- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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As part of “College Football Live’s” 100 Days Till Kickoff countdown, we're taking a look at the top 10 players in the Big Ten for 2012. Please note that this list could look different when we do our Big Ten Top 25 players list later this summer.
But here's how they're ranked for the "College Football Live" event:
1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: After scoring 39 touchdowns and earning an invitation to New York for the 2011 Heisman Trophy ceremony, Ball returned to school for his senior year and very much earned the No. 1 spot on this list. His numbers could go down a bit this year as they would be nearly impossible to top. Yet Ball, who has focused on pass blocking and improving his strength this offseason, could be a better all-around back in 2012.
2. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska: Still a bit underrated nationally, Burkhead gets plenty of respect in the Big Ten. He ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season without much of a passing attack to keep defenses honest. The senior approaches every carry like his scholarship check depends on it, which is why Nebraska fans embrace him.
3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State: New Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer gushed over Simon this spring for his all-out commitment on and off the field. Simon had seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss on a banged-up defensive front last year and should contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors in 2012.
4. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: We mean this in the best possible way: Gholston is a freak. How else to describe a 6-foot-7, 275-pounder with the speed of an outside linebacker? Gholston can be downright unblockable when he's focused and using proper technique, something he showed in an impressive Outback Bowl performance against Georgia in January. If that's a sign of things to come, he could be an All-American.
5. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges has become the latest member of Linebacker U. to seize stardom. He broke out last season with 106 tackles, including 4.5 sacks, as he anchored the middle of one of the best defenses in the country. Fast, strong and instinctive, he's got everything you want from the linebacker position.
6. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: There might not be a more exciting player in the country than "Shoelace," who's put together more heroics than a comic-book character the past two seasons. But his passing remains suspect, as evidenced by his Big Ten-worst 15 interceptions last season. The word out of spring practice was that Robinson had improved his fundamentals and looked sharp as a passer. If he can add accuracy to his other many talents, the sky is the limit for him and the Wolverines this season.
7. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short thought about skipping his senior year and entering the NFL but decided to make a push for first-round status this season. He certainly has the ability to do so as a potentially dominant run stuffer in the middle of Purdue's defensive line. Short had 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 tackles in 2011 and will be the focus of every opposing offensive game plan this season.
8. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: Bret Bielema says Borland might be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. Which is saying something, since Borland didn't move to the middle linebacker spot until last season. Though a bit undersized, he makes up for it with natural instincts and underrated athleticism. Borland made 143 tackles last year and formed one of the best defensive duos in the country with fellow Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor.
9. Silas Redd, RB, Penn State: Redd carried Penn State's offense during the middle of last season and was as productive as any back during the month of October. He eventually wore down a bit under a heavy workload and because of some injuries, but he could be primed for an even bigger year in new coach Bill O'Brien's offense. Redd ran for 1,241 yards last season and figures to find the end zone more than the seven trips he made there a year ago.
10. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Brown burst onto the scene as a sophomore, posting 108 tackles and 19.5 for loss as a quarterback-seeking missile. He was a bit inconsistent, however, and he lost his cool when he kneed a Northwestern player in the groin, earning a one-game suspension. Now a year older and wiser, Brown should be one of the top defensive playmakers in the conference, if not the country.