We asked you Monday to weigh in on the Big Ten offensive player of the year race: specifically, which player had the best chance to challenge the 2011 winner, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. As of noon ET today, it's a close race between Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, with more than 6,300 votes cast.
It'll be interesting to see how the OPOY race unfolds, but I'm more interested in the candidate pool on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten always will be a defense-driven conference -- the league boasted six top-20 defenses in 2011 -- and the 2012 season presents an interesting group of standouts. There's not only a large pool of what I would describe as top contenders, but a nice group of secondary candidates as well. And as we've seen lately, a surprise player could emerge to win the award. Few pegged Penn State DT Devon Still to be the recipient entering the 2011 season.
Let's take a look at the top contenders:
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State, Jr., 6-7, 275
2011 statistics: 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media and coaches)
Making a case: The freakishly athletic Gholston might be the Big Ten's most gifted player, and he appears ready for a huge junior season. Remember how Penn State's Still dominated the bowl game before his breakout 2011 season, which resulted in Big Ten defensive player of the year honors? Gholston delivered a similar performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, tying a team bowl record with five tackles for loss and recording two sacks and a fumble recovery. Don't be surprised if Gholston mirrors Still's route this coming fall. He boasts a unique combination of size and speed, and while he'll surely command more attention this year, he plays on a defense featuring several players who opponents must respect.
John Simon, DE, Ohio State, Sr., 6-2, 260
2011 statistics: 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), third-team AP All-America
Making a case: The term most often associated with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is motor. Kerrigan never took plays off and consistently outworked his opponents. The same holds true for Simon, who had new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calling him "Tebowish" after just a handful of spring practices. Simon's motor never stops, and he makes up for a lack of ideal size with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. Like Gholston, Simon should benefit from the players around him. Pegged as a future superstar by older teammates when he played as a true freshman, Simon is primed to live up to those expectations this fall.
Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 233
2011 statistics: 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Hodges showed last season that when healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. This spring, he looked like the best player on the field during Penn State's practices. He's moving to the strong side, a position where some of Penn State's best linebackers have played during their senior seasons. With Michael Mauti returning from injury, Glenn Carson back and several others in the fold, Penn State could have the league's top linebacking corps in 2012. Expect Hodges to take his game to the next gear, and he could have a season much like Navorro Bowman in 2009.
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue, Sr., 6-3, 310
2011 statistics: 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (media), second-team All-Big Ten (coaches)
Making a case: The Big Ten recently has been a league of dominant defensive tackles, and two of them from Penn State, Jared Odrick and Still, have won defensive player of the year honors in the past three seasons. Purdue's Short looks like the next in line after a superb junior season that seemed to fly under the radar both regionally and nationally. He's consistently disruptive and also makes consistent plays in the backfield. Short has racked up 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, so he has been good for a long time. After turning down a chance to turn pro -- he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board -- Short could have a huge senior season.
Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, Jr., 5-11, 250
2011 statistics: 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Like Short, Borland has been a consistent playmaker for multiple years with Wisconsin. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year returned from shoulder problems to turn in an incredibly productive 2011 season. Borland moved to middle linebacker last fall but still found ways to get in the backfield. His tackles for loss total marked the most for a middle linebacker in the FBS. Borland always has been strong against the pass and should help Wisconsin in that phase this fall. Along with Mike Taylor, Borland will lead the Wisconsin defense and look to add more numbers to a tremendously productive career.
Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 235
2011 statistics: 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media)
Making a case: I put Brown in the same category with Gholston: an elite talent who could become a national superstar this coming season. Like Borland did in 2011, Brown will have to prove he can impact games at middle linebacker the way he did on the outside last season. Like Borland, Brown is an excellent blitzer who can get in a quarterback's face and wreak havoc in the backfield. He'll anchor the linebacking corps for an Illinois defense that should once again be strong in the front seven.
Others to watch
Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin, Sr., 6-2, 222
Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State, 6-1, 298
Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State, Sr., 5-11, 175
Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois, Sr., 6-6, 240
Dark horse candidates
Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State, Jr., 6-3, 252
Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State, Jr., 6-4, 317
Jordan Kovacs, S, Michigan, Sr., 6-0, 197
Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State, Jr. 5-11, 232
Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue, Jr., 5-9, 176
Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa, Sr, 6-1, 190
Daimion Stafford, S, Nebraska, Sr., 6-1, 205
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 239
Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 305
While I can't include everyone at this early stage, there's a large and interesting group in the mix for this award. Should be a great race to watch.