Big Offensive Weapons for Big Blue
Now that summer temperatures are hitting the Midwest in the wake of Memorial Day, let's continue our season previews with a look at the top candidates to win 2013 Player of the Year.
It was a rising tide of Scarlet and Gray last year, as the 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year awards went to Braxton Miller and John Simon of Ohio State. Will Braxton and the Buckeyes be able to repeat the feat this fall?
Although the Big Ten gives out offensive and defensive awards, this power ranking mixes all players into one group to determine who is the front-runner overall. These rankings are based both on proven production from the last two seasons as well any positive circumstances that may make a conference title run favorable for the teams of these players. After all, team success is a great indicator of individual awards.
In addition, each offensive and defensive unit will only be allowed to place one player on the top five in order to spread the love around given the limited slots to discuss. No matter how explosive some player duos are (such as on the Nebraska offense), this is only fair. Besides, the competition within these teams could "split the vote" and cause the award to go to a different team's sole star.
Let's get to it. We begin with some players who just missed the cut.
Martinez would make the list, but for a technicality.
Beau Allen, Wisconsin DL
With the other star lineman, David Gilbert, deciding to retire from the sport, Beau Allen remains as the big anchor on the Wisconsin Badgers defensive front. Allen has 75 tackles and 6.5 sacks in his career, and those numbers may be doubled in 2013. Despite the change in scheme, Allen has a chance to be the next J.J. Watt, which would easily make him a defensive player of the year, if nothing else.
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State CB
If Darqueze Dennard can improve his numbers (50-plus tackles, three interceptions) while Michigan State stays tough on defense, then the Spartans just might find themselves back in Indianapolis playing for a conference title.
If that happens, look for the leader of the defense to receive more honors than anybody on Mark Dantonio's offense. Dennard will have to earn it against the best receivers in the Big Ten.
Taylor Lewan, Michigan OL
The Big Ten Network is having a field day showing recent bowl games in the past couple of weeks, and if you can catch last year's Outback Bowl, do yourself a favor and focus on Taylor Lewan going against Jadeveon Clowney.
These two players will anchor NFL lines for years to come and look for Michigan to exploit mismatches and double-teams caused by Lewan when running the 2013 offense. An offensive lineman is a long shot, but it has happened in the Big Ten when another great talent, Orlando Pace, was around in the mid-1990s.
Venric Mark, Northwestern RB
If last season is any indication, the serious threats to win the Legends Division in 2013 will be Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern (yes, Northwestern).
If the Wildcats make the leap that was so close in 2012, Mark will be the driving force on the field the most as the quarterback rotation is planned to continue. Mark could very well end up near 2,000 yards if everything breaks right.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska QB
Taylor Martinez is the first of two casualties of the "single player from any offensive or defensive unit" rule I established on the last slide.
Martinez is likely the second-most likely quarterback to win player of the year, but he could very well be outshined by another star on the Nebraska Cornhuskers offense. Martinez will be dynamic in his senior season, and if Nebraska breaks through and wins the first conference title since 1999, then Martinez will be in the mix for the award.
Allen Robinson, Penn State WR
Penn State, just like Ohio State a season ago, is that outlier team that can only win the division title but certainly has more than a puncher's chance to do so.
Thus, the best player on the Penn State Nittany Lions and a driving force of their offense has to be on the watch list for player of the year. Robinson led the league with 1,013 receiving yards and over 75 receptions in 2012.
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State LB
He has 115 tackles—17 for loss—in 2012 (the numbers speak for themselves). This young man hits harder and faster than pretty much anybody else in the conference.
However, he gets disqualified because another star on the Ohio State Buckeyes defensive unit has just a bit more big-play potential, and therefore, makes the list. However, Ryan Shazier will be one of the most fun players to watch, and he could end up at the top by the end of 2013.
This is not Melvin Gordon's primary strength/responsibility.
What becomes interesting when putting together a short list like this is that, sometimes, players are more well-positioned to break out and be a player of the year candidate than other more established players at the same position.
Melvin Gordon was a third-string running back buried behind proven backs James White and Montee Ball a season ago, but he still managed to put up 621 rushing yards and an astounding 10 yards per carry.
Although some of these numbers came early against Purdue and Indiana, Gordon proved he was no fluke against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship (216 yards, one touchdown) and against Stanford in the Rose Bowl (51 yards on nine carries).
Those last two games proved he is ready to take over Ball's star slot, while James White will likely remain second-string behind a new leader.
Wisconsin is going to rely heavily on the run, as usual, but especially with a new coach and a big question mark at quarterback. That means even more than Carlos Hyde and Venric Mark, Gordon is poised for a huge year. If Wisconsin wins another conference title, Gordon will likely be the player of the year.
That's a good enough possibility after winning the last three titles, so this previous third-stringer ends up in the top five for the top individual honor in the Big Ten.
Interference or not, you make the call.
It is tough to pick defensive players who are surefire standouts this season, but Bradley Roby is destined for big plays this year and probably at the professional level. His potential had him pegged as a possible first-round draft choice this past season, so there's a chance for something special before he leaves Columbus.
Roby shut down many of the best receivers in the conference, including good performances against Kenny Bell and Allen Robinson, the two best receivers returning in 2013. Amassing 62 tackles on the outside of the defense was a great number, considering how well he stopped passes that came his way most of the time.
Roby knows how to break big plays as well, and his play on special teams will likely continue, thanks to his talent in making big plays. In 2012, Roby grabbed one interception return for touchdown and a fumble he also returned for a touchdown.
Making five or six of those impact plays at critical times could make the difference between appearing in the last BCS Championship and losing out on a division title to a team like Wisconsin.
Without a great year from Roby (as well as Ryan Shazier and the new defensive linemen), Ohio State will not reach the end goal. If Ohio State does go undefeated though, look for Roby to have the best shot at player of the year from the defensive side.
Showing off the good form and the snazzy glove, all at once
Devin Gardner presents an interesting conundrum: Can a player who has been a backup and a wide receiver most of his career lead his team as a quarterback to the Big Ten championship? If so, then Gardner will certainly receive a ton of credit, even though he is surrounded by pretty good talent overall (including Taylor Lewan).
Gardner languished behind Denard Robinson for his first two seasons and switched to wide receiver to try and get some actual playing time in 2012, thanks to highly regarded quarterback recruit Russell Bellomy coming in behind Denard.
Gardner had 16 receptions and four touchdowns in the first eight games of the season, and there was no thought to turn to him when Robinson went down to injury, and Bellomy struggled in a loss at Nebraska.
Following that loss, Michigan allowed Gardner to try to win the job he had been waiting for, and he took it with such authority, Robinson did not even get the job back when he returned in time for the Ohio State game.
Although Michigan only went 3-2 in his starts, Gardner played like a starter in midseason form, throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns to only five interceptions. All of a sudden, Gardner (with a fifth year of eligibility now available in 2014 due to a 2010 medical hardship) looks like the quarterback of the future.
With Michigan recruiting more and more elite athletes, the Wolverines are ready for a breakthrough to the first conference title since Lloyd Carr walked the sidelines. The fairly high likelihood of this championship occurring pushes Gardner, a still relatively unproven quarterback, up to the top three candidates for player of the year.
Abdullah hopes to get more powerful blocking in 2013.
Ameer Abdullah did not make much of an impact as a freshman, but he quickly earned the second running back spot behind Rex Burkhead as a sophomore in 2012.
Thanks to an injury to the big tank, Burkhead, Abdullah was thrust into a starting role for over half of the season. Rather than being intimidated, Abdullah thrived with 1,137 yards rushing to go with 178 receiving yards and 33 good punt and kick returns.
Abdullah figures to possibly take a small step back in special teams to keep him well-rested as the primary running back, but he will still put up huge numbers working with Taylor Martinez in the option and wide-open attacks from the Cornhuskers.
Although many may assume Martinez is a bigger candidate from this offense for player of the year, Abdullah has a much simpler path to the award, thanks to not having to worry about inaccurate throws and bad passing days.
If Abdullah puts up similar numbers as 2012, but extrapolates it to a full 12 games of starting, then he will have little downside to point to when considering the relative merits of player of the year candidates.
If Nebraska wins a conference title, then either Abdullah or Martinez will likely win the award. However, Abdullah gets the nod, thanks to his explosiveness, high potential ceiling and his nose for big plays and the end zone.
If Abdullah is to have an improved 2013, the offensive line must dominate in Lincoln. While that is a real possibility, it is no guarantee. That may derail Abdullah's candidacy, which leaves us with the clear front-runner in this race at the top spot...
Miller hopes for more of this against Purdue, less injury.
Although the expectations will be much higher, thanks to winning the award in 2012, Braxton Miller has to be the top candidate for player of the year in 2013 due to his prior performances.
Miller is the most dynamic and dangerous quarterback with his running ability, while also seemingly getting better and better by the minute at being a passing quarterback.
If Miller puts both aspects of his game together, it will be difficult to see how opposing defenses will contain him any better than a season ago.
Even when he was dominated by the Purdue defense for most of the game, he still began breaking big runs right before his injury. That's the killer aspect of Miller: He can only be contained for so long before he burns you.
Urban Meyer and Tom Herman have him focused on leading this high-octane offense to even higher heights, and Miller appears to be ready to buy in. With another season like 2012, Miller will only avoid being named player of the year again if he is injured.
That makes Braxton Miller the leader in the clubhouse, with one title already to his name. Everyone else will have to chase and catch up to both Miller and the Buckeyes, which should not be a surprise following the 2012 resurgence.
The chase is on...will Ohio state survive? We will continue to preview this primary story in the Big Ten as the summer continues.
Thanks for reading! Let me know how you would re-rank them or any players you would put on the list who were not considered. Please also follow me on Twitter (link on right) if you want to discuss beyond this comments section. Have a great week.