Ryan Shazier, making game-changing plays
The middle of the offseason has reached a midpoint, and that means summer college football previews are right around the corner. Phil Steele and many others will be hitting local bookshelves in stores within the next month, which feels like the unofficial kickoff to football season.
Before those other experts give us their opinions, let's get things started with the Bleacher Report Big Ten Football 2013 Preseason All-Conference teams.
Following a spring filled with story lines off the field, including the notable lack of Big Ten players taken in high rounds in the NFL draft, it is nice to begin focusing on those who will shine on the field in the fall. Thankfully there is not a massive power loss at the top of the conference in talented players.
Will your favorite player make the cut? Let's take a look!
Fear the 'Stache, and the pancake blocks
Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Lewan was set to be the highest draft pick from the Big Ten in the 2012 NFL draft, but he decided to come back for another year of mentoring in Ann Arbor. With a solid senior season and more performances like his Outback Bowl output against Jadeveon Clowney, Lewan could join Clowney in the top five of next year's draft.
Make no mistake about it, this is the key returning cog in the Michigan offensive machine. Lewan is a rare talent who we get to enjoy for yet another year. He is also the best lineman in the Big Ten, and it's not really up for debate until games begin to get played again in September.
Spencer Long, Nebraska
Spencer Long helps Jeremiah Sirles pave the way for the dynamic rushing attack in Lincoln. With Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah each requiring lengthy blocks at times on edge rushing plays, Long is just the type of blocker the team needs.
Don't expect Long to be penalized much in 2013, and that should help Nebraska avoid the problems that plagued the offense at times in big games last year. Plus, the offensive line should turn out to be potentially the best in the league.
Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
One of the biggest reasons Ohio State will be picked to be a national title contender is returning nine starters on offense, including big movers up front like Andrew Norwell. Look for Norwell to continue to open some running lanes and garner some double-teams in 2013.
Norwell also played well in limited action during the spring. Although Ohio State focused more on passing the ball during the spring game, Norwell provided plenty of time for his quarterback, even when going against first-team defensive players.
Jeremiah Sirles, Nebraska
Just like Ohio State, Nebraska is also expected to be an elite offense in 2013 following good numbers in the past season. Look for Sirles to open up some holes for Ameer Abdullah and the other running backs who may emerge for the Huskers attack.
Sirles also seems to be on the same page with Taylor Martinez, which helps him anticipate the best way to block a play. Sirles earned some all-conference honors a season ago, and he should be one of the Big Ten's best again in 2013.
John Urschel, Penn State
John Urschel excels both on and off the field, as he carried a sixth straight semester with a 4.0 GPA last year. Urschel has also graduated in three years with a degree in mathematics, which means this player brings the brain and the brawn to make Penn State fans proud.
Urschel will be a key piece in his senior year while he takes graduate-school classes. If Penn State is to have the same success as 2012 with a new quarterback, the offensive line will once again need to hold opponents to about one sack per game and nothing more.
Urschel helped this line achieve that in 2012, but he also needs to do so as the leader of the line in 2013.
Jake Cotton, Nebraska
Fou Fonoti, Michigan State
Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
Ty Howle, Penn State
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
Hands down, the scariest player in the Big Ten
Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Miller continues to develop as a passing quarterback, and it certainly helped that the Buckeyes focused on the passing game in spring football. Miller led the Buckeyes by himself at times during the 12-0 campaign in 2012, although Urban Meyer and Tom Herman will be happy if he can rely on his weapons more in 2013.
Miller's explosiveness led to 1,271 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns to go with 2,039 yards passing. With his field vision and passing improving even more, it will be difficult for even the other dual-threat quarterbacks of the conference to keep up.
Miller is a nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for, as players staying at home could just as well be burned if Braxton continues to show his prowess as a passer. Without Miller, Ohio State goes from serious BCS Championship contender to possibly not winning the Leaders Division.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
Mark does not shy away from Legends Division foes
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Abdullah was supposed to be the change-of-pace running back in 2012, but that was before Rex Burkhead had to be sidelined for long periods of time with injuries. As a result, Abdullah became "the man" in the Cornhuskers attack, rushing for 1,137 yards.
Expect him to shine even more with another year paired with Taylor Martinez in the backfield. Nebraska also happens to have one of the best offensive lines in the conference, which can only make Abdullah soar up the charts. Perhaps even national honors will be possible when 2013 is done.
Venric Mark, Northwestern
Although Northwestern played games all year with which quarterback should lead the offense, one constant in every drive was Mark.
The Wildcats' running back averaged over 100 yards per game and broke a few huge runs in collecting 12 touchdowns on the season. If Northwestern is going to win a division title in 2013, Mark will be the superstar.
Had it not been for amazing seasons by Montee Ball and Le'Veon Bell, Mark would have been first team All-Big Ten in 2012. With both of those players gone to the next level, there will be no excuse for Mark to not be the superstar if Northwestern remains competitive atop the Legends Division.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Kenny Bell, Nebraska
Although Taylor Martinez may not be known for his throwing prowess, he is improving because he has been surrounded by better-quality receivers in the past couple of seasons. After a fast start, Bell could shatter some of the school records if he sticks around to play two more seasons.
Bell racked up 863 yards on 50 receptions in 2012, and these numbers may actually improve with a senior quarterback in the mix. If that happens, Bell will be cemented in the top five in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns in the Nebraska record books heading into his senior season.
He may also find some national acclaim and a conference championship as well this year.
Allen Robinson, Penn State
Robinson blew away the rest of the conference in receptions per game (6.4) and reception yards (1,013) in 2012. Despite breaking in a new quarterback next year, Robinson and his running mate, Kyle Carter, will continue to be around for two more seasons. That has to be welcome news to whomever wins the job this fall.
Expect Robinson to continue to be the best receiver in the conference in 2013. His numbers may not run away from the pack, though, considering that others on the first and second teams have more experienced quarterbacks throwing to them in 2013.
Still, anything other than leading the conference will be a disappointment for this great talent.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
Devin Smith, Ohio State
Like trying to stop a dump truck
Kyle Carter, Penn State
As noted on the last slide, Carter and Allen Robinson made Matthew McGloin look good for the nine games where both of them were on the field together last year. Carter proved to be a viable threat with over 50 yards per game receiving four times, even as a safety valve for the Nittany Lions offense. After adding 453 yards as a freshman, look for bigger numbers in 2013.
Carter should continue to put up similar numbers this year, especially considering he will need to be a regular check-down for the new inexperienced quarterback. Carter is also a tough match-up for some linebackers to cover, at least those who also have the solid frame to stop Carter running downhill.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
He loves the Breakfast Club, apparently
Beau Allen, Wisconsin
Although David Gilbert had better numbers, Beau Allen will be the leader of the defensive line for the Badgers if spring practice is any indication. Allen has participated into three Rose Bowl games and hopes to find himself as one of the only players ever to go to Pasadena for a fourth straight year. Allen is also a two-time academic all-conference player, showing he also has the skills outside of football.
Allen is also similar to former Badgers star J.J. Watt in that he is more than just a run stuffer and a solid tackler. He broke up a couple of passes at the line of scrimmage and also blocked a punt against Purdue.
Allen has the size to make the NFL if he has a big season this year, so expect big things from this very big man.
Deion Barnes, Penn State
Deion Barnes did not enter last season as a starter, but he ended the season as the best freshman defensive player in the conference. That may be a recurring theme in Happy Valley during the NCAA sanctions era, but players like Barnes will certainly keep the defense tough as long as he sticks around. With a 6'4" frame, Barnes does not look like an ordinary sophomore.
Barnes had six sacks, but his desire is to be perfect, which means he perhaps could have hit double digits in sacks as a freshman. Considering his drive to improve his technique and results, this could be a huge breakout season where Barnes gains more national attention than would be expected on a team ineligible for the postseason.
Tyler Scott, Northwestern
Most of the Big Ten players who topped the conference charts in sacks last year were seniors, but Tyler Scott will return for one more year in Evanston after leading the league in 2012. In fact, Scott is the only player who broke into the first or second all-conference team in various outlets in 2012 that will be returning for this fall.
Scott's nine sacks were a huge reason why Northwestern killed important drives and stayed in games long enough to win most of them a year ago. Most importantly, Scott will need to be a good mentor for some younger players stepping up to fill starting and two-deep roles for the Wildcat defense.
Noah Spence, Ohio State
Ohio State replaces all four starters on the defensive line, but many young players saw significant playing time and will reduce the concerns heading into the new year. Noah Spence is one of the players who has elite talent and endless potential, but he must develop into a real contributor in 2013.
That should happen, as Spence has the right mix of speed and toughness to replace a guy like Johnathan Hankins without missing a beat. Spence also saw some significant minutes as a freshman, which will help him when playing against the same teams in 2013. With young stars like Barnes and Spence in the Leaders/East division, the future is bright in this portion of the Big Ten.
David Gilbert, Wisconsin
RaShede Hageman, Minnesota
Ryan Russell, Purdue
Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
Bullough and Friends, punishing running backs since 2011
Max Bullough, Michigan State
Bullough has started 27 consecutive games for the Spartans, most of those at middle linebacker. Considering the strength of this Spartans team has been the defense during the past three seasons, Bullough should come as no surprise on this list. Bullough has 223 tackles in his three seasons thus far.
Bullough will look to build on the momentum he gained toward the end of last season, including a team-high nine tackles in the bowl win over TCU. If Michigan State is to recover and play for a division title again in 2013, Bullough will need to be as good as Ryan Shazier was for Ohio State a season ago. It can happen, especially with a slightly more manageable conference schedule.
Jake Ryan, Michigan
Speaking of tackles for loss, Jake Ryan kept pace with Shazier for most of the season in this department. Although Ryan ended up with one fewer tackle for loss at 16, he was just as important to Michigan as Shazier was to Ohio State. Jake Ryan also had 4.5 sacks and 88 tackles, numbers that set up well heading into his junior season.
One thing Ryan has specialized at is forcing fumbles, as he set a team record with five of them in 2012 following his last one against Ohio State. Running backs and quarterbacks who break through Michigan's line must always have the ball wrapped up securely, or else Ryan will knock it out with his trademark hammer move.
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Ohio State does not return any defensive line starters, and Shazier is the only returning linebacker. The only reason the Buckeyes held together on defense all season despite injuries and a thin roster at this position was a heroic season by Shazier. This included 115 tackles and 17 tackles for loss.
Shazier does it all and always seems to be in the mix of plays, and he really feels like the difference maker that this defense needs to stay good enough to win the division title (and perhaps so much more). Shazier did not get to participate much during spring drills, but that will not keep him from the action come this fall. In fact, expect him to be in the center of the action at all times.
Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
James Morris, Iowa
Roby, making guys miss
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Dennard won all-conference honors in 2012, so it is fitting that he begins the list here in 2013 as well. Dennard's numbers would not blow you away, with only about 50 tackles and three interceptions during last year. However, he was shutting down the best player on the opposing offense most of that time, and he almost never gets burned.
That means teams playing against the Spartans must look for a mismatch to exploit elsewhere. However, those mismatches can be hard to find against the Michigan State defense. Look for Dennard's numbers to stay about the same as teams try to avoid him again in 2013.
Greg Heban, Indiana
Greg Heban walked on to play football at Indiana, and he quickly earned a scholarship under the new regime of Kevin Wilson. That scholarship was earned by bringing tough pass defense to a team that usually sorely lacks in that department.
While Heban's three interceptions could be improved upon, his lockdown coverage will be hard to replace after 2013. Heban also made 91 tackles, which should go down if Indiana gets better up front defensively. This is a lone bright spot in a team looking for defensive strength.
Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Although Johnathan Hankins left for the NFL draft, the Buckeyes did receive a gift when Roby decided to come back for his redshirt junior season. Roby broke up 17 passes to lead the conference a season ago, and he earned all-conference honors for this effort.
He has a killer instinct shared with Ryan Shazier, and that allows Ohio State to take some risks knowing that these two read plays so consistently well.
The one thing Buckeye fans want to see more of is interceptions from Roby, but he clearly has the athleticism to provide more turnovers. With a defensive front seven replacing most starters, Ohio State will rely heavily on the defensive backfield and Roby to carry the day in 2013. His draft stock will skyrocket into high first-round territory with a great junior season.
Nick VanHoose, Northwestern
VanHoose caught a lot of eyes in 2012 by stepping right in and contributing as a freshman for the Wildcats. Despite only playing in 10 games overall, he still ended up with 10 pass breakups and three interceptions.
Although VanHoose did not take any of the interceptions to the end zone, he does have the speed to make such a back-breaking play this year as a sophomore.
This is the next rising star in this position for the Big Ten, and there are many young stars coming up to compete with VanHoose. If Northwestern is to finish atop the Legends division in 2013, then the Wildcats will need to force some turnovers instead of giving them up at critical junctures. That burden falls on VanHoose and his mates in the backfield.
Christian Bryant, Ohio State
Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
Ciante Evans, Nebraska
Derrick Wells, Minnesota
He's hoping for a slice here...
K Brendan Gibbons, Michigan
Two senior kickers will duke it out for the best in the Legends Division and the conference, as Gibbons and Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien both succeeded on 89 percent or more of their field-goal attempts in 2012. Budzien actually put up slightly better numbers, but Michigan is poised to have a much bigger year with perhaps less offense than in 2012. With Will Hagerup out for the season, Michigan needs this aspect of special teams to shine.
If the team relies on field goals more, then Gibbons will need to keep up his ridiculous pace to keep the Wolverines on top of the standings. Gibbons could very well be the difference between heading into the Ohio State game with an 11-0 or 10-1 record and something far less palatable for Wolverine fans.
P Mike Sadler, Michigan State
One area of little concern for Michigan State is the punting game, where Sadler averaged over 43 yards per punt in 2012. Plus this high average comes with a massive sample size of 79 punts thanks to the struggles of the Michigan State offense. Don't expect Sadler to be worn out this season with heavy work, in other words.
Sadler is a key reason why Michigan State did not bury itself last year. If the offense improves, he could become an even more important weapon. All signs are pointed that direction, and with Hagerup sitting out on the other side of the state, this was an easy choice for best punter heading into 2013.
PR/KR Jordan Cotton, Iowa
Here's a shocking statistic: only one player in the Big Ten averaged more than 23.6 yards per kick return last year. As a result, it seems clear that the safer bet is almost always to kneel on the ball if it reaches the end zone on a kickoff.
However, Cotton broke off some big returns despite only having 19 chances at it, and his average of 28 yards per return is no fluke. It is still a question whether he will continue on special teams in his senior season, but Iowa would be poorly served to take him away from what he does best. Plus, if there's anything Iowa values these days in trying to recover from the bumbling 4-8 2012 season, it is field position.
K Mike Meyer, Iowa
P Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR/PR Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
Thanks for reading. I'm sure many of you will have passionate opinions on who was left out and who does not deserve to be here. Please share your suggestions below. Also, please follow me on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald). See you next week!