The One Player Every Big Ten Team Will Miss Most in 2014
There's no "I" in team, but most championship teams these days tend to have at least one star on the roster that shines just a little brighter than all the rest. The nature of the college game means a limited number of starts for every player. What happens when these stars move on to the next level? Can their programs still compete for titles without them? How much will their contributions be missed in the upcoming season?
We've put together a list of the top departing player on every Big Ten roster. The holes left by these graduations or early departures could have massive impacts on the 2014 season.
Purdue: Ricardo Allen
Let's be honest: there weren't many good things to point to at Purdue in 2013. Not only were the Boilermakers a laughable 1-11 this season, but that lone win came against FCS Indiana State by six points. Indiana State, for the record, also finished 1-11.
One of the few bright spots for the Boilers through all of this "adversity" was the play of Ricardo Allen. With six interceptions, he finished tied atop the conference for picks this season (with Michigan's Blake Countess).
Allen also made 53 tackles (four for loss, including a sack), broke up three passes and forced a fumble. With Purdue's inability to mount any reasonable resistance against the rest of the Big Ten, losing by an average of more than 26 points, we really are curious what new head coach Darrell Hazell has up his sleeve, sans Ricardo Allen, for year two of his tenure in West Lafayette.
Northwestern: Jeff Budzien
How much of an impact can a kicker have on the scoreboard? Well, if you're talking about Northwestern's Jeff Budzien, a heck of a lot.
In 2013, Budzien kicked 23 field goals and 35 extra points for a grand total of 104 points this season. Just how impressive is that? Only Michigan State's Jeremy Langford had more points (108) all season.
The 2013 season was an epic letdown for the Wildcats. Gone is the bowl streak put together by head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Gone is the long climb out of the conference cellar. Gone are the Top 25 rankings.
Instead, star players like Budzien and senior linebacker Damien Proby (111 tackles, third in the Big Ten in 2013) will depart Evanston with a somewhat unfulfilled feeling.
Illinois: Nathan Scheelhaase
A no-brainer, here. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has completed his fourth season of playing for Illinois, and over that span, he's put together a résumé that includes 55 passing touchdowns and 8,568 passing yards.
His best season, incidentally, also happened to be his last. In 2013, Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards with 3,272. He also finished tied for second in the Big Ten with 21 touchdown passes.
Unfortunately, that success didn't translate into many wins this season for the Fighting Illini, but they did manage to end that epic conference losing streak with a late November win over Purdue.
The trick for embattled head coach Tim Beckman will be to figure out how to replace all of that offensive output—and experience—before the first snap of 2014.
Michigan: Taylor Lewan
Michigan's big No. 77 may have run out to touch the iconic "M Club" banner for the last time in his career, but he'll leave Michigan in a far better state than he found it.
Okay, we'll admit that Lewan didn't quite have the 2013 we were expecting, and his performance this season might be fractionally less impressive than it was in 2012. However, we're still talking about one of the nation's top offensive linemen here.
When Lewan came out of high school in 2009, he opted to take Rich Rodriguez—yes, Lewan is a Rich Rod recruit, folks—up on his offer to play at one of the nation's top NFL O-Line talent generators. Following in the footsteps of former No. 1 overall draft selection (2008) Jake Long, Lewan watched his team struggle to a 5-7 record during his redshirt season.
By the time Lewan was a sophomore, however, Michigan finished the season with a Sugar Bowl title and a spot in the final Coaches Poll's top 10.
As Michigan retools back towards its traditional identity of, well, an actual Big Ten football program (rather than the Big East hybrid Rodriguez tried to implement), there are bound to be some growing pains. Lewan's departure, while difficult, will pave the way for the next great offensive tackle in Ann Arbor.
Indiana: Stephen Houston
When you think about Indiana's 2013 performance, two things stand out. First, the passing game was pretty awesome (306.7 yards per game, best in the Big Ten, 17th in the FBS). Secondly, there's a distinct lack of upperclassman talent leading the way for the Hoosiers.
But, you can't have a prolific passing game like Indiana does without some solid leadership from the running department, and that's exactly what head coach Kevin Wilson got from senior running back Stephen Houston.
Houston wasn't in the top 10 in rushing yards in the conference this season, but his solid performance of 753 yards on the ground allowed the Hoosiers to air it out almost at will in 2013 thanks to the arm of sophomore quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
For 2014, Indiana will surely miss Houston's reliable 6.7 yards per carry (fifth in the Big Ten), as well as his leadership on the field. Now, if the Hoosiers could only figure out that abysmal defense...
Minnesota: Ra'Shede Hageman
There are few plays in any sport that can shift momentum quicker or more decisively than a blocked kick or punt in football. When it came to blocking in 2013, there was no one better in the Big Ten than Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman.
Hageman, along with Ohio State's Bradley Roby, sat atop of the Big Ten's list of kick blockers in 2013 with two. Also like Roby, Hageman made contributions beyond special teams. Hageman intercepted a pass this season—a rarity for a defensive lineman—had 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and swatted down eight passes.
That kind of "in the trenches" performance is hard to teach and even harder to replace.
Penn State: Allen Robinson*
Yes, Allen Robinson has just finished his junior season, and yes, there's an asterisk next to his name. After all, no one—including Robinson—is entirely sure he'll be leaving Happy Valley for the NFL.
We also decided to go with Robinson because he's likely the only big-name, high-impact departure Penn State could even possibly see before next season. Offensively, there isn't a single senior from 2013 who accounted for much more than 300 offensive yards.
Robinson led the Big Ten with 1,432 receiving yards this season, and with the continued growth of freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, Robinson could have a monster season in 2014 if he does in fact opt to return.
If he does, the title of biggest departure for Penn State will likely fall to defensive lineman DaQuan Jones. He led the Nittany Lions with 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, three of which were sacks. Jones also totaled 56 tackles this season for a defensive line that performed better than many had expected back in August.
Nebraska: Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Among a plethora of underwhelming defensive performances for Nebraska in 2013, Stanley Jean-Baptiste set himself apart. Nebraska should be learning by now that when it comes to defenses, the Big Ten is a step up in class from the Big 12.
The Cornhuskers, once lauded for their suffocating "black shirt" defenses, ranked just fifth in total defense and sixth in scoring defense in the Big Ten this season. There wasn't a single Cornhusker upperclassman that led the conference in a defensive statistical category (although sophomore lineman Randy Gregory led the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks, giving hope for the future).
Still, Jean-Baptiste was a bright spot for a team desperately searching for one in 2013. With four interceptions, Jean-Baptiste was tied for third in the Big Ten in the category, and his 134 return yards was bested only by Michigan's Blake Countess—who had two more interceptions than Jean-Baptiste.
Hopefully, some of Jean-Baptiste's ball-hawking skills will rub off on the underclassmen before he departs Lincoln for good.
Wisconsin: James White
James White was a massive part of Wisconsin's one-two ground attack this season, joining sophomore Melvin Gordon with the fourth- and third-most rushing yards per game in the conference this season, respectively.
While Gordon's return should be a strong signal that the Badgers will be able to continue to pound the ball, the success of Wisconsin's rushing game has depended on the almost perpetual ability to sub in fresh legs belonging to a top-notch back. In 2014, Gordon will instead be joined by Corey Clement—who had just 66 rush attempts in seven appearances in 2013 compared to White's team-leading 209 carries.
Gordon and Clement will also need to find a way to replace the 1,337 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns White contributed this season.
Iowa: Anthony Hitchens
If Iowa wants to claw its way back to the top of the Big Ten standings in 2014, it will need players like Anthony Hitchens to do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Hitchens himself will be busy doing some heavy lifting for an NFL franchise next fall.
After four seasons at Iowa, Hitchens has amassed 260 total tackles, including 18.5 tackles for loss. His ability to not only stop the run but disrupt the passing game has NFL scouts excited about prospects at the next level; however, his departure leaves an important 6'1", 233-pound hole in Iowa's linebacking corps for 2014.
Ohio State: Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde was one of the most electric running backs this season—not just in the Big Ten, but nationally. Had he not missed the first three games of the 2013 season on the heels of an alleged assault on a woman prior to the start of the season, Hyde may have not only been a Heisman finalist, but he very well could have won the award.
Hyde led the Big Ten and was sixth nationally with 140.8 rushing yards per game. With Ohio State's anemic passing attack (200.9 passing yards per game, 93rd in the FBS), any drop in running ability is a cause for concern.
If quarterback Braxton Miller opts to leave Ohio State a year early for the NFL, the Buckeyes will be left without their top four rushers for 2014. But Hyde's 1,400-plus yards and 14 touchdowns in his 10 games will likely have the biggest impact on Ohio State's chances to capture the Big Ten's inaugural East Division title in 2014.
Michigan State: Darqueze Dennard
When you have a lockdown corner departing for the NFL, it's going to have an impact. When that corner is Darqueze Dennard, it has to give some Michigan State fans serious pause as to the future of the position.
Dennard isn't a replaceable type of guy. While MSU has become a mecca for top defensive talent, Dennard was the first-ever Spartan to be recognized as a consensus All-American at the CB position.
It's also no small achievement to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back—something Dennard can claim this season.
While Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will certainly be able to find a top-notch replacement for Dennard, don't expect the same level of expertise at the position in 2014.
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