Big Ten's Most Indispensable Players for 2014 College Football Season
The road to the Big Ten title, the Rose Bowl or a College Football Playoff spot is paved with stars and key playmakers. Indispensable players show just how tough life can be without them to shoulder the load on either the offense or defense.
Among the names that come to mind when thinking of indispensable players in the Big Ten are Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
Who are the other indispensable players in the Big Ten? Our picks, as always, are in the following slides.
Indiana DB Tim Bennett
What else is there to say about a player who led the country in pass breakups last year?
Indiana defensive back Tim Bennett is one of the best defensive players not only in the Big Ten, but in all of college football. Though he had just one interception, he broke up 20 passes and had 21 passes defended. He also finished first on the team with 61 solo tackles.
Heading into 2014, Bennett is working to increase those turnover numbers.
"That’s one thing he’s done this year, is try to do a better job of actually catching the ball," Hoosiers cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby told Alex McCarthy of 247Sports. "With his senior leadership, he knows his time is running out, this is his last go-around, so hopefully he’s taking it all in and doing a good job and doing the little things that help us get to where we need to get to."
Bennett is crucial to Indiana's defense, which must improve after being one of the worst against the pass last season, if the Hoosiers are to get back to the postseason.
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
There are important wide receivers, and then there's Kenny Bell.
Bell wasn't even Nebraska's leading receiver last season, in terms of yards. That title belonged to Quincy Enunwa, who had 753 receiving yards and a team-best 12 touchdowns. Still, Bell was the go-to receiver (52 receptions) for the revolving door of Huskers quarterbacks.
With Enunwa gone, Bell returns to lead what is still a relatively young group of receivers. He'll also be a safety net for Nebraska's next quarterback, presumably Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
It's no secret that Michigan State's 2013 was straight-up nasty. However, the Spartans lose key members of last year's group, including cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Denicos Allen.
One of the best returning players is junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who finished first on the team and tied for second in the Big Ten, with 7.5 sacks. He was also second on the team, behind Allen, with 14 tackles for loss. Those numbers were good enough to earn second-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors.
With a majority of Sparty's defensive front seven departing, Calhoun and fellow defensive end Marcus Rush will be more important than ever.
However, Michigan State was No. 1 in the Big Ten in third-down conversions allowed (28 percent). Not surprisingly, the Spartans were also best in the conference against the run. Putting opponents in bad positions on third down allowed Calhoun and Rush to tee off on opposing quarterbacks.
If he doesn't get help on first and second downs, Calhoun's job could be a lot harder.
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
A portion of Iowa's offensive line returns from last season, but none are more important than left offensive tackle Brandon Scherff.
The second-team All-Big Ten and All-America selection started in every game for the Hawkeyes last year. He was a major reason Iowa finished first in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (15) and fourth in tackles for loss allowed.
Scherff has been earning all-conference recognition since he was a redshirt freshman in 2011. Now a senior, he is an important component to Iowa's offense and is keeping quarterback Jake Rudock playing upright. Though Scherff could have left for the NFL draft this year, he opted to stay one more season.
Surely, he'll be one of the first tackles taken in next year's draft.
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't the Big Ten's leading returning rusher—that would be Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah—but the redshirt junior is every bit as important to his team's offense.
Now that longtime running back James White has moved on, Gordon could be asked to shoulder an even bigger portion of the Badgers' ground game (he had 206 carries last season).
What's more is that Wisconsin loses its top four receivers from a year ago: Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen, White and Jeff Duckworth.
Without a doubt, the focus will be on Gordon, who could have been a relatively high draft pick in May.
"I want to get our team to the playoff," Gordon told Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship."
Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo
A handful of the Big Ten's top tacklers from a year ago are gone, including Northwestern linebacker Damien Proby.
Still, the Wildcats have Chi Chi Ariguzo, who was second on the team (and sixth in the Big Ten) with 106 total tackles. Though linebacker should be the strength of Northwestern's defense, Ariguzo has already proved that he's one of the most valuable players on the team.
Here's Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network's assessment of Northwestern's linebacker group from earlier this month:
The guy to watch is Collin Ellis, who is moving from strong-side linebacker to middle linebacker with Damien Proby gone. Ellis still needs to bulk up. Chi Chi Ariguzo looks good. But, he always looks good. I think he’ll be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten.
Ariguzo just finds ways to make plays at the weak-side linebacker spot. The kind of production and instincts that he brings to the Wildcats defense isn't easily replaced by anyone.
Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Indiana has been, if nothing else, entertaining under head coach Kevin Wilson. Steadily, the Hoosiers have improved and are on the cusp of making it back to a bowl game, thanks to what has become a great offensive team.
However, the Hoosiers lose three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago: Receivers Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, and tight end Ted Bolser. In all, that's 154 combined catches for 2,155 yards and 22 touchdowns. Talk about a loss of production.
Wide receiver Shane Wynn is the only one of those "big four" from last year returning, though he did account for a team-best 11 receiving touchdowns.
Wynn isn't big, at just 5'7" and 170 pounds, but he's productive and fast. Additionally, he's been a multi-purpose weapon in the run and return game. If Indiana's passing game is going to keep the Hoosiers in games, it's likely going to have to go through Wynn.
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Ohio State actually showed that starting quarterback Braxton Miller wasn't indispensable last season when Kenny Guiton started two games in September while Miller nursed a knee injury. Granted, Guiton's two starts came against Cal and Florida A&M, but he gave the Buckeyes even more confidence at quarterback.
However, Guiton, a senior last season, is gone. Cardale Jones is the No. 2 guy behind Miller, who was sidelined during spring with a shoulder injury. Jones, a redshirt sophomore, only attempted two passes last season, completing one for three yards.
That's not to say that Jones isn't capable of filling in for Miller, but head coach Urban Meyer said after the Buckeyes' spring game that he wasn't happy with Jones' performance.
"Cardale was disappointing," Meyer said, via James Grega Jr. of The Lantern. "I thought he made some misses today, but I’m not going to let that ruin his spring. He’s had a good spring for us."
Ohio State just hopes Miller can stay healthy the entire season. He's the perfect fit for Meyer's offense.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.