Big Ten: B1G position rank 12

On Friday, we wrapped up our preseason position rankings series, which you can view in its entirety here. What do the rankings as a whole tell us about the teams in the league in 2012?

In an effort to find out, we added up all of our unit rankings to see which teams looks the strongest overall. A first-place finish in one of the rankings was worth one point, a second-place showing was two points and so on. Like golf, lower scores are better here.

Here's what we came up, along with the extreme highs and lows for each team:

1. Nebraska -- 29 points

(High: Special teams: 1. Low: Linebackers: 7)

T-2. Michigan -- 35 points

(High: Quarterbacks and offensive line: 2. Low: Defensive line and special teams: 7)

T-2. Ohio State -- 35 points

(High: Defensive line: 1. Low: Wide receivers/TE: 9)

T-4. Michigan State -- 36 points

(High: Secondary and linebackers: 1. Low: Wide receivers/TE: 11)

T-4. Wisconsin -- 36 points

(High: Offensive line and running backs: 1. Low: Quarterbacks and defensive line: 8 )

6. Purdue -- 38 points

(High: Quarterbacks: 1. Low: Linebackers: 9)

7. Penn State -- 56 points

(High: Linebackers: 2. Low: Quarterbacks: 12)

8. Iowa -- 60 points

(High: Quarterbacks and wide receivers/TE: 4. Low: Running backs: 11).

9. Illinois -- 65 points

(High: Defensive line: 5. Low: Special teams: 12)

10. Northwestern -- 70 points

(High: Wide receivers/TE: 1. Low: Linebackers and secondary: 11)

11. Minnesota -- 79 points

(High: Quarterbacks and special teams: 6. Low: Running backs, wide receivers/TE and defensive line: 12)

12. Indiana -- 85 points

(High: Running backs and wide receivers/TE: 8. Low: Offensive line, linebackers and secondary: 12).

Thoughts:

This outcome is somewhat surprising, as I did not expect Nebraska to come out on top. But the Huskers didn't have any low rankings, and indeed, they does not have any glaring weak spots heading into the fall. It's more of a question of whether this team has enough difference-makers in key spots. ... It's kind of funny that rivals Ohio State and Michigan tied for the same score and that Michigan State and Wisconsin, who were nearly inseparable last season, are also tied. ... The Spartans probably would have finished on top if not for their low scores at quarterback and receiver. And, of course, those are the real question marks for this team. ... Purdue finished surprisingly high, just behind the teams considered the very best in the league this year. That's partly a function of the experienced depth the Boilermakers have coming back. ... Penn State was a distant seventh, and could have been lower. We did the running back and receiver rankings before Silas Redd and Justin Brown transferred; those moves certainly would have cost the Nittany Lions a couple of spots. ... Iowa was surprisingly low but consistently scored in the bottom half of the league in many rankings. ... Northwestern's defense and Illinois's special teams and offensive skill positions proved costly, just as they might this season. ... Minnesota and Indiana understandably finished at the bottom since the rankings were heavily based on last season. ... These rankings for the most part reflect last year's performance and preseason expectations and obviously don't take things into account such as coaching, schedules, bad breaks, etc. But if the Big Ten finishes in this exact order, we're copyrighting the formula.
Our 2012 preseason position rankings come to a close today as we wrap up with the special-teams units.

When looking at special teams, you have to rely on what teams did last year and who they bring back, as it's extremely difficult to get a read on new kickers and punters during preseason practice. So teams that rank the highest on this list have reliable kickers and return men back in the fold. While the top and the bottom are fairly easy to sort out, the middle is pretty indistinguishable.

Let's specialize ...

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska return man Ameer Abdullah could be contained a bit with the rule changes for kickoffs this season.
1. Nebraska: The obvious and really only pick for the top spot, as the Huskers bring back star kicker/punter Brett Maher and return ace Ameer Abdullah. Special teams should once again be a strength in Lincoln.

2. Purdue: The Boilers lose strong-legged kicker Carson Wiggs but return national kick return leader Raheem Mostert and punter Cody Webster, who finished just behind Maher in yards per punt.

3. Ohio State: Drew Basil turned into a very dependable kicker, and the Buckeyes also bring back punter Ben Buchanan. Jordan Hall is a top-flight returner when healthy, and Ohio State has other options there.

4. Michigan State: The Spartans have reliable place-kicker Dan Conroy back, along with punter Mike Sadler and kickoff return man Nick Hill. They will need to replace Keshawn Martin on punt returns.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers' star is Jared Abbrederis, who's outstanding at returning both kicks and punts. But they need to replace both their kicker and punter. Kyle French has handled some field goals in the past, and Drew Meyer appears set to take over at punter. The punt protection unit must not allow breakdowns that cost the Badgers in big games last year.

6. Minnesota: Getting record-setting returner Troy Stoudermire back should help a team that did pretty well without him on returns a year ago. Jordan Wettstein made all six of his field goal tries after taking over the job late in the season. The Gophers need more consistent punting.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines made steady improvements on special teams, as Brendan Gibbons shored up the place-kicking situation. There is still a competition going on at punter between Matt Wile and Will Hagerup. Michigan's coverage was solid last year, but it can do better on returns.

8. Penn State: The losses of punter/kicker Anthony Fera and punt returner Justin Brown to transfers hurt. Sam Ficken will handle field-goal duties, though the punting competition remains open. No word yet on who will return punts.

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are still searching for a punter, and former quarterback John Wienke is in the mix. Mike Meyer was just 14-of-20 on field goals last year. Iowa's kickoff coverage a year ago was subpar.

10. Northwestern: Venric Mark leads a very strong punt return game. Kicker Jeff Budzien made only six field goals, though he was 50-of-50 on PATs.

11. Indiana: Kicker Mitch Ewald was a bright spot, but the Hoosiers' kick return game was terrible a year ago. IU will also break in a new punter.

12. Illinois: Things can only get better for the Illini, who were brutal on special teams last year. A new coaching staff should help, as well as transfer Tommy Davis, a former star return man at Northern Illinois. They must replace kicker Derek Dimke, however.
Our preseason position rankings have reached the end of the line. We've looked at the entire offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Now it's time to focus on that often neglected one-third of the game: special teams.

First, we'll examine the top returning individual specialists in the league. Later on, we'll take on the more difficult task of ranking special-teams units, many of which will have new names few of us know.

But for now, these guys are pretty special:

1. Brett Maher, P/K, Nebraska, senior: Maher led the Big Ten in punting average (44.5 yards per attempt) and tied for first in most field goals made (19, out of 23 attempts). He was named the Big Ten's punter and kicker of the year. Yeah, he's pretty good.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Raheem Mostert, KR, Purdue, sophomore: Mostert led the FBS in kick return average at 33.5 yards per try and had a touchdown in the Little Caesars Bowl. Purdue hopes it can put his speed to work on offense as well this season.

3. Jared Abbrederis, KR/PR, Wisconsin, junior: He ranked third nationally in punt return average (15.8 yards per attempt) and was sixth in the Big Ten in kickoff returns. Abbrederis set a school record with 201 return yards in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon.

4. Ameer Abdullah, KR/PR, Nebraska, sophomore: Abdullah finished ninth nationally in kickoff return average (29.3), including a 100-yarder against Fresno State. His 211 return yards in that game set a Huskers record.

5. Drew Basil, K, Ohio State, junior: Basil led the Big Ten in field goal percentage (16 of 19, 84.2 percent), including a streak of 12 straight at one point last season. Six of his makes came from 40 yards out or longer.

6. Jordan Hall, KR/PR, Ohio State, senior: Knocked down this list a peg or two because of his foot injury, Hall is a dynamic return man when healthy. He ranked fifth in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (26.3 ypa) and sixth in punt returns (5.8 ypa) a year ago.

7. Dan Conroy, K, Michigan State, senior: Conroy ranked third in the league in field goals made last year with 17, out of 23 attempts. He showed he was good under pressure by knocking home two tries in overtime of the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

8. Cody Webster, P, Purdue, junior: Webster ranked just behind Maher in punting average (42.9 ypa), including a 66-yarder versus Minnesota. The big-legged Boilermaker had 13 punts sail over 50 yards.

9. Venric Mark, KR/PR, Northwestern, junior: Mark averaged 22.9 yards per kickoff return and 15.9 yards on punt returns, the latter of which would have ranked him ahead of Abbrederis had he made enough returns to qualify. He'll try to use his playmaking skills as a running back as well this year.

10. Nick Hill, KR, Michigan State, sophomore: Hill ranked fourth in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (26.3 ypa). He had five returns of 40 or more yards and a long of 67 against Indiana.
Our Big Ten position rankings wraps up the defensive side of the ball with a look at the individual defensive backs. On Monday, we listed the top secondary units in the league.

We find the cornerbacks to be a little ahead of the safeties this year, which is why you'll find cornerbacks dominating this Top 10. As a reminder, we're basing these rankings heavily on last season's production, along with consideration given to potential.

Bring it ...

1. Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State, senior: Adams is the rare breed of cornerback who can be physical on the line of scrimmage and also cover down the field. He had three interceptions last season, and was also very effective on blitzes. The potential first-round pick's multitude of skills puts him at No. 1 here. Teammate Darqueze Dennard is another standout cornerback who just missed this list.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Allen
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCornerback Ricardo Allen has proven to be a playmaker for the Boilermakers.
2. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue, junior: At 5-foot-9, Allen might not be very big. But he relishes taking on taller receivers, and usually comes out on top. And once he picks a ball off, he's a threat to score from anywhere on the field.

3. Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa, senior: Hyde is the leader of the Hawkeyes' secondary and was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2011. He's a playmaker, as evidenced by last season's three interceptions and 11 passes defended, the latter of which tied for the most in the Big Ten.

4. C.J. Barnett, S, Ohio State, junior: Barnett was the Buckeyes' most consistent performer in the secondary last season and led the team with 75 tackles. He's a hard hitter who also grabbed interceptions against Miami and Michigan State a year ago. He was named a second-team All-Big Ten performer by the league's coaches.

5. Isaiah Lewis, S, Michigan State, junior: Forget about the running-into-the-punter penalty in the Big Ten title game; the Spartans might not have gotten to Indianapolis without the play of Lewis all season. Though Trenton Robinson was an All-Big Ten safety, the team's coaches say Lewis was their top performer in 2011. He's a solid tackler who also picked off four passes last season, and should be even better in 2012.

6. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State, sophomore: A talented player who showed his potential last season, Roby has added muscle and cut his 40-yard time down to the 4.3 range this offseason. Urban Meyer awarded him the No. 1 jersey because of his chance to be great.

7. J.T. Floyd, CB, Michigan, senior: Floyd has been the Wolverines' steadiest, sturdiest cornerback for a while now. He had a big interception near the goal line in the win against Notre Dame last season, and led the team with eight pass break-ups.

8. Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois, senior: An underrated player, Hawthorne tied for the Big Ten lead in passes defended last season, and was the MVP of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win against UCLA. He's an excellent athlete who likely will see time on offense this season as well.

9. Blake Countess, CB, Michigan, sophomore: Countess gets Wolverines' fans more excited than Floyd, and with good reason. Countess oozes with talent and earned a starting nod the second half of last season as a true freshman. He admitted that he faltered at the end of last season and gave up too many big plays, but he's a guy who should only continue to get better.

10. Jordan Kovacs, S, Michigan, senior: Kovacs has become so much more than a former walk-on with a heartwarming story. He's a standout safety and one of the leaders of the Wolverines' defense. He's got a nose for the ball and produced four sacks, two forced fumbles and interception last season.
We're nearing the end of our Big Ten position rankings, and it's time to finish up the defense rundowns with a look at the secondaries. Let's start off with the unit rankings.

As a reminder, we're basing these mostly on last year's performance and who returns, along with potential for the 2012 season.

The top four groups could be very good, while the next five have question marks but potential. Even the bottom three groups have realistic opportunities to make strides this fall.

Let's get rolling ...

[+] EnlargeJohnny Adams
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireJohnny Adams should help make Michigan State tough to beat through the air in 2012.
1. Michigan State: The Big Ten's most formidable defense once again should be very strong in the back four. Although All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson departs, Michigan State returns its other three starters, led by standout cornerback Johnny Adams. Some project Adams as a potential first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Safety Isaiah Lewis could have a breakout season, and the Spartans have recruited well here to build good depth.

2. Ohio State: The defensive line has bigger names and more hype, but the secondary might turn out to be Ohio State's best unit in 2012. The Buckeyes bring back all four starters, including arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard. Expect Roby to take another big step as a sophomore. Hard-hitting safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant return, and Ohio State can go two- or three-deep at most positions.

3. Michigan: This group has come a very long way from the Rich Rodriguez era and should be the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012. Safety Jordan Kovacs is an excellent leader who blossomed in Greg Mattison's system last fall. The Wolverines also boast a promising cornerback tandem in J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess, and have good overall depth at both corner and safety.

4. Nebraska: While the Huskers lose the Big Ten's top defensive back in Alfonzo Dennard, they should have greater overall depth and the potential for new stars to emerge. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford leads the group, and P.J. Smith provides a veteran presence at the other safety spot. Nebraska is loaded with options at cornerback, including the improved Andrew Green and juco arrival Mohamed Seisay. New assistant Terry Joseph should get a lot out of this group.

5. Purdue: The rankings already have mentioned some good cornerback tandems, and Purdue adds another in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson. They've combined for 48 career starts, and Allen has led the team with three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Max Charlot returns at safety after recording 41 tackles in 2011, but there are some question marks around him.

6. Illinois: Terry Hawthorne rarely gets mentioned as one of the Big Ten's top defensive backs, but he should. The senior has been a natural playmaker throughout his career and will lead Illinois' secondary in 2012. Senior Justin Green brings experience to the other corner spot. Although the Illini return both of their starting safeties -- Steve Hull and Supo Sanni -- they need more consistency from that position this fall.

7. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose a key player at both cornerback (Antonio Fenelus) and safety (Aaron Henry), but they have a chance to improve upon last year's performance and rise up these rankings. They'll undoubtedly benefit from the return of cornerback Devin Smith from injury. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn't downplay what Smith's absence meant last season. The Badgers need more consistency out of projected starters Dezmen Southward and Marcus Cromartie.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a nice piece to build around in playmaking senior cornerback Micah Hyde, but they'll need more after a so-so season in 2011. Tanner Miller returns as a starter at safety, and hopes are high for junior B.J. Lowery at the other corner spot. Iowa's depth looks better at corner than it does at safety.

9. Penn State: Most see the secondary as Penn State's weak link, to which Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris say, "Bring it on." Still, the Lions have questions to address after losing all four starters from the 2011 team. Morris, Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos all have been in the fire a bit, but Penn State needs them to take steps and remain on the field. Depth is a significant concern after the offseason departures of Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas.

10. Minnesota: This is a bit of a projection pick, but I like Minnesota's potential to take a step forward in the secondary this fall. The biggest reason for optimism is cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns for a fifth year after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Stoudermire was on track for a big year before the injury. Cornerback Michael Carter had a strong spring and could finally reach his potential. The bigger concerns here come at the safety spots.

11. Northwestern: Three starters depart from a secondary that struggled to stop anyone and endured major communication breakdowns far too often in 2011. Northwestern is younger in the back four, but it also could be more talented this season. Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell comes off of a 100-tackle season, and cornerback Nick VanHoose impressed during the spring. A few veterans return, but the coaches can't be afraid to go with the youth movement here.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.
Our preseason position rankings keep on keeping on as we turn to the linebacker units. On Friday, we ranked the individual linebackers in the Big Ten for 2012. Remember that we are considering 2011 performance most heavily in these rankings.

The top three here are really strong, while several other teams have a chance to be really good at linebacker this season.

[+] EnlargeDenicos Allen sacks Denard Robinson
Mike Carter/US PresswireMSU's Denicos Allen piled up 10 sacks last season.
1. Michigan State: Remember when there were concerns about the Spartans' linebacker corps last August? Seems pretty silly now. All three starters are back from a standout unit in 2011 that included defensive quarterback Max Bullough, sack artist Denicos Allen and the underrated Chris Norman. Add in some promising youngsters like Darien Harris, and this has a chance to be one of the best linebacker groups in the entire nation.

2. Penn State: Linebacker U. took a hit when potential starter Khairi Fortt transferred to Cal. But don't feel too sorry for this Nittany Lions' unit, which still boasts All-Big Ten big hitter Gerald Hodges and veteran Michael Mauti, who just needs to stay healthy to be a star. Glenn Carson was sturdy in the middle as a starter last year as well. Experienced depth is the only real question.

3. Wisconsin: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better duo than Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who finished one-two in the Big Ten in total tackles last season. Ethan Armstrong will likely fill out the trio, which gets rated this high because of sheer star power.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' linebackers will be young but have loads of potential. Etienne Sabino is the lone true veteran of the group, while Ryan Shazier showed late last season that he has game-changing ability. Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant looks ready now to be a major contributor. The dismissal of Storm Klein did hurt the depth here, however.

5. Michigan: Here's a group that was very solid in 2011 and could be even better in '12. Senior Kenny Demens is the anchor who led the way last year as freshmen Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan got their feet wet. Another rookie in Joe Bolden could bolster the crew this season.

6. Illinois: The Illini have a budding superstar in Jonathan Brown, who could challenge for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors if he builds on his breakout sophomore year. Houston Bates had a good redshirt freshman year and at 240 pounds can be force. The third spot will be more of a hybrid role, likely filled by safety Ashante Williams. Defensive end Michael Buchanan could play some standing up as well.

7. Nebraska: This is senior Will Compton's group to lead after Big Ten linebacker of the year Lavonte David took his superhuman tackling skills to the NFL. Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher will have to raise their games in David's absence. Juco import Zaire Anderson and riser David Santos are expected to push for playing time as well.

8. Iowa: James Morris and Christian Kirksey give the Hawkeyes two 100-tackle men at the position, and they should be better as juniors. But Iowa wasn't as good overall at linebacker in 2011 as it needs to be. Anthony Hitchens likely moves into a starting role at the other spot, and there isn't much in the way of seasoning for the backups.

9. Purdue: Linebacker has been just so-so the last couple of seasons for the Boilermakers. Dwayne Beckford is back after some off-the-field issues and should easily be the best player at the position. Will Lucas also started on the outside last year. There's not much other experience here, but with the defensive line and secondary projected to be strengths, Purdue doesn't need its linebackers to do more than their fair share.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers' defense wasn't very good last year, but the linebackers might have been the highlight. It's one of the few units with considerable experience this year, led by seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Former Florida transfer Brendan Beal will try to make an impact after being hurt last year.

11. Northwestern: David Nwabuisi is a good tackler and leader for this crew, which nonetheless lacked many difference-makers in 2011. Is this where prized recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo makes an immediate impact?

12. Indiana: Linebacker was a sore spot for the Hoosiers last year, which led them to bring in two junior college transfers at the position. Both Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper looked good this spring and are ticketed to start right away. That also tells you something about the returning talent there for IU.
Our position-by-position preseason rankings roll on as we get to the linebackers. This is one of the strongest overall position groups in the league, full of returning stars and pro prospects.

Here are the top 10 individual linebackers leading into 2012, based heavily on last year's performance with some consideration given to potential.

1. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, senior: A first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Hodges is a leading contender for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors this season. A big hitter with speed, he had 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in a breakthrough junior campaign. New coordinator Ted Roof could set Hodges loose on more blitzes this season.

2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, junior: Borland switched to middle linebacker last year, and Bret Bielema said he could be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. Borland isn't very tall (at a listed 5-foot-11) but makes up for it with all-around athleticism and instincts. He finished with 143 tackles last season.

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireA new coordinator could help Penn State's Gerald Hodges put up even bigger numbers as a senior.
3. Jonathan Brown, Illinois, junior: Brown made a name for himself last year as sophomore, erupting for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He gets to quarterbacks in a major hurry, and they are not happy to see him.

4. Max Bullough, Michigan State, junior: The captain of the Spartans' outstanding defense from his middle linebacker spot, Bullough has a keen understanding of the game that comes from growing up in a football family. He's also an impressive athlete at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds. His tackle numbers last year (89) weren't huge, but he's got a ton of talent around him.

5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State, junior: Allen is one of those talented guys around Bullough. The Spartans love to use his speed on linebacker blitzes, and for good reason. He had 11 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss last season while flying in from the edge.

6. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, senior: It shows you how good and deep the Big Ten linebacker corps is that Taylor ranks only sixth after racking up a whopping 150 tackles last year. He's always around the ball and has strong tackling skills. It's hard to find a more reliable combo than him and Borland.

7. James Morris, Iowa, junior: He led Iowa with 110 tackles a year ago, though there's a strong feeling that he and the Hawkeyes should have made more plays on defense last season. Morris has started since midway through his freshman season and should continue to improve. Iowa will need its linebackers to make plays behind a young defensive line.

8. Michael Mauti, Penn State, senior: We love Mauti's playmaking ability and sense for the game, and we love the leadership he's shown through the Nittany Lions' crisis. We just hate the fact that he hasn't been able to stay healthy during his career. Here's hoping for some luck in that department in his final go-round, and if so, he has a chance to be among the very best linebackers in the conference.

9. Kenny Demens, Michigan, senior: Demens was named the Wolverines' top linebacker last season after recording 94 tackles and three sacks. He should be a leader of a veteran group that might provide the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012.

10. Will Compton, Nebraska, senior: Last week at Big Ten media days, Bo Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers' defense. He'll also look to become the team's top playmaking linebacker in the absence of Lavonte David. He had 82 tackles a year ago, including excellent performances in key victories over Michigan State and Penn State.
With media days in our rearview mirror, we jump back into our preseason Big Ten position rankings. Last week we unveiled our rankings for individual defensive linemen. Now it's time to look at the defensive line units as a whole.

Remember, these rankings are based heavily on last year's performance and who returns to the fold, with potential considered as well. Let's get to the guys up front who make the entire defense go.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Phil Sears/US PresswireJohn Simon leads one of the Big Ten's best defensive fronts.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a chance to field one of the top defensive lines in the country. John Simon is a beast, while Johnathan Hankins has as much potential to dominate his position as any Big Ten player. Nathan Williams could be a big contributor coming back from knee surgery. This group is already really deep, and with standout freshmen like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Von Pittman coming in, it could be scary good.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans will rival Ohio State for the league's top defensive front. You know all about end William Gholston and his unlimited potential. Marcus Rush gets overshadowed at the other end spot, but he put up an outstanding freshmen season. Anthony Rashad White should be an anchor inside. The big question is who replaces Jerel Worthy, but the team is flush with candidates. This is another very deep defensive line.

3. Purdue: Don't be surprised by this high ranking. Kawann Short might be the top defensive lineman in the league, and is poised for a monster senior season. Bruce Gaston gives him a veteran running mate. Defensive end Ryan Russell is coming on and might be due for a major breakout this season. This should be the strength of Danny Hope's defense.

4. Penn State: Devon Still is gone, but the Nittany Lions should continue to be strong up front. Jordan Hill looks to follow Still's lead and become a superstar as a senior. Sean Stanley is a speedy rusher off the edge, and Pete Massaro returns from a knee injury. DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes could become bigger contributors.

5. Illinois: Star power lifts the Illini to this high ranking, as defensive end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence should be among the very best at their positions in the league. It's just a matter of finding out how the others -- like end Justin Staples and tackle Glenn Foster -- raise their games around them to help make up for the loss of sack master Whitney Mercilus.

6. Nebraska: Too low for the Huskers? Perhaps. They do bring back several veterans, like Cam Meredith, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler, while expecting more from Eric Martin. Still, this group did not dominate enough for my taste last season, and seems to lack the one true pass-rushing stud. But Nebraska has the potential to have a very stout line.

7. Michigan: It's probably wrong to doubt a line overseen by Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. Yet this unit lost three starters from a year ago, including stars Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. A lot depends on how Will Campbell performs as a senior, and whether Craig Roh can take his game to the next level. There isn't much experience at all behind the starters.

8. Wisconsin: Can David Gilbert stay healthy and emerge as a fearsome pass-rusher? That's the key to the Badgers' defensive line, without a doubt. Tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are rock solid, though the loss of Jordan Kohout hurts the depth inside. Brendan Kelly should be good against the run. But Wisconsin needs a fast player on the perimeter, and that's where Gilbert comes in.

9. Iowa: This is a frighteningly young and inexperienced group heading into the season for Iowa, though that doesn't mean it lacks talent. Steve Bigach is the closest thing to a seasoned veteran. The Hawkeyes will need a lot of players to raise their performance, including Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis.

10. Northwestern: This has been a trouble spot for the Wildcats, and could be again in 2012 with the loss of both starting tackles. Tyler Scott and Quetin Williams are back at end, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson. Can Will Hampton and Brian Arnfeldt hold the fort down inside the tackles?

11. Indiana: Defensive line is one of the few places where the Hoosiers have experienced veterans. Seniors Adam Replogle and Larry Black lead the way at tackle. Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis showed some things as freshmen pass-rushers last season. Still, this group must play better overall.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers have had trouble putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks for the past couple of seasons, and now they're replacing both interior linemen. Jerry Kill has talked highly of 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior Ra'Shede Hageman's offseason, and Roland Johnson comes over from junior college to help out. D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry will bring speed, but not much bulk to the defensive end spots.
We're continuing to rank each position group in the Big Ten, both by individual player and as units.

We wrapped up the offense on Tuesday and are now turning our attention to the defense. Let's start up front, with the top individual defensive linemen in the league heading into 2012. Remember that we're basing this heavily off 2011 production, along with consideration given for 2012 potential.

A drumroll, please:

1. John Simon, DE, Ohio State: Others on this list may have more physical gifts, but few get as much out of their talent as Simon. A nonstop motor and off-the-charts work ethic are his best qualities. He had 16 tackles for loss and can play just about anywhere on the line. He seems poised for huge things this fall.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short likely would have been selected in the first three rounds had he enter the NFL draft, but he's got his eyes set on the first round. He just might get there, too, as an exceptionally athletic 310-pounder who wreaks havoc in the middle. He had 17 tackles for loss last year, the same number as Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still.

3. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: No one has more potential than Gholston, and he's already pretty productive, too. A second-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, he had a breakout showing against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. He can be scary good.

[+] EnlargeDefensive lineman Johnathan Hankins
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMany believe Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins could be a first-round draft pick next year.
4. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: Speaking of high ceilings, there are many who think Hankins is a first-round pick in next year's draft. It's easy to see why, since he's a massive, 317-pounder who's quick on his feet. He had 11 TFLs last season, and that number could go up.

5. Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois: So far, this list proves one thing: The Big Ten is once again stacked at defensive tackle. Spence is one of the strongest players in the league and a big reason for the Illini defensive success a year ago. He could parlay a big junior year into a high NFL draft pick next April.

6. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: Buchanan is undersized at 240 pounds and was overshadowed by teammate Whitney Mercilus last year. But no returning Big Ten defensive linemen had more than his 7.5 sacks a year ago. Explosive off the edge, he can also drop back and play outside linebacker when not terrorizing quarterbacks.

7. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State: Hill has been a sturdy, steady player in the middle of the defensive line and complemented Still last season. The question is whether he can become more than that and take his game to the next level as Still did in 2011. And, of course, whether he'll be wearing a Penn State uniform while doing so.

8. Craig Roh, DE, Michigan: The Wolverines need Roh to take his game to the star level in 2012 as he moves to the strong side to replace Ryan Van Bergen. Roh is undersized for the position but has worked hard to add weight. He's got the necessary speed and athleticism to be an impact end.

9. Cameron Meredith, DE, Nebraska: Meredith has started 27 consecutive games for Nebraska and has been effective both as a pass-rusher and a run-stopper. He looks to be a leader on the defense this season.

10. Marcus Rush, DE, Michigan State: Jerel Worthy got most of the headlines last season, and Gholston steals the spotlight now, but Rush is a very promising player in his own right. He collected 12 tackles for loss and four sacks last year as a redshirt freshman and is sure to get plenty of opportunities this season as teams game plan to stop Gholston.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position rankings with a look at the offensive line units.

On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.

Away we go:

1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US Presswire With top tackle Taylor Lewan returning, Michigan fields one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines might have the top tackle in the league with junior Taylor Lewan, and guard Patrick Omameh is a three-year starter. Senior Ricky Barnum is taking over for David Molk at center. Michael Schofield should be solid at right tackle, though the left guard spot remains a competition. It should be a strong starting group, though depth here is a major concern.

3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.

4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers lost three starters from last year's line, but much like Wisconsin, this is a group that usually reloads. Guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi provide nice building blocks, with Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez solidifying the tackle spots. The big question here is center and who will replace Mike Caputo.

5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had their problems up front last year and now are implementing a new offensive system. Urban Meyer wasn't happy with the group's work ethic in January but felt much better about them by the end of spring. Jack Mewhort replaces Mike Adams at left tackle, while Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall try to live up their potential at guard. Corey Linsley earned Meyer's praise for his work at center. Keep an eye on the right tackle spot, where former tight end Reid Fragel is now the first-stringer. But true freshman Taylor Decker is pushing him.

6. Purdue: Injuries kept the Boilers from building much cohesion this spring, but this can be a sturdy group when healthy. Three starters are back, with Trevor Foy moving from right to left tackle. This is an experienced bunch, but Danny Hope wants to see more dominance. Senior center Rick Schmeig should be a leader

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace three starters, including NFL draft picks Reilly Reiff and Adam Gettis. But Iowa usually fields good offensive lines, and hopes are high for this year's edition. The leader is center James Ferentz, who now will be coached by his older brother, Brian Ferentz. Much will depend on how players like Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff develop.

8. Northwestern: The Wildcats lost two valuable starters in tackle Al Netter and Ben Burkett but return three-year starter Brian Mulroe at guard and promising sophomore center Brandon Vitabile. There should be good depth up front, but can the Wildcats generate a consistent rushing attack?

9. Penn State: The good news is that the Nittany Lions played better than expected last year on the offensive line. The bad news is four starters are gone, not to mention some potential transfers in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. There is still talent here, including guard John Urschel and tackle Donovan Smith. But the least experienced line in the league will have to learn a new offensive system.

10. Illinois: There was little excuse for the Illini O-line to play as bad as it did last year with standout players Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic in the mix. Pocic is back this year at center, though he might take some snaps at tackle as well. Young players like sophomore Simon Cvijanovic and redshirt freshman Ted Karras will need to come on. This unit should be improved, but it ranks low based on last year's finish.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill shuffled this group last year and played a lot of youngsters. It's still a relatively inexperienced unit, but there is hope for improvement. Junior left tackle Ed Olson has the best chance to be a star.

12. Indiana: Center Will Matte is one of the most experienced linemen in the league. But beyond him are several young players, including three true sophomores who started as freshmen last year. There's nowhere to go but up.
It's time to wrap up the offensive side of the ball in our preseason rankings of the best players by position in the Big Ten for 2012.

Remember that these rankings are weighed heavily on past performance while taking potential into account. We've already gone over all the skill players; now we turn to the guys who do the dirty work in the trenches to make those big plays possible. Our offensive linemen rankings will give an edge to tackles over interior players since those positions are harder to man.

Here's how we see the best Big Ten big uglies (we say that with love) right now:

1. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan, junior: Lewan was a big key to the Wolverines' success last year, and if he continues to mature on and off the field, he could be an All-American. The 6-foot-8, 302-pounder is already being projected as a first-round pick in next year's draft.

[+] EnlargeRicky Wagner
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDoes Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema have another Outland Trophy winner in left tackle Ricky Wagner?
2. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin, senior: Bret Bielema likes to point out that every left tackle who has started for him has won the Outland Trophy. Wagner has a chance to keep that going in his second year guarding the blind side for the Badgers. The 6-6, 322-pounder doesn't talk a whole lot, but he says a lot with his play. Some have projected him as a top-five pick in next year's draft.

3. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin, junior: Frederick was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year, which doesn't fully denote his value. He started 11 games at guard, then moved to center for two games when Peter Konz was injured, including a start in the Big Ten championship game. Frederick will start the season at center this year, and if he makes as much improvement as Wisconsin linemen often do, he could be in line for national awards.

4. Chris McDonald, G, Michigan State: While the Spartans' offensive line went through some upheaval last season, McDonald provided an anchor. He started every game and played more snaps than any other lineman on the team, surrendering only one sack on the season. He has started 17 consecutive games at right guard and 26 overall.

5. Spencer Long, G, Nebraska, junior: Long is a former walk-on who didn't play in 2010 but started every game in 2011. And he made quite an impression, helping pave the way for the Huskers' powerful running attack. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder is expected to be a leader on the Nebraska line this year.

6. James Ferentz, C, Iowa, senior: Ferentz is more than just the coach's son; he's one of the most valuable offensive linemen in the league. An honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last year, he started in all 13 games and played just about every offensive down for the second straight season. With some new starters moving into place on the line, Ferentz will need to be a leader this year, and we know he's got that in his genes.

7. Graham Pocic, C, Illinois, senior: Pocic is awfully big for a center at 6-7 and 310 pounds and likely projects as a guard at the next level. But he's doing a great job at his current position, starting the past 26 games for the Illini. He was named the team's offensive MVP this spring and looks poised for a big season.

8. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State, junior: Mewhort moved around last year for the Buckeyes, starting at right and left guard while also playing some right tackle. He'll start at left tackle this season, taking over for NFL second-round pick Mike Adams. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he's got ideal size for the position.

9. Patrick Omameh, G, Michigan, senior: Along with Lewan, Omameh is one of the leaders of Michigan's offensive line. He has started 29 consecutive games at right guard and is as dependable as they come.

10. Will Matte, C, Indiana, senior: Matte has been one of the bright spots for the Hoosiers the past few years. He started the first 32 games of his career before getting injured in Week 8 against Wisconsin last year. He was a frequent game captain in 2011 and will be counted on to help guide his young teammates.
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
Our preseason position rankings march on as we wrap up the offensive skill positions. Today we take a look at the top individual receivers and tight ends heading into the 2012 season.

In years past, we did not include the tight ends with this list. But with so many question marks and inexperience at receiver in this league right now, it would have been tough to come up with 10 deserving names. So we decided to combine the two positions this time around, as the Big Ten is not lacking for strong tight ends. Remember these rankings are heavily weighed on past performance with consideration given to 2012 potential. (Northwestern's Kyle Prater, who has not been ruled eligible as of this writing, was not considered because of his uncertain situation).

Without further ado ...

1. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: The no-doubt top pick, as Abbrederis is far and away the league's leading returning receiver (933 yards and eight touchdowns in '11). Yet some questions remain, such as the health of his injured foot and whether he can be a true No. 1 target without Nick Toon on the other side and Russell Wilson throwing the ball.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Davis
Reese Strickland/US PresswireMuch is expected from Iowa receiver Keenan Davis after his strong 2011 season.
2. Keenan Davis, Iowa: Expectations are high that Davis will turn in a big senior year after catching 50 passes for 713 yards a year ago. He'll need to develop more consistency to make up for Marvin McNutt's production. Also keep an eye on teammate Kevonte Martin-Manley.

3. Roy Roundtree, Michigan: Roundtree will look to recapture his 2010 form, when he had 72 catches for 935 yards. As Michigan's go-to receiver this year, he'll need to put up big stats.

4. Antavian Edison, Purdue: With his legal troubles erased, Edison can focus on having a banner senior year. He had 584 receiving yards a year ago despite Purdue's rotating quarterback situation. The passing game should be better this year, and Edison will be the top target.

5. Kenny Bell, Nebraska: Bell led the Huskers with 461 receiving yards last year as a freshman, which is even more impressive since Nebraska was not exactly a high-powered passing team. He has the potential to be even better in 2012, especially if Taylor Martinez has improved as a thrower.

6. Justin Brown, Penn State: Brown has been the secondary option to Derek Moye the past couple of seasons and now gets the chance to show that he's a No. 1 receiver. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, he has the right build for the job. Can the Nittany Lions' quarterbacks get him the ball?

7. Kofi Hughes, Indiana: The Hoosiers' passing game was anything but smooth last year, as Damarlo Belcher got kicked off the team and three different quarterbacks started games. Through it all, Hughes emerged as the team's top wideout by hauling in 35 catches for 536 yards. Indiana will look to pass more this year, and Hughes should stand to benefit from it.

8. Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin: The first tight end to crack this list, and with good reason. Pedersen has 30 catches a year ago and led all Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown grabs. He's a quarterback's best friend, and we bet Danny O'Brien can't wait to throw Pedersen's way.

9. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State: While Stoneburner hasn't had the best summer, we fully expect him to be a big weapon for the Buckeyes at tight end this year. That's both because of Urban Meyer's history of using the tight end and the Buckeyes' lack of proven stars at the wideout position. Stoneburner somehow had seven touchdowns out of only 14 receptions last year, but the ball should be coming to him a lot more frequently this season.

10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa: I wrote last month about Fiedorowicz's potential for a breakthrough campaign. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end came on strong at the end of last season and should be a key cog in Iowa's attack in 2012.
On Monday, we ranked the top individual quarterbacks in the Big Ten heading into the 2012 season. As we'll do with every group, we now take a look at the quarterback units as a whole throughout the league.

Having a good starter is critical here, but depth also matters. Quarterbacks can take a beating during the course of a season, so teams without experienced backups will fall a notch in these rankings. Away we go:

[+] EnlargeCaleb TerBush
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireCaleb TerBush threw for 1,905 yards and 13 TDs last season.
1. Purdue: Do the Boilermakers have one of the top quarterbacks in the league? No. But they have something no other Big Ten team can claim: three players with significant starting experience. The benefit of dealing with injuries the past couple of years is that now Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are all seasoned veterans who can be interchanged by head coach Danny Hope. That gives Purdue the best quarterback depth in the Big Ten.

2. Michigan: The Wolverines have the league's most experienced quarterback in star Denard Robinson. They also know that if something happens to Shoelace -- or if they just want a change of pace -- Devin Gardner can fill in capably. Redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy is more of a pocket passer who showed some things this spring.

3. Nebraska: We know all about Taylor Martinez. The question is, how good is Brion Carnes, his backup? That's hard to say, since Carnes hasn't played much, but he is entering his second season as the No. 2. Redshirt freshmen Tyson Broekemeier and Bronson Marsh and true freshmen Tommy Armstrong add depth if not experience.

4. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are ranked here mainly on the strength of James Vandenberg, who's reliable and durable. Things drop off after him, with senior John Wienke and redshirt freshman Jake Rudock the likely backup plans. Junior college transfer Cody Sokol is expected to redshirt, though that could change in case of emergency.

5. Ohio State: Braxton Miller should be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for the next three years. But what if he gets hurt, which seems like a real possibility as much as he runs the ball? Urban Meyer said Kenny Guiton showed marked improvement this spring. True freshman Cardale Jones was highly regarded on the recruiting trail.

6. Minnesota: While senior MarQueis Gray is the clear starter, sophomore Max Shortell gained valuable experience last year in key spots. And the Gophers are excited about the future with true freshman Philip Nelson, who was a major recruiting coup.

7. Illinois: Reilly O'Toole saw a lot of action as a true freshman and will continue to push Nathan Scheelhaase for playing time. Junior Miles Osei could serve as third-string QB.

8. Wisconsin: There's a reason the Badgers brought in another graduate transfer. This spring, Wisconsin had only two healthy quarterbacks -- Joe Brennan and Joel Stave, the latter of whom pushed ahead in the competition. Danny O'Brien should solidify the position, but with injuries to Curt Phillips, Jon Budmayr and Bart Houston, depth is still a concern.

9. Northwestern: Much depends on how Kain Colter improves as a passer. Sophomore Trevor Siemian completed 16 of 26 attempts last year and could give the Wildcats a different look if they want to move Colter around.

10. Michigan State: The Spartans got a preview this spring at what might happen if Andrew Maxwell gets hurt. Freshman Connor Cook had to lead both offenses in the spring game, as depth is a pressing issue here. Maxwell should be very good, but Michigan State still enters the season without a quarterback who's ever played significant downs.

11. Indiana: Tre Roberson had a promising rookie campaign yet felt some stiff competition this spring from junior college transfer Cameron Coffman. The Hoosiers will bring in promising prospect Nate Sudfeld, too. So even with two former starters -- Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker -- transferring in the offseason, Indiana should have decent depth here.

12. Penn State: Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter. Still, the Nittany Lions have earned the bottom spot in these rankings with poor performance at the position over the past couple of years. Rob Bolden has not capitalized on his opportunities, and fan favorite Paul Jones has not played a down in college. At least Penn State has nowhere to go but up.
Denard RobinsonRick Osentoski/US PresswireLast season, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson passed for 20 touchdowns and rushed for 16.
Last week, Adam kicked off the preseason position rankings by looking at running back, the league's most star-studded position in 2012.

Today, we're going to take a look at the position that puts every player under the spotlight: quarterback. We're ranking the top 10 individual players at each spot and then offering team rankings a little later on. These rankings are based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point.

Quarterback is an intriguing group heading into '12. Here's our Top 10:

1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, senior: Say what you will about Robinson's faults -- and we've said plenty about his sometimes erratic throws and Big Ten worst 15 interceptions in 2011. Robinson remains one of the best playmakers in the country and a three-year starter who's got plenty of heroic moments under his belt. He showed improved passing mechanics this spring and should benefit from his second year under Al Borges. And we all know what he can do with his feet. With the league's top precision passers from 2011 all having moved on, Robinson inherits the top spot.

2. James Vandenberg, Iowa, senior: Only 17 returning players in the FBS threw for more yards in 2011 than Vandenberg, who had 3,022, plus 25 touchdowns. His completion percentage needs to improve, as does his road performance, and he won't have Marvin McNutt around anymore. But he's easily the most polished pocket passer in the league heading into the season.

3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, sophomore: Miller still has a lot to learn and he'll be doing so in an entirely new offensive system. Yet he showed flashes of brilliance last year, such as his performance against Michigan or his game-winning play versus Wisconsin. He's got the athleticism to be a tremendous dual threat quarterback. Matched with Urban Meyer's creativity, Miller has enormous potential.

4. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, junior: Martinez put in a lot of time this offseason working on his throwing motion. His dedication to self-correction is very encouraging, and a better understanding of Tim Beck's offense plus more experienced receivers could lead to a higher completion percentage than last year's 56.3. If Martinez can become a reliable passer to go along with his explosive running skills, look out.

5. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, senior: Gray had a rocky beginning to the season as he adjusted back to the quarterback position and a new coaching staff. But in his last five games, he averaged 255 yards of total offense. Of returning Big Ten players, only Robinson, Vandenberg and Martinez were responsible for more total yardage than Gray last season. Like many on this list, Gray has worked on improving his mechanics and accuracy. There isn't a more impressive physical specimen at quarterback than this 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP PhotoCan QB Nathan Scheelhaase lead the Illini to a better end-of-season performance this year?
6. Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin, junior: O'Brien has yet to play a down of Big Ten football but is the presumed starter for Wisconsin. The Badgers hope the Maryland transfer is more like the player of 2010 (2,438 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) than 2011 (1,648 passing yards, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Wisconsin's offensive line and running game should create plenty of open passing lanes, and if O'Brien takes advantage of that he could quickly and easily climb this list.

7. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, junior: After a promising freshman campaign and solid start to 2011, Scheelhaase struggled along with the entire Illini offense. He bounced back with a good bowl game performance against UCLA and now must master the new spread attack under Tim Beckman. There are always going to be questions about Scheelhaase's size and arm strength but not about his intelligence and toughness. Does he have enough skill position complements this year?

8. Kain Colter, Northwestern, junior: Is Colter simply an athlete playing quarterback? Or can he become much more than that? Those are big questions heading into the year for a guy who filled in quite nicely for Dan Persa last year. Colter has elite athleticism but only attempted 22 passes in Northwestern's final 10 games. He could be helped by perhaps the league's deepest receiving corps.

9. Caleb TerBush, Purdue: Though he's being pushed by veterans Robert Marve and Rob Henry, TerBush got the vote of confidence as the starter from Danny Hope after spring ball. Thrust into a starter's role because of injuries to start last season, he improved as the year went on. He'll need to continue working on his decision-making, because the Boilermakers won't hesitate to go to one of their other options.

10. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Maxwell has attempted only 51 career passes in mostly mop-up duty. But he has spent four years in the Spartans' system, being groomed under Kirk Cousins. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he's got the physical and mental makeup needed to be a standout Big Ten quarterback. He just needs more experience.

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