- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)
Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)
Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups.
I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.
Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:
Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.
Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.
Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.
Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.
Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.
Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).