- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was just a coincidence that our Big Ten postseason Top 25 player rankings wrapped up the same week when players were showing off their skills at the NFL combine.
But the convergence of the two raised one pressing question: Where are all the star Big Ten wide receivers?
Only one Big Ten product was invited to the NFL combine to work out as a wide receiver, and that was Michigan's Denard Robinson. He, of course, spent almost all of his career at quarterback, finishing with three catches during his four years as a Wolverine. Maybe he'll turn into a productive receiver at the next level, but he doesn't really count.
Meanwhile, our Big Ten player rankings contained only one receiver: Penn State's Allen Robinson, who checked in at No. 11. That shouldn't come as a surprise to those who watched the league this year. While Robinson had a huge breakout year with 1,018 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, no other Big Ten player ranked among the top 71 FBS performers in receiving yards per game, the top 58 in total receiving yards or the top 50 in receptions per game.
In some ways, it was a transitional year for Big Ten receivers. The 2011 season saw four players top 1,000 receiving yards and two others go for at least 925. The NFL drafted six Big Ten receivers last April, including Illinois' A.J. Jenkins in the first round. Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham finished their careers as the most productive pass-catchers in school history.
So 2012 was just a blip after a bumper crop, right? Maybe, maybe not. While players from the 2011 group still have time to develop, none of them made much of an impact in the pros last year. Jenkins didn't catch a single pass for the San Francisco 49ers. McNutt spent most of the year on the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad. The Miami Dolphins cut Cunningham a few months after drafting him. Michigan State's Keshawn Martin had the most successful rookie year of the bunch, catching 10 passes for 85 yards and a score for the Houston Texans. But we weren't exactly witnessing the second coming of Lee Evans, David Boston, Terry Glenn, Plaxico Burress or Braylon Edwards. Not yet anyway.
There are some promising young talents at receiver in the Big Ten. Robinson and Nebraska's Kenny Bell are both entering their junior years and could break most of their school records by the time they're finished. Indiana has a terrific trio in Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis has a chance to end his career with more than 3,000 yards despite arriving as a walk-on.
League wideouts were also no doubt hampered at least in part by a lack of prolific pocket passers in the conference. The two top quarterbacks in our rankings were Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, who are more athletes right now than precision throwers. Michigan's receivers were nearly invisible until Devin Gardner took over for Denard Robinson. And Allen Robinson was able to put up big numbers thanks in large measure to the pro-style passing offense Bill O'Brien installed at Penn State.
Still, while the Big Ten is never going to be the Big 12 when it comes to producing eye-popping passing stats, the league appears to be trailing other conferences in developing superstar receivers. That's a little troubling at a time when football at every level is becoming more and more reliant on the passing game.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about his program's lack of difference-makers at receiver last year, so it was good to see the Buckeyes land what ESPN.com ranked as the top receiver/athlete haul in the 2013 signing class. Recruits like Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith could make an immediate impact. It was also encouraging to see Michigan, which has a great tradition at the position, bring in some big-bodied receivers in this class (though it was a bit odd to hear Wolverines receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski say "speed is overrated" for wideouts).
Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota saw what a difference having stud receivers can make in their bowl games. Unfortunately, those star wideouts were on the other sideline. To beat the best teams in the country, it's essential that Big Ten teams recruit and develop standout players at the receiver position.
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