leading their teams into battle in the coming years.
Upperclassmen will move into the NFL Draft or on with their lives after the season, ushering in a wave of younger players who will take their place as the league's stars.
Some of these younger players have already established themselves this season and shown they will be the future stars of the conference, while others have shown flashes of brilliance that they can be the household names.
Let's take a look at these futures stars in the Big Ten.
10. Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State
The true freshman's stats (22 catches, 293 yards, 0 TD) don't pop off the page, but many people don't realize how difficult it is to produce at a high level as a freshman.
According to Scout.com's evaluation of Burbridge coming into his college career, his route running, ability to separate and ball tracking skills are elite.
In other words, he is the total package.
When healthy and given opportunities to shine, the 6'1", 190-pound wide receiver has delivered.
His eight-catch, 134-yard performance in a win against Indiana on October 6 was his first productive game.
He followed that game up by grabbing 11 balls for 140 yards in the next two weeks against Iowa and Michigan.
Almost all of his production came in these three games, but consistency will come with time.
He only has seven yards in the last two games (Wisconsin and Nebraska), but head coach Mark Dantonio believes Burbridge will be a future star (via Jordan Sargent of SB Nation).
9. Bri'onte Dunn, RB, Ohio State
The 6'1", 214-pound freshman has made the most of his limited opportunities in a crowded Ohio State backfield in 2012.
Dunn has carried the ball 25 times for 133 yards (5.3 YPC) and two touchdowns in three games.
Coming into the season, Scout.com pegged Dunn as a 5-star recruit and the seventh-ranked freshman running back coming out of the class of 2012.
According to their player evaluation, Dunn has great vision, patience and ability to break tackles.
In his first career game, he ran for 31 yards and a touchdown over Miami. Most recently, he carried 13 times for 73 yards and a touchdown in a Week 10 blowout of Illinois.
With quarterback Braxton Miller (184 carries, 1,166 yards, 13 TDs) and junior Carlos Hyde (144 carries, 737 yards, 13 TDs) getting the majority of the ground work, Dunn must continue working hard in practice to prove he deserves more game touches.
As long as Dunn stays out of trouble like what he got himself into this summer (via Todd Porter of CantonRep.com), he will be a big part of OSU's plans in the future.
8. Mason Monheim, LB, Illinois
It's difficult to find bright spots on a 2-7 Fighting Illini team. Mason Monheim is the exception to that.
The 6'1", 230-pound freshman has taken advantage of injuries to those ahead in the depth chart and performed admirably for the Illini, as he is tied for the team lead with 59 tackles.
He's recorded two games of 10 or more tackles (Penn State, Illinois) and earned Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week for his performance against the Nittany Lions.
Head coach Tim Beckham spoke highly of Monheim, via Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Review.
“I knew Mason was a fine football player when we looked at him two years ago,” said Beckman, who began recruiting Monheim when he was head coach at Toledo. “I knew he was very competitive. He comes from an outstanding high school program and I knew he had the ability to play. It’s just mentally, how quickly can you grow up?
Monheim has proven he can be productive, but he has to become a leader in the coming years. The Illinois defense has been shredded the entire year, meaning Monheim must become a voice in the locker room who isn't afraid to demand a higher standard from his teammates.
7. Mark Weisman, FB, Iowa
Officially listed as a fullback, Mark Weisman has looked more like the bell cow running back this season for an Iowa Hawkeyes team that is a disappointing 4-5 and losers of three straight.
Weisman's run of dominance midseason came as a surprise to many. The 6'0", 225-pound bruiser punished opposing defenses for four consecutive weeks, as he totaled 623 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in that outstanding stretch.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald praised Weisman before his Wildcats squared off against the Hawkeyes (via the Chicago Tribune).
""He's a physical, physical kid," said Fitzgerald. "He's impressive to watch."
In the last three weeks, Weisman has battled through injury and missed Week 10's tilt due to injury.
When healthy, the sophomore bruiser can carry this Iowa team on his back.
6. Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
The sophomore wide receiver has helped Big Ten fans remember the Indiana Hoosiers have a football program.
Coming into the year, the Hoosiers were 6-32 in Big Ten play since the 2007 season and have been the laughingstock of the conference.
Cody Latimer has helped revitalize a program in shambles, as the Hoosiers are 4-5 and 2-3 in the Big Ten this season. Also, they have been competitive in every game this year, with a narrow loss to unbeaten Ohio State.
The 6'3", 208-pound receiver is a big target and has racked up 39 catches for 645 yards and five touchdowns.
In his most recent performance against Iowa, Latimer was incredible, grabbing seven balls for 113 yards and three scores.
What's been the most remarkable thing is Latimer's consistency.
He has not been held under two catches in any game and his fewest yardage output is 34 yards, making him a dependable receiver who is only going to get better.
5. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
The diminutive back has been outstanding for the 7-2 Wildcats this year, racking up 1,072 rushing yards (second in Big Ten) and 12 total TDs, nine of those on the ground.
The junior, who primarily excelled as a return specialist in his first two years, is Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 and is a big reason the Wildcats have been successful.
Venric Mark is averaging 6.5 YPC, and at just 5'8" and 170 pounds, he packs a punch similar to former college greats Jacquizz Rodgers and LaMichael James.
While some may argue his junior status does not make him a future star, he has fresh legs because he wasn't used too much in the running game his first two years (23 total carries).
He has already burst onto the scene, but the future is bright for this speedster.
4. Philip Nelson, QB, Minnesota
Since taking over under center, the freshman has not looked his age, playing well against the big boys of the conference (Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan).
In the 44-28 win over Purdue, Philip Nelson was outstanding, completing 15-of-22 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 37 yards.
According to Gophersports.com's Paul Rovnak, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had high praise for Nelson after the performance.
"There was good timing and, again, when your quarterback doesn't turn over the football, moves the chains, and puts points on the board, and he's a freshman, that's a good sign for the future," Kill said.
In three starts, he has 537 passing yards and six touchdowns to just two interceptions, while also rushing for 141 yards.
Nelson must improve his accuracy (54.7 percent), but he is only a freshman and will continue to grow with more live game experience.
3. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
The sophomore linebacker has played well this season for the Michigan Wolverines.
On the year, the 6'3", 242-pound Jake Ryan has 65 tackles, a conference-leading 12 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Ryan fits the mold of a Big Ten linebacker in terms of speed and strength, and he is an even bigger version of a Paul Posluszny and similar in size to James Laurinaitis.
He may not yet have the accolades or stats that those two former greats achieved, but he is on his way to star status.
2. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Don't let the picture fool you: That is not Braxton Miller or Terrelle Pryor.
That is Ryan Shazier, the sophomore linebacker who has quickly established himself as a tackling machine for the unbeaten Buckeyes.
At 6'2" and 226 pounds, Shazier looks more like an athletic quarterback, but don't let the looks fool you. The sophomore is third in the Big Ten with 98 tackles, second in the conference with 11.5 tackles for loss and has four sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.
While Urban Meyer criticized Shazier early on in the season for missing tackles and being "an out-of-control guy" (via Brian Bennett of ESPN.com), he has improved his technique and is playing smarter and at a high level as a result.
The future looks bright for Shazier under Meyer, as he will continue to grow into an NFL-ready talent and household name.
1. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
Coming into the season, Husker fans expected Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez to get 99 percent of the action on the ground for the team. Ameer Abdullah has changed their outlook.
The sophomore back has starred already for the Huskers with Burkhead battling injuries, putting up 826 rushing yards and eight TDs on 151 carries.
Abdullah has shown pass-catching ability, grabbing 18 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns for a 7-2 Nebraska team that is in great position to make it to the Big Ten Championship.
Head coach Bo Pelini has been high in his praise of Abdullah, according to ESPN.com's Brian Bennett.
"He's hard to tackle, he has great vision," Pelini said of Abdullah. "I think he's still learning some things obviously, but I think he's a top-notch running back."
Burkhead is a senior, leaving the backfield to Abdullah to shine even more next year.