Ranking the Best Core of Returning Starters in the Big Ten in 2013

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterJanuary 29, 2013

Ranking the Best Core of Returning Starters in the Big Ten in 2013

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    In a sport where the talent is as transient as college football's is, experience is key, and to that end it's time to take stock of who's got starters coming back and how many.

    Of course, the "who" is just as important as the "how many," and not all returning starters are created equal. Football would be boring if they were. So let's take a look at the best casts of returning starters in the Big Ten, power-ranking style.

    All stats on returning starters come from the indispensable Phil Steele's index of returning starters.

    Onward!

12. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 9

    Defensive Returning Starters: 3

     

    The good news for Illinois is that the vast majority of its 2012 offense returns. The bad news is that the vast majority of its 2012 offense returns. The Illini's offense was an utter tire fire last year, ranking next-to-dead-last nationally in both total offense and scoring offense. Woof. At least both Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are back at QB; Tim Beckman needs to solidify that situation in 2013.

    And that's the good part of the equation. The defense only brings back three starters from a unit that got whipped regularly last year, and talented DT Akeem Spence is off early to the NFL draft. LB Jonathan Brown does return, at least, but he's not going to have much around him.

11. Purdue Boilermakers

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 5

    Defensive Returning Starters: 8

     

    Purdue's defense is going to have to carry the day early and often in 2013, as the Boilermakers bring back eight starters, including three on the defensive line and in the secondary. Having to say goodbye to Kawann Short is no treat, but cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson provide a competent one-two punch.

    The offense only brings back five starters, which is the least of any offense in the Big Ten this season. Fortunately, three of those five starters are on the offensive line, which needs to improve its performance after a middling 2012—the Boilermakers gave up a hair under two sacks a game, good for eighth in the Big Ten, and the running game averaged under 4.5 yards per rush.

10. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 7

    Defensive Returning Starters: 7

     

    Returning 14 starters altogether is no cause for panic, but eight of the 12 Big Ten members return between 13 and 15 starters, so there's nothing particularly exceptional for Iowa here either.

    So it comes down to overall talent coming back, and here Iowa's in some trouble. Mark Weisman is going to be the focal point of the offense once again, and when he was healthy, he performed admirably. He also gets back linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, whose presences were both missed down the stretch when they were lost to season-ending injuries against Penn State.

    Still, leg injuries aren't automatic to come back from, and Iowa needs to see that both guys are back to their pre-injury levels, because the rest of the line was a mess. Moreover, top wideout Keenan Davis is graduating, so someone will need to step up at receiver.

    On defense, Iowa's linebacking corps is back, but as a whole, the unit underwhelmed in 2012. Oh sure, their tackle numbers were great—that was because they couldn't get anybody off the field. Anthony Hitchens was the only linebacker to merit even honorable mention from the Big Ten in 2012, and he saw some bench time by the end of the year for what coaches deemed poor play. Micah Hyde, an award-winning defensive back, is graduating as well.

    It's not bleak in Iowa City—really, nobody from here on out should be depressed by their returning core—but this recent funk may not be going anywhere for a little while.

9. Indiana Hoosiers

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 10

    Defensive Returning Starters: 9

     

    Nobody in the nation returns more starters than Indiana, who is tied with four other schools atop the leaderboard with 19 men back. Additionally, only three of those five teams bring back both their kicker and punter (as Indiana does), and perhaps the most important returning player for the Hoosiers isn't even a "returning starter"; that would be Tre Roberson, lost to a season-ending broken leg against Massachusetts in the fourth game of the year. He took a redshirt and is now back in the mix at QB.

    Whether Roberson or actual returning starter Cameron Coffman takes the wheel at QB remains to be seen, but whoever third-year head coach Kevin Wilson names the starters is going to have the most potent passing offense in the conference to play with. And practically everybody is back for it; the only departing senior who caught a pass in 2012 was backup TE Charles Love III; he registered five catches for 51 yards.

    Among the returners is junior-to-be Cody Latimer, who's basically the best player in the Big Ten that nobody was talking about last year. Latimer was fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards last year with 805 and he's one of three Hoosiers who topped 600 yards receiving; only 10 Big Ten players overall hit that mark.

    The defense brings back the vast majority of its productivity but takes a major hit with the loss of DT Adam Replogle, who rang up 70 tackles in the middle of the line and was the heart and soul of the defensive front. Also, that was a truly terrible defense, especially in pass coverage, and returning all four members of a secondary that was essentially a liability is not exactly something to be proud of. Wilson needs major improvement here before Indiana can make a serious run at bowl eligibility.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 8

    Defensive Returning Starters: 5

     

    It's hard not to be impressed by what Penn State brings back on offense. Allen Robinson leads a loaded receiving corps with every starting spot back, while Bill Belton hopes to cash in on his potential at tailback behind a line with three blockers returning—including brilliant guard John Urschel.

    Robinson led the Big Ten in catches (77), receiving yards (1,018) and receiving touchdowns (11) in 2012, and all by substantial margins to boot. He'll be a junior. We might not see him for his senior year, so enjoy it while you can, Big Ten.

    The defense only returns five players, and that belies the level of leadership departing. LBs Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges were among the best in the nation, to say nothing of the Big Ten, and DT Jordan Hill will be gone in the first few rounds of the NFL draft this spring. Three of the starting four defensive backs return, including the versatile Adrian Amos, but losing five of a front seven that willed the Nittany Lions to victory time and time again is painful.

7. Michigan State Spartans

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 8

    Defensive Returning Starters: 7

     

    QB Andrew Maxwell may be a returning starter, but is he the starter? That's the question Mark Dantonio needs to ask himself about the senior-to-be who showed poise and mechanical skills at times last season but struggled with consistency and was plagued by drops as Michigan State lumbered to a 7-6 record and one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten.

    At the very least, Maxwell (who will be pushed by Connor Cook, who led the game-winning drive against TCU in the Meineke Car Care Bowl) will have his wide receivers back; that was an extremely young group of players who will benefit from the added experience come 2013.

    All in all, Michigan State returns a good number of starters—it's just that those who did leave were major cogs. Le'Veon Bell was a workhorse nonpareil in 2012, leading the nation in touches by a wide margin, and his production is going to be basically impossible to replace. TE Dion Sims was the only consistent member of the passing game. DE William Gholston was a physical freak who, despite his lapses in concentration, still put up stellar production from the end spot. Johnny Adams was one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten, and Chris Norman was just as valuable at strongside LB.

    And they're all gone.

    At the very least the defense brings back the dynamic duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough at LB; the two play with such different styles that they might as well make a cop movie together ("I want your badge on my desk this instant, Detective Bullough!") (just kidding, he'd never be the guy who loses his badge). DE Marcus Rush is poised for a big year, and CB Darqueze Dennard did a fantastic job closing the gap between himself and Allen in 2012. He'll be a preseason All-Big Ten pick.

    Still, that's a lot of talent leaving a team that teetered on finishing on the wrong end of .500, and that offense is losing what little bits of consistency it ever had. That's a problem Mark Dantonio needs to fix ASAP.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 10

    Defensive Returning Starters: 6

     

    Jerry Kill has something going in Minneapolis, and the Gophers bring back a pretty solid group of talent as they work toward another bowl bid in 2013.

    Like Indiana, Minnesota brings back 10 offensive starters, losing only TE John Rabe. Yes, leading WR A.J. Barker had a very public departure, but remember: He wasn't actually starting in 2012, with only one official start under his belt. All the other wideouts are back, though their performances weren't exactly awe-inspiring; none reached 20 catches on the year (Barker had 30 before leaving the team).

    Donnell Kirkwood is back for his junior year at tailback and he's primed for a 1,000-yard season there, coming up just short with 926 yards in 2012. He's not afraid to mix it up between the tackles at 5'10" and 219 pounds, and he's got the speed to break big runs if given the chance.

    Also, the entire offensive line returns. That's huge.

    The defense takes a substantial hit with the losses of top tacklers MLB Mike Rallis and CB Troy Stoudermire; Stoudermire was also the most prolific kick returner in FBS history.

    Still, DT Ra'Shede Hageman announced that he'd return for his senior season after a brief flirtation with the NFL during the year. He has a tantalizing skill set but has never seemed to put everything together as yet. With D.L. Wilhite gone now, the Gopher front four will need that one magical year from Hageman if it wants to hold up its end of the bargain for a bowl run.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 6

    Defensive Returning Starters: 6

     

    Michigan gets dinged a little unnecessarily here, as Devin Gardner is technically not a returning starter, despite solidifying himself as the starting quarterback in 2012 down the stretch. So of the four Big Ten teams graduating a starting QB, Michigan is easily in the best shape. It's just that we're talking about returning starters, so yeah.

    We'll see what RB Fitz Toussaint's status is for 2013; not only did he suffer a bad leg injury last season, but it happened late in the year, so it's not like he got much of the regular season to spend in recovery or rehabilitation. Michigan's still mum on the details too; it hasn't even announced the specific nature of the injury, much less any timetable for recovery.

    WR Jeremy Gallon is back for his senior year after establishing himself as the best wideout on the Wolverines' roster. And bringing back All-Big Ten tackle Taylor Lewan is an enormous boost for the Michigan offensive line, whose returning starter total now jumps to two. Michigan would be in trouble without Lewan; here's to hoping he can stay healthy in his senior campaign.

    The losses on defense were also rough for Michigan. OLB Jake Ryan returns, though, and he's one of the most tenacious defenders in the conference, and after an inexplicable snub by Big Ten coaches who put Ryan in the honorable mention column in 2012 (he was at least second-team with the media), Ryan should make a run at Big Ten defensive player of the year in 2013.

    The problem for Michigan is that none of the other returning starters on defense even garnered an honorable mention nod on either All-Big Ten team in 2012. That obviously doesn't exclude them from the potential for special seasons down the line, but in terms of what we've seen so far, Michigan's not as strong as you'd expect on this front.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 8

    Defensive Returning Starters: 7

     

    Bad news for opposing secondaries in the Big Ten: Jared Abbrederis' collegiate career is still not over. Abbrederis will return to Wisconsin for his senior season, and he and returning QB Joel Stave had a good thing going in 2012 before Stave went down with a collarbone injury. Those aren't exactly career-threatening; they just take a long time to heal, and Stave will be fine going into 2013.

    Losing Montee Ball obviously stings, as does seeing Travis Frederick go early to the NFL. But three members of that starting five on the offensive line are back, and on the other side of the ball all four starting defensive linemen come back. Experience is crucial for linemen, and only Minnesota (5 OL, 3 DL) returns more starting linemen in the Big Ten.

    Unfortunately, the Badgers' secondary took a big hit in graduation, but at least Dezmen Southward is back for his senior year; he could be an all-conference safety in 2013. Bringing back Chris Borland at linebacker is a major plus as well. So despite the losses, there is a lot of talent there—especially with DE David Gilbert now healthy enough to stay on the field.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 9

    Defensive Returning Starters: 4

     

    There is the potential for a truly special season for senior-to-be QB Taylor Martinez and his offense. Four offensive linemen return, as does highly talented WR (and now productive) Kenny Bell. Yes, RB Rex Burkhead is gone, but Ameer Abdullah started more games and rushed for more yards in 2012, and he's not going anywhere. The big loss is TE Benkyler Cottonreed, which is what we've named the TE tandem of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed, who were fantastic splitting time as seniors in 2012.

    But past that and the departure of LG Seung Hoon Choi, that whole offense—which sure as heck was not a problem in 2012—is back. Taylor Martinez made major strides as a passer in 2012, and having nearly all of his starting cast back for more improvements and wrinkles means Nebraska could be hanging 35-40 points on whoever gets in its way in 2013.

    The defense, though. Hoooo boy, the defense.

    The famed "Blackshirts" had plenty of good games in 2012. They had some absolute howlers as well, including the 2012 Big Ten Championship (at this point all Nebraska fans have stopped reading and gone onto the next slide, and we do not blame them), where Wisconsin hung 539 yards rushing and 70 points on the Huskers.

    And now the vast majority of talent that was there is gone. None of Nebraska's four returning starters got a sniff of postseason recognition from the Big Ten voters, save nickelback Ciante Evans—whom Steele may not even count as a starter, considering he lists two in the secondary and both cornerbacks Andrew Green and Josh Mitchell are back. So that's swell for the Huskers.

    Still, the offense is so loaded that the Huskers are high on the list. Just be prepared for more shootouts.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 8

    Defensive Returning Starters: 7

     

    Yes, Northwestern at No. 2. The Big Ten underestimated the Wildcats at its own peril in 2012; it would be unwise to make that same mistake again.

    The 1-2 punch of multi-dimensional QB Kain Colter and RB/KR/PR Venric Mark gives Northwestern one of the most explosive ground games in the Big Ten, and Colter has all his starting receivers back as the passing game is set to improve. It could certainly stand to.

    Where Northwestern made huge strides in 2012 was the defense, though, and there Northwestern brings back some surprising talent. LB Damien Proby is back after logging 110 tackles; he'll be a 2013 All-Big Ten candidate. LB Chi Chi Ariguzo is also on that level, and he improved as the season went along. Sophomore CB Nick VanHoose is going to be a name you'll need to know very soon, and only an injury late in the year derailed his All-Big Ten plans. DE Tyler Scott led the team with 12.5 tackles-for-loss in 2013; he's back for his senior season. Safety Ibraheim Campbell was an honorable mention All-Big Ten player in 2012, and he'll only be a junior in 2013.

    Seriously, the Northwestern defense looks legit in 2013, and while the offense loses three starting OLs, it's still good enough that Northwestern rises to No. 2 on this list.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 9

    Defensive Returning Starters: 4

     

    Urban Meyer, you've done it again. Despite heavy losses on defense, the level of talent Ohio State brings back to the field in 2013 is second to none in the Big Ten, and it starts with surefire Heisman candidate QB Braxton Miller.

    Miller established himself as the best quarterback in the Big Ten last year, and only Taylor Martinez figures to be a serious contender for the throne in the future. Miller's got his hammer Carlos Hyde back at tailback, as well as four members of the vastly improved offensive line. It's not only possible but probable that the Buckeye ground game is going to be even more potent in 2013. That should scare you.

    It's hard to find a returning starter on offense who isn't a legitimate candidate for at least second-team All-Big Ten in 2013. The wideouts Corey Brown and Devin Smith took huge steps forward and established themselves as playmakers. Down the line, Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley all earned at least honorable mention in the Big Ten last year; expect guard Marcus Hall to join them in postseason honors next year.

    Even on defense, the losses are substantial, but the returnees are special. Junior LB Ryan Shazier is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year if his improvement continues, and junior CB Bradley Roby could have declared for the NFL if he really wanted to. He didn't, and that's bad news for the Big Ten. If safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett can keep their heads screwed on straight, they could have monster years as well.

    That is a ton of talent for Ohio State—and it doesn't even take into account the players in line to step into the starting roles left behind on defense. The Buckeyes are loaded for 2013, and it's going to be another great year for Meyer and company.