Brian and I are looking into our crystal ball and identifying players primed for breakout seasons in 2012. These lists could easily be much longer -- to include 10-15 players -- but we've whittled them down to five on each side of the ball.
We looked for players who had good seasons this season but should take the next step this coming season, much like Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and Iowa wide receiver Marvin McNutt in 2011. Players who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches or media) were not eligible.
Here are five defenders to watch in the 2012 campaign (in alphabetical order):
Michigan State LB Denicos Allen (junior in 2012): "The Waterboy" made a name for himself with his leaping sack of Ohio State's Joe Bauserman at The Shoe. He went on to put up big numbers for a ferocious Michigan State defense, finishing second in the Big Ten in sacks (11) and fourth in tackles for loss (18.5). He had seven quarterback hurries and finished second on the squad with 83 total tackles. Allen is one of the Big Ten's top blitzing linebackers and should be in line for bigger things in 2012.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown (junior in 2012): Brown has a very similar profile to Allen, as he put up some huge numbers in his sophomore season. He finished second in the league behind teammate Mercilus in tackles for loss (19.5) and ranked eighth in sacks (6). Brown was constantly around the football and finished sixth in the league in tackles per game (9, 108 total). He also recovered two fumbles. There's no doubt about Brown's talent and play-making ability, but the big question going forward is how he'll perform under a new defensive coordinator in Champaign (yet to be named).
Michigan CB Blake Countess (sophomore in 2012): He had a rough night in New Orleans last Tuesday, but he still held his own for most of the season and showed great potential. Countess started six games and recorded 44 tackles, six pass breakups and a forced fumble. He's a sound tackler and shows good instincts for a young player. Countess is a bit of a projection pick, but we feel that with a full offseason he'll take significant steps for a Michigan defense that might lean more on its back seven in 2012.
Michigan State DE William Gholston (junior in 2012): It's hardly a stretch to say watch out for Gholston in 2012. If any Big Ten defender looks like a future superstar on the national level, it's the Michigan State defensive end, who flat-out dominated games at times this season. He finished the season with 70 tackles, including 16 for loss and five sacks, and added a forced fumble, a fumble recovered and three quarterback hurries. Like Devon Still last year, Gholston ended the season with a breakout performance in a bowl game, recording five tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery in the win against Georgia. He'll be an All-America candidate in 2012.
Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier (sophomore in 2012): Like Countess, Shazier is a bit of a projection pick, but we see him doing big things in an enhanced role for Ohio State this coming season. He appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman and worked his way into the starting lineup late in the season. Shazier ranked sixth on the team with 57 tackles, which included five tackles for loss and three sacks. He added two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. Although Ohio State makes a coaching change, Shazier once again will be playing under Luke Fickell.