Big Ten Football: 11 Under-the-Radar-Playmakers

Mark Schipper@@MyTimesProseContributor IIISeptember 22, 2011

Big Ten Football: 11 Under-the-Radar-Playmakers

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    This presentation begins at 11 and ends at one. The order is not especially important. That is to say, number one will not necessarily make more big plays for their team than number 11. The list is meant to suggest 11 athletes to watch who may not get the same mass of press as bigger stars whom the national sporting press has locked onto. There are 11 players, but there could have been 20—at least. There is no offense intended to those teams and players and fans of programs who cannot find themselves on this slideshow. The author suggests, for those who are interested, that a separate, perhaps better list be made to counter what has been presented here. Without further delay - 11 Under-the-Radar-Playmakers in the Big Ten.   

11. Nebraska Freshman Running-Back, No. 8 Ameer Abdullah

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    Abdullah chose Nebraska over USC and Alabama. He told anyone who was interested that he wanted to play football in a state where the college team was the biggest show in town. Abdullah looks ready for the main-stage. The freshman leads the conference in kickoff return yardage at 42.5 per attempt. He returned one for 100-yards and a touchdown against Fresno State

    In high school he was a triple-speared bolt of lightning, running the ball, catching passes and returning punts. In his third week of major college football, he leads the Big Ten in punt returns at 13.1 per opportunity; and all-purpose ground yards at 146.7 per contest. Tuned-in Husker camp followers say he’s expected to run one day from the vaunted I-back position in Lincoln. Abdullah looks early on like a road-running playmaker who will confound the best laid plans of mice and men for seasons to come. 

10. Indiana Hoosier Senior Wide-Out, No. 88 Damario Belcher

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    He’s a 6 foot 5-inch wide receiver with soft hands and good speed playing football at a traditional basketball school. It’s a hard reality that, from the outside, is difficult to understand. But no-one playing football for Indiana the last 20-seasons—outside of Vaughn Dunbar and Antwaan Randel-El— has generated much attention for themselves, or the program.

    Belcher is trying. He led the Big Ten in catches last year with 78, and hauled-in four for touchdowns. He was fourth in the conference in receiving yards per game at 69.3. Tandon Doss, a receiver from the same recruiting class as Belcher who led the conference in all-purpose yardage last season, left the Hoosiers early and was taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Terrance Turner, the team’s second leading receiver, graduated over the spring.

    This leaves Belcher as the receiving corps King Rooster and a Megatron-sized target for first year starting quarterback Edward Wright-Baker. He is a big, space-hogging glider who causes quarterbacks to experience a one-ness with the God's of football when they see that big form break on a fade route toward the back pylons with an undersized defensive-back flailing at his hip.   

9. Northwestern Wildcat Linebacker, Senior, No. 51 Bryce McNaul

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    McNaul’s brother captained the rugged rugby team at West Point as a senior officer-in-training. Bryce talks often about keeping the now Afghanistan-stationed brother in mind when he wants to channel a special kind of violence on the football field. McNaul is a well-spoken, intense, 6 foot 3-inch, 230 lbs weak-side linebacker. He’s had a difficult time staying healthy, and Northwestern’s defense was the main fail-point in the system last year when the Cats dropped game-after-game in the fourth quarter against teams they’d outmanned the entire contest.

    McNaul can be great. After three weeks, he’s intercepted a pass and stands fifth in the conference with 9.3 tackles per game. He has a big, competitive heart and his teammates look to him for leadership. If the Cats are going to break through this season—and last weeks loss at Army was not a promising start—to become a formidable program, McNaul and that defense are going to have to maul a few opponents into fourth quarter submissions.

8. Northwestern Wildcat Senior Free Safety, No. 10 Brain Peters

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    Watch a Northwestern football game, and Brian Peters stands out. He’s 6 feet 4-inches tall and 215 lbs. Last season he led the Wildcats in tackles (107) and interceptions (3)—with one returned 59-yards for a touchdown against Illinois. At the end of the season he was named defensive MVP by the team. Peters was on the 2011 pre-season Thorpe Award list for the nation’s most outstanding defensive back.

    In 19 career starts he’s forced four fumbles and picked-off seven passes.  He’s a ballhawk with solid targeting instincts and stopping power once he arrives. Through three games this season he’s averaging five tackles a contest and tallied one-sack; though he is yet to pick off a pass. As the weeks wear on, and if Northwestern is coming up roses, (pardon the Pasadena pun), it will mean Peters, another veteran leader of the unit, is tending to the terrain in the Wildcat’s defensive secondary.

7. Purdue Boilermaker Junior Running-Back, No. 23 Ralph Bolden

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    Last year, Bolden tore his ACL in spring practice and missed the entire 2010 season. As a sophomore in 2009, he ran for 935 yards and scored 11 touchdowns—second best in the Big Ten on a team that led the conference in rushing yards at 258.7 per contest. Bolden was good for 99.7 all-purpose yards per game and was named second-team all-conference; the first Boilermaker running-back to receive the decoration since Mike Alstott in 1995.

    Bolden’s 5 feet 9 inches and 190 lbs. He has space-shifting quickness and doesn't shy away from a collision. When his knee is healthy he can make defenders look silly:

    Through three games this year he is rushing for 5.7 yards a carry and scored two touchdowns. He has hands enough to catch the ball out of the backfield and slickness commensurate to dust defenders and move the chains. If the Boilermakers are going to improve on a four win effort from last year—with both inexperienced and unproven quarterbacks—Bolden is going to have to chew-up turf and score the football. So far, he looks pretty good. 

6. Illinois Fighting Illini Sophomore Linebacker, No. 45 Jonathan Brown

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    Vic Koenning, his position coach, describes him as a hard hitter with tremendous natural instincts for the position. Brown saw time on the field as a freshman and, against Indiana, returned an interception 66-yards for a touchdown. He is 6 feet 1-inches tall and 235 lbs. He protects territory well and arrives on target like an anvil launched from a slingshot.

    In the Illini’s big home win against Arizona State, Brown picked-off a pass, sacked the quarterback, and made 3.5 tackles for loss. His effort earned him Big Ten defensive player of the week honors. If the Illini front-seven—which lost three players from last years squad to the NFL— is going to continue laying-the-wood to opponents the rest of the fall, Brown is going to be one of the devil dogs unleashing the fury.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes Sophomore Running-Back, No. 34 Marcus Coker

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    Coker stepped into the Hawkeye backfield out of necessity near the end of a tumultuous fall in Iowa City and commenced crushing. In the Hawkeye’s 27-24 Insight Bowl upset over Missouri, the freshman bulled his way for 219 yards on 33 carries. Two of those charges went into the end-zone. Missouri could not get Coker on the ground when they had to get him on the ground for an opportunity to win the game. He was an unstoppable force in Tempe.

    Coker is a 6-foot tall, 230 lbs galloping draft horse. Through three games this year, though, his pace is slow. He’s fifth in the conference in rushing yards at 267. He averages 3.9 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. However, of the top five rushers in the conference, three are quarterbacks. The fourth best is Montee Ball from Wisconsin with 272 yards; Coker trails him by five. If the Hawkeyes battle their way into contention as the calendar turns from October into November, it will be in large part because Coker is doing his work pounding on the opposition's defenses.    

4. Minnesota Golden Gopher Junior Quarterback, No. 5 Marqueis Gray

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    This once mighty football program has been inexplicably woebegone for decades. Anyone under 50 with an even passing interest in college football would scoff if you stated in all seriousness that the Gophers used to compete for and win Big Ten championships on a perennial schedule. You probably couldn’t find more than a dozen souls who remember the three consecutive National Championships in the 1930s.

    The Gophers sixth and final National Championship came in 1960. Their last Big Ten crown was split three-ways in 1967 with Indiana and Purdue. That’s 43-years and running without a title of any kind for Sky-U-Mah.

    Marqueis Gray is not going to return the Gophers to any high glory in 2011, but he is a special football player. After being converted to wide-receiver by former head coach Tim Brewster—perhaps the worst coach in a string of mediocrities—Gray was restored to quarterback by new head coach Jerry Kill. That confidence alone should indicate what level of athlete we’re talking about—a 6 foot 4-inch, 229 lbs operator whose coach’s feel comfortable swapping between two difficult skill positions and expect to see him excel. Offensive Coordinator Matt Limegrover has said Gray is an exceptionally hard worker and determined to succeed as a quarterback.

    Through three weeks, Gray is sixth in the conference in total offense, throwing for 468 yards and running for 328 more. That sets his total yards average at 265.3 per game. He’s completing 52-percent of his passes—a low number that must rise if he’s to impact outcomes—and heaved three touchdowns against two interceptions. Gray stands third in the conference at 5.7 yards per carry. He is doing well as a first year starter at the most difficult position in football, and if he can boost his play, the Gophers may spoil a season or two this fall.  

3. Wisconsin Badger Sophomore Wide-Out, No. 4 Jared Abbrederis

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    Abbrederis runs sharp routes and has sure-hands when the football is fired his way. He’s 6 feet 2-inches tall, 180 lbs, and tough. He blocks for the Badgers elite runners and punishes defensive backs as much as he absorbs their shots.

    Abbrederis is a great option for catching little slip screens and short passes and is wily enough to make defenders miss. He’s brave enough to run routes hard over the middle of the field. He reminds observers of Dane Sanzanbacher and Anthony Gonzalez, two tough, smart wide-outs who made a lot of memories for followers of the Ohio State Buckeyes over the last half-decade.

    With Nick Toon the undisputed number one receiver, Abbrederis will have plenty of opportunities to make plays for the Badgers this fall. With Russel Wilson throwing ballistically beautiful spirals his direction, Abbrederis is in fact positioned to thrive. A walk-on to christen his career, through three games this season Abbrederis has caught 10 passes for 132 yards, good for 13.2 yards per reception.  

2. Wisconsin Badger Sophomore Tight-End, No. 48 Jacob Pedersen

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    Wisconsin, in its pro-style system, is a great showcase offense for tight-ends. With former Badgers’ Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks, Travis Beckum, and Garret Graham blocking and catching for paychecks on Sundays, Madison has become a proven tight-end pipe-line to the NFL.

    Pederson, at 6 feet 4-inches and 244 lbs, with an elite talent in quarterback Russell Wilson distributing the football, is well constituted to make an impact at the spot. Last season he caught eight passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Through three games this year, he’s caught 10 for 164 yards and four scores. The Badgers are weapons-heavy on the offensive side of the ball, and Pedersen—a key piece— is going to spend much the fall confounding defenses and breaking opposition hearts. 

1. Illinois Fighting Illini Quarterback, No. 2 Nate Scheelhaase

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    This kid played hard-nosed football last year as a freshman in the Big Ten, being named conference freshman of the week six times. He’s 6 feet 3 and 195 lbs. When he’s spoken of, the terms passion to be great, exceptionally hard worker, and loves studying the game, are the standard lexicon.

    Scheelhaase set a freshman quarterback rushing record with 868 yards and five touchdowns. He threw for 1,825 more and 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions.  Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Scheelhase spent all summer working on accelerating his release and improving his accuracy.

    Through three games this fall the sophomore is second in the conference in passing efficiency and sixth nationally at 180.9. Inside the Big Ten he’s eighth in total offensive production with 688 yards—504 of them through the skies and 184 over terra firma. The kid is going to play menace on opposing defenses for several seasons more for the program from Champaign.