Big Ten Football: Russell Wilson and the Biggest Surprise Performers in 2011
The Big Ten has seen impressive play among its individual players, which has led to a league of parity, as multiple teams in each division have scenarios that can propel them to the inaugural Big Ten title game.
Each of these teams will rely on its experience, but also the play of some of their breakout players. Here are seven players in the Big Ten that have surprised viewers with their performances this season.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
Whitney Mercilus made just two starts for Illinois in 2010, but showed his potential by recording 3.0 TFL, two QB hurries and two forced fumbles.
Mercilus is now a full-time starter for Ron Zook and has reaped the benefits.
He ranks first in the country in sacks (11.5) and third in TFL (16.5).
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
The growth of Jared Abbrederis from his freshman to sophomore year has been visibly evident.
After catching 20 passes and three touchdowns in 2010 as a freshman, he has doubled his production as a sophomore, catching 38 passes for 614 yards and five touchdowns.
He has two games of 100-plus receiving yards, two games of 90-plus receiving yards and another of 80 yards.
Impressively, Abbrederis leads the country in punt returns with an average of 16.9 yards per return.
The walk-on is in line for a scholarship and needs to get one soon as he has been one of better wide receivers in the Big Ten.
Brett Maher, Nebraska
Brett Maher spent the better part of his first two seasons at Nebraska as a holder for Alex Henery, who eventually set an NCAA record for accuracy as a place-kicker (89.5 percent).
Maher has stepped in this season as Nebraska's kicker and quickly became not only the best kicker in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the country.
He ranks third in the country in field goals made (first Big Ten), has connected on over 80 percent of his kicks, is perfect on his PAT attempts (36-of-36) and has 81 points.
Silas Redd, Penn State
Silas Redd has been a pleasant surprise this season for Penn State, in an offense that has been otherwise inconsistent in the passing game.
Redd ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,007) and has seven touchdowns on the ground.
Penn State was just rocked by a child abuse scandal, and how the players will react on the field for the remainder of the season remains to be seen. Redd is one of those leaders for the Nittany Lions and will be counted on to shed some light on the program.
Kain Colter, Northwestern
Kain Colter started off the season as Northwestern's starting QB, as Dan Persa was still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon injury he suffered in 2010.
Although inconsistent through the air, Colter showcased his ability on the ground as he rushed for four touchdowns in three games as a starter.
Once Persa returned to the lineup, Colter became a situational player but still had eyes on him every time he touched the field.
In Northwestern's last four games, Colter is 11-16, passing for 219 yards and four touchdowns. On the ground, he has rushed for 222 yards and three touchdowns.
Most recently, Colter came in relief of Dan Persa and accounted for three second-half touchdowns in an upset win over Nebraska
James Vandenberg, Iowa
James Vandenberg came to Iowa after a stellar senior season at Keokuk High School that saw him throw for over 3,700 yards and 49 touchdowns.
For his first two years in Iowa City, Vandenberg patiently waited behind three-year starter Ricky Stanzi, who is now on the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.
Once Stanzi graduated, Kirk Ferentz handed the reins to Vandenberg, who has not disappointed Iowa fans nor anyone around the Big Ten.
In eight Big Ten games this season, he has thrown eight touchdowns and just three interceptions. He has been the perfect game manager to compliment Marcus Coker in the backfield.
Ideally, you would like to see his completion percentage a bit higher, but no Iowa fan will argue with Vandenberg's 21 touchdowns (18 passing, three rushing) and four interceptions.
Iowa will have tremendous opportunities to knock off Michigan State and Nebraska in the following weeks, and Vandenberg will be instrumental in those games by not turning the ball over.
Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
In the offseason, Russell Wilson became the most sought-after transfer after his release from North Carolina State. He narrowed his list down to two teams: Wisconsin and Auburn.
Everyone knows where he chose to extend his football career.
Before enrolling at Wisconsin, Wilson enjoyed a four-year career at NC State, where he ranks third in ACC history in touchdown passes (76) and 12th in the league's history in passing yards (8,545).
Once in Madison, questions surrounded Russell Wilson's decision-making ability. He was criticized for his low completion percentage and forceful throws into tight coverage at his previous school.
These concerns raised the question: Would these tendencies carry over to Wisconsin?
Given his decorated passing career, we expected Wilson to be a good player for the Badgers.
Did we expect him to be this good?
Wilson leads the country in passing efficiency (196.66) and yards per pass attempt (11.13).
Most impressively, Wilson is fifth in the country in completion percentage (71.6 percent) and has thrown for 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. These statistics have people most surprised as they run opposite of his 14 interceptions and 58.4 completion percentage as a senior at NC State.