Big Ten Football: Every Team's Most Irreplaceable Player
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While the college football world has been fascinated with catfish stories (at least at Michigan and Notre Dame) and recruiting classes, these stories and players will likely have only a small impact on the 2013 season. More critical are the star players anchoring each Big Ten team right now.
Each team has "that guy." The one who causes fans to groan in agony when they think about how the team would fare without the star player.
Although many teams would likely place this burden on a quarterback, other teams have more critical leadership at other positions thanks to thin depth or lack of upperclassmen leaders. There's no surefire way to measure just how important "that guy" is to each of these teams.
But who exactly is this irreplaceable player for each Big Ten team in 2013? Let's take a look.
Iowa: Mike Meyer, PK
Yes, I went there, Hawkeye fans.
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The Hawkeyes finished tied for last in the Legends Division, so they get to kick off this list. In 2012, any player who would step up at quarterback or, more importantly, running back would likely get the nod. But heading into 2013, it is back to basics for this football program.
That means kicking and defense will be at a premium, especially for a coach like Kirk Ferentz. Iowa returns a struggling sophomore punter, Connor Kornbrath, and not much to speak of on offense, so playing field position and winning with field goals will be absolutely critical.
Thus, more than a couple games in 2013 may come down to the leg of Mike Meyer, the senior kicker. Meyer has started each of the last two seasons hot but then faded down the stretch to finish 14-of-20 in 2011 and 17-of-21 in 2012.
Some critics will say that Iowa could go find any player on the soccer team and replace this guy, but Hawkeye fans should know the value of a good kicker after watching Nate Kaeding a decade ago. Meyer is too good and too important to be replaced in 2013.
Others Considered: LB James Morris, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
Minnesota: Donnell Kirkwood, RB
Kirkwood doing work against the Red Raiders
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For the Golden Gophers, the defense was good enough to lead the team to a bowl game in Jerry Kill's second season. Kill has motivated that unit with a bunch of role players leading the way, but it does not seem like any superstars are leading the charge on that side of the ball.
Which means the offense is where to look, and the circumstances of who is coming back in 2013 push Donnell Kirkwood into the role of most irreplaceable. Kirkwood rushed for 926 yards and six touchdowns in his sophomore season, and only quarterback MarQueis Gray contributed more than 300 yards to back up the efforts of Kirkwood.
Next season, Gray and his talents will be gone, leaving two relatively young quarterbacks, Max Shortell and Phillip Nelson. These quarterbacks are still learning the ropes, which means the running game will be critical again in 2013. With no proven players behind him, Kirkwood will be the critical piece in determining whether the Golden Gophers take the next step to be competitive in the conference.
Others Considered: WR/PR A.J. Barker, LB Aaron Hill
Michigan State: Keith Mumphery, WR
He did not quite get this one, but many others worked out in 2012
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Although Michigan State had a laughably small senior class in 2012, the early departures of Dion Sims, William Gholston and Le'Veon Bell will leave the Spartans with a lot of question marks in 2013. Especially following up on a disappointing 7-6 season, Michigan State is a program in limbo heading into a critical year.
The biggest problems in 2012 were on the offense, and that will continue without Bell. As none of the guys moving into the running back role are proven, they cannot be justified as the selection for most irreplaceable. Andrew Maxwell was inconsistent at quarterback and may be benched in favor of the two possible stars behind him, most notably Connor Cook.
With no proven running backs and likely continued struggles at quarterback, the most essential position will be receiver.
Although he finished with the second-most reception yards on the team in 2012, I will select Keith Mumphery as the most irreplaceable player for 2013. He needs to step up and produce more touchdowns if the Spartans are to compete again for division titles.
Others Considered: WR Bennie Fowler, CB Darqueze Dennard
Northwestern: Kain Colter, QB
Proof that Kain Colter indeed can throw the ball
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It took four schools to get there, but a quarterback finally makes the list of most irreplaceable players. For Chicago's Big Ten school, Kain Colter is a critical piece of a loaded team for 2013. The primary reason is that he brings so much versatility to the offense.
Last season, Colter rushed for 891 yards (trailing only Venric Mark) and passed for 872 more. Although quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark can run the team just fine when Colter is on the bench, his presence on the field makes defensive coordinators uncomfortable. On any given play, Colter could line up as a receiver, a rushing option threat or a passer.
Without this dynamic player in the mix, Northwestern becomes a predictable offense with not much to speak of in the way of experienced depth at the key offensive positions. Therefore, even with him splitting time as a quarterback, Kain Colter is the man who the #B1GCats cannot replace next season.
Others Considered: RB Venric Mark, LB Damien Proby
Michigan: Taylor Lewan, OL
Lewan spurned the NFL for a chance at more Wolverine glory
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Brady Hoke is an offensive line coach at heart, and so it should come as no surprise that Michigan has stocked up on offensive line talent since his arrival in Ann Arbor. However, most of these recruits will only be seeing significant playing time or starts for the first time in 2013.
Heading into the offseason, it looked like Michigan would need to replace three starting seniors on the offensive line and surefire first-round draft pick Taylor Lewan. But then, Lewan decided to return for his senior season following a pretty good performance against the best defensive lineman in the college game, Jadeveon Clowney, in the Outback Bowl.
All of a sudden, the lack of experience on the offensive line may not be such a big deal. Lewan can protect Devin Gardner and keep the best defender occupied while his younger teammates learn their roles on the offensive line. Losing Lewan, particularly early in the season, would be devastating for the Wolverine offense.
Put simply, this is the best and most important player in Ann Arbor. That makes this an easy choice.
Others Considered: QB Devin Gardner, P Will Hagerup (if you've seen the backup, you know why)
Nebraska: Taylor Martinez, QB
T-magic pulling his type of magic against Georgia
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Another quarterback joins the list of most irreplaceable in the Big Ten conference, as Taylor Martinez is a player that Nebraska cannot afford to lose in 2013. Martinez almost automatically becomes the selection here because many of the positions have tons of returning talent (such as running back and wide receiver) or hardly any at all (such as linebacker and defensive back).
The one position where this is not true is quarterback, because Martinez brings back multiple years of starting experience without any proven options behind him in the lineup. In addition, although Martinez is prone to mental mistakes at times in the passing game, he brings the same dynamic options that make Kain Colter such an important player for Northwestern.
Tommy Armstrong had a redshirt year and should be ready to take over when necessary, but Nebraska fans would likely prefer that he not have to be thrown into the fire this year. Instead, Martinez will drive this dynamic offense and attempt to cover up any weaknesses the Cornhuskers continue to have on defense.
Others Considered: RB Ameer Abdullah, DE Jason Ankrah
Illinois: Mason Monheim, LB
Most of the players here won't be back next season...
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Akeem Spence would have been the easy choice here as a senior leader of the defensive line, but unfortunately he will collecting paychecks next season as an early departure to the NFL. In a similar vein, the selection here still has to come from a defense that is losing nearly all of its starters in 2013.
That means young talent will be critical to rebuilding the Illini, starting with the defense. The next superstar of the defense is probably sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim. Monheim led the team in tackles last year with 86 and added 1.5 sacks as well.
Now, Monheim will have at least two more seasons to build on those numbers and become a leader, with at least five new starters coming in the front seven of the defense. Even though he still has a ton of growing to do going forward, Illinois cannot afford to have no proven leadership on the field for the rest of these young recruits. Monheim is the best and most important player for the Illini in 2013.
Others Considered: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, SS Earnest Thomas
Indiana: Cody Latimer, WR
Latimer's height allows for the jump ball play often
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When Kevin Wilson was hired as the Indiana head coach, it was clear that the Hoosiers would continue to bomb away with a strong passing attack against Big Ten defenses.
Even with being forced to play three quarterbacks last season, Wilson found a way to push his offense to put up great numbers in conference play. A large part of that was having a metric ton of receiver talent available for whomever was throwing the ball.
With running back Stephen Houston graduating, expect the pass-happy Hoosiers to continue to rely on the receivers.The top two receivers both return next season in Shane Wynn and Cody Latimer, but Latimer gets the nod here as the much taller receiver of the two (6'3" compared to 5'7"). There are a lot of freshman and sophomores on the roster with similar height, but they still need some work before becoming primary options.
Therefore, Cody Latimer is set for a breakout year as the big receiver target in the Hoosier offense.
Expect Latimer to rack up twice as many touchdowns as the six he got in 2012, assuming he stays healthy. Indiana can possibly reload and recover without Latimer, but it would take some significant time. Indiana wants to win now and make a bowl game, and Latimer will be critical to doing so.
Others Considered: QB Tre Roberson, CB Brian Williams
Purdue: Akeem Hunt, RB
This looks like maybe the only good play for Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl
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Purdue had a lot of options at quarterback and at running back in 2012. That helped Purdue survive a tough opening stretch and take care of business in the final three regular season games to make a bowl. Although the bowl result was terrible, playing a 13th game was a nice reward for this tough-running team.
Now, Darrell Hazell takes over and he is bringing a defense and running philosophy taught to him by Jim Tressel. That means Hazell will need a solid leading running back, and Akeem Hunt will need to be that player in 2013. Hunt joints fellow junior Brandon Cottom in returning next year, but behind them on the depth chart are only a couple upperclassmen role players and a few freshman.
That means Hunt and Cottom will need to carry the load much better than they did in relief of Akeem Shavers this year. Hunt will be the centerpiece of the offense as Purdue will likely need to break in a new quarterback as well as replace many other players on offense. If Akeem Hunt gets injured or does not perform well, Purdue will take a huge step back in 2013.
Others Considered: QB Rob Henry, LB Will Lucas
Wisconsin: Jared Abbrederis, WR
Another big grab by a big receiver
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Another team, another coaching change in the Leaders Division. This time, Wisconsin joins the dance that every other school in the division has experienced over the past two seasons, with Gary Andersen coming in to replace Bret Bielema.
Don't expect the Wisconsin philosophy to change much though, as a power running attack with zone-blocking will still thrive in Madison.
Although Montee Ball is gone, Wisconsin will be just fine with James White and Melvin Gordon. The other critical piece of the high-octane Wisconsin offense is an efficient quarterback who has solid receivers to throw to. There are at least four quarterbacks vying for the job, but the only top-line receiver returning is Jared Abbrederis.
That makes Abbrederis a huge asset that cannot be lost in 2013. Abbrederis was the only receiver with more than 350 yards, as the passing game was non-existent in some games last season. However, he will need to get on the same page with at least one of these quarterbacks and make the big plays when the Badgers need him most in order to keep up with teams like Ohio State.
Others Considered: RB James White, LB Chris Borland
Penn State: Glenn Carson, LB
Throwing the ball straight up, not a good strategy
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Despite all the turmoil in State College last offseason, a strong group of senior players decided to bond together behind the community and bring Penn State back to glory. An 8-win season is precisely what the doctor ordered, and Bill O'Brien is being hailed as a genius thanks to these players.
Now the rubber really hits the road, though, as the departure of these seniors and only 15 recruits per season now forces a lot of youth into critical positions.
One of the few upperclassmen left to lead the team next year is senior linebacker Glenn Carson, who trailed only Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges in tackles a season ago. With Mauti and Hodges gone, Carson needs to remain on the field to lead young players at his position as well as at the other levels of the defense. About the only thing Carson needs to do better is disrupt more plays in the backfield in 2013.
Penn State will need to make do with a new quarterback next season, which means that the impetus will be even stronger on the defense to carry the team when the offense inevitably sputters. If the Nittany Lions are going to reach eight wins again, Glenn Carson will be a key contributor and a huge leadership figure. Without him, the prospects are much grimmer in Happy Valley.
Others Considered: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson
Ohio State: LB Ryan Shazier
Another crushing hit from Shazier
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Ohio State patched a lot of holes and kept the ship afloat to end up 12-0 in 2012, but the most magical work was on the linebacker crew. With players falling to injury and a lack of depth to begin with, Ohio State had to go so far as to convert a fullback to play linebacker (Zach Boren) in the middle of the season.
But one player was a constant on the field, avoiding the injury bug and putting up massive numbers that dwarfed the rest of the defense. That player was linebacker Ryan Shazier, who put up 115 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and five sacks.
And Shazier is coming back for another season!
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Shazier is the only returning starter in the front seven of the defense. Despite Urban Meyer stacking the last two recruiting classes with defensive talent, there will be a stiff learning curve for young players stepping into national championship expectations right away. Shazier needs to not only be on the field, but keep up his ridiculous numbers to maintain the excellence of this unit in 2013.
Others Considered: CB Bradley Roby, QB Braxton Miller
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