Top 10 Pre-Spring Practice Candidates for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
With college football's spring practice season looming, teams of the Big Ten Conference are looking forward to their prospects for the fall.
Glancing ahead at the 2014 season, several of the league's top teams have to like their chances at the conference crown thanks to their offensive stars.
One squad in that position is Ohio State, which will return two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller.
While the reigning champion is the clear-cut favorite to take that award once again, several players, including Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, could give the OSU signal-caller a run for his money.
Click on for a breakdown of that duo and seven other athletes who could challenge Miller for this year's POY honor.
10. RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Tevin Coleman was having a fantastic season for Indiana before a sprained ankle left him sidelined for the final three games.
He finished No. 2 in the Big Ten in average all-purpose yards, tallying 141.7 yards per game.
In nine games, the sophomore (who will be a junior in 2014) was just shy of 1,000 rushing yards on 131 carries with 12 touchdowns.
If he plays a full slate next year, he is sure to post some great numbers.
9. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland
With Allen Robinson, Jared Abbrederis and several others departing, the Big Ten is left without many of its best receivers.
So next year, the No. 1 player at the position might be a newcomer: Maryland's Stefon Diggs.
Diggs is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the country, but he missed UMD's final six games last year with a broken leg. He, along with top deep threat Deon Long, will miss spring practice, coach Randy Edsall tweeted in February.
Even though he played just half a season, Diggs was just 37 yards shy of being the Terrapins' leader in all-purpose yardage for the year, accumulating 912 yards in seven contests.
If he makes a full recovery in time for the fall, he'll be poised for an outstanding junior campaign.
8. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern
Venric Mark was expected to lead a lethal Northwestern attack into Big Ten title contention last season, but his health didn't allow that to happen.
He appeared in just three games for the Wildcats, tallying just 183 all-purpose yards before hanging up his cleats for the year and taking a medical redshirt.
If he can move past the ankle injury that ended his 2013 season, he can resume his role as one of the Big Ten's most lethal skill players. He was No. 12 in the nation in all-purpose yardage in 2012 and was No. 3 in the Big Ten with 1,366 rushing yards.
7. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Michigan State was expected to miss star running back Le'Veon Bell dearly after he nearly hit 1,800 rushing yards in 2012. However, Jeremy Langford filled the starting running back slot in East Lansing very nicely.
He amassed 1,422 yards while carrying a humongous 292-carry workload for the Big Ten champion Spartans.
If the Wayne, Mich., native can improve on that, he'll be in the thick of the race for Big Ten offensive POY.
6. QB Devin Gardner, Michigan
Michigan's Devin Gardner was expected to challenge Ohio State's Braxton Miller for Offensive Player of the Year last year.
He was even seen by some as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
Instead, Gardner struggled in leading the Wolverines to a 7-5 regular season, with much of the struggles coming thanks to offensive line issues. Those problems up front also led to a foot injury that kept him in street clothes during UM's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State.
His backup, Shane Morris, the perceived quarterback of the future in Ann Arbor, filled in and was good but not great. Still, his performance and Gardner's struggles sparked talk of a quarterback competition.
Going into his senior season, Gardner still has to be thought of as the favorite to lead the Michigan offense.
If he can make it back to where he was this time last year, he can make it back into the conversation for the conference's offensive crown.
5. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Christian Hackenberg was expected to be special coming out of high school, and he didn't disappoint.
He threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, earning him Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Upon winning that award, former PSU head coach Bill O'Brien lauded the young signal-caller, predicting a special career in Happy Valley, via Penn State football's official site:
He's had a remarkable year. To come here as an 18-year-old freshman with such high expectations and to be able to learn this offense and do the things we have asked him to do, I think he got better every game. He's got a chance to have a very special career at Penn State.
Next year, Hackenberg will be without top target Allen Robinson while also adjusting to a new coaching staff, but he has the arm and the smarts to keep himself alongside the conference's best quarterbacks.
4. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State
It took a few weeks for Michigan State's Connor Cook to take the full-time starting job in 2013.
But once he did, he didn't look back, tallying 2,755 passing yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions. That earned him a second-team All-Big Ten nod behind Ohio State's Braxton Miller.
Cook was a major part of MSU's Big Ten title run, fueling an offense that seemed to improve with each week. He hit 300 yards passing in each of the Spartans' final two games (the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl).
If Cook can duplicate that production, he and his team will be in great shape.
3. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon didn't even lead his team in carries, but he was still No. 2 in the Big Ten (and No. 10 nationally) with 1,609 rushing yards.
Wisconsin figures to have one of the Big Ten's best offenses next year, and Gordon could play an even bigger role than he did in 2013.
James White, who had 221 carries to Gordon's 206, is now gone, leaving Gordon as the surefire feature back with Corey Clement as his backup.
He is one of the best running backs in college football, so there's no question that he'll be vying for the conference's top offensive honor.
2. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Ameer Abdullah and an incredible junior season, notching 85 or more rushing yards in all 13 games for Nebraska. And to the dismay of all Big Ten defenses, he elected to return for his senior year after leading the conference with 1,690 rushing yards.
Abdullah is also one of the best at his position at catching balls out of the backfield. He recorded 232 receiving yards and led the league with 1,999 all-purpose yards in 2013.
As he competes to lead the conference in all-around production yet again, he could end up with the Big Ten Offensive POY award if the Huskers have a strong season.
1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Ohio State's Braxton Miller missed essentially three full games last season and still did enough to earn his second straight Big Ten Offensive POY award.
He was No. 3 in the league with 3,126 yards of total offense, leading all other conference quarterbacks by a large margin with 1,068 rushing yards. He was also one just five quarterbacks across the country to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground.
The Buckeyes are elated to have him back next season, and he'll keep them in the conference title race once again.
It was reported by Tim May of the The Columbus Dispatch Friday that Miller will undergo shoulder surgery, which will limit him during the spring. But as long as he returns in the fall as anticipated, he'll stand as the favorite to become the only player in history to take the league's top individual honor three times.