Big Ten: big ten position rankings 2011

Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Earlier, we took a look at the Big Ten linebackers by position groups. Now it's time to rank the individual players at that spot.

The first and second team All-Big Ten linebackers from both the coaches and media selections last season are all gone. The league isn't flush with established stars at the position, and it's time for a crop of new standouts to emerge. In fact, the top player on our board didn't even play in the Big Ten last season.

Here are how we see them right now:

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireNebraska's Lavonte David had a school-record 152 tackles last season.
1. Lavonte David, Nebraska, Sr.: The league might be light on returning Big Ten award-winners, but David racked up the recognition in the Big 12 in 2010. And with good reason. A junior-college transfer, he had to take on a large role with Will Compton and Sean Fisher injured, sometimes playing as the only linebacker on the field. He responded with a school record 152 tackles. David has gotten stronger in the offseason and will hope his added muscle plus his speed and instincts help him against the more run-oriented Big Ten offenses.

2. Michael Mauti, Penn State, Sr: If Mauti can just stay healthy, he should challenge for All-Big Ten and perhaps All-America honors. But he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and was only able to finish nine games last season because of ankle and shoulder problems. He has been highly productive when not hampered by injuries and should be the leader of a deep and talented bunch for the Nittany Lions.

3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, Soph.: Much like Mauti, Borland just needs to stay on the field. He was the 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year after recording 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a rookie. But he missed most of last season and this spring with shoulder problems. The Badgers need him at full strength to live up to their considerable promise this season.

4. James Morris, Iowa, Soph.: As a true freshman in 2010, Morris had 70 tackles and started six games at middle linebacker. He starred in the Insight Bowl victory against Missouri with seven tackles. Morris looks like a rising star in this league.

5. Gary Tinsley, Minnesota, Sr.: Tinsley led the Gophers and finished ninth in the Big Ten with 90 stops a year ago in his first season as a starter. He's experienced and productive and should be a leader for a Minnesota defense that's looking to become tougher.

6. Andrew Sweat, Ohio State, Sr.: Overshadowed by Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, Sweat is now the veteran in the Buckeyes' linebacker corps. He had 41 tackles a year ago, and that number should only rise this season as he takes on more of a leadership role.

7. Ian Thomas, Illinois, Sr: With Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey moving on to the pro ranks, Thomas needs to hold down the fort. He's got the tools to do so. A starter for the past 25 games, he led the Illini with 95 tackles in 2009 before dipping down to 67 a year ago. He'll have plenty of opportunities to make stops this season.

8. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, Jr.: We're at the point in this list where it's time to make some projections. Hodges, a converted safety, has shown glimpses of serious potential in limited time. He had a good spring and could be primed to really take off this season. Also watch out for Khairi Fortt among the Nittany Lions linebackers.

9. Jeff Thomas, Indiana, Sr: Thomas was second on the Hoosiers with 82 tackles a year ago and will be counted on to lead the defense this season. A 100-tackle season is well within reach.

10. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, Jr.: Like Borland, Taylor emerged as a star his freshman year in 2009. He has started all 19 games he has played in his career and finished second on the team last season with eight tackles for loss and two interceptions. Getting him and Borland healthy and on the field together would be big for the Badgers.

Just missed: Iowa's Tyler Nielsen, Michigan State's Chris Norman and Max Bullough, Nebraska's Sean Fisher, Michigan's Kenny Demens, Minnesota's Mike Rallis and Ohio State's Etienne Sabino.
You know the season is getting closer when the position rankings are under way. By now, you've likely seen the group rankings for Big Ten running backs. Now it's time to rank the individual players.

These rankings are based in part on past performance but also on how players project for the 2011 season. The Big Ten loses three of its top four running backs (Mikel Leshoure, John Clay and Adam Robinson) but several promising players return and others are primed for breakout seasons. One thing that stands out about this year's running back crop is the number of non-seniors.

Here's the top 10 entering '11:

[+] EnlargeJames White
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMIJames White rushed for 14 touchdowns and more than a thousand yards on 156 carries last season.
1. James White, Wisconsin, sophomore: Wisconsin is no stranger to elite running backs, but White provides a different element to the ground game with his speed and elusiveness. He came out of nowhere to win Wisconsin's backup job in preseason camp and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He finished fourth among Big Ten running backs in rush yards but averaged nearly a yard per carry more than any of them (6.7). White worked on strengthening his lower body in the winter and should be even better this fall.

2. Edwin Baker, Michigan State, junior: The man known as "Rock" flattened the competition for much of 2010, racking up 1,201 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. He boasts breakaway speed but isn't afraid to mix it up between the tackles. Don't be fooled by Baker's 5-foot-9 frame -- he's extremely sturdy and can take a pounding. Although he'll be pushed by teammates Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, Baker expects to build on the 2010 season and has set even higher goals for the fall. The main challenge for Baker is to record big rushing performances against elite defenses.

3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, junior: Some might see this as too lofty for Ball, who only came on in the second half of the 2010 season. But what a half-season it was, as he racked up 777 rush yards and 15 touchdowns in Wisconsin's final five games. These rankings aim to project the coming season, and if Ball can build on his finish to 2010, look out. It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries between Ball and White, but you can make a case for Ball as the Badgers' featured back. Like White, Ball worked on his body during the offseason and should be a little lighter on his feet.

4. Dan Herron, Ohio State, senior: Respect hasn't come easy for Herron, especially among Buckeyes fans, but he earned some with his performance in Big Ten play last fall. Herron recorded all three of his 100-yard rushing performances against league opponents (Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Like Ball, he finished strong with 800 rush yards in the final seven games. Herron also reached the end zone in all but one contest last fall. His five-game suspension to open the season could impact his carries and his ability to compete for postseason awards, but Ohio State shouldn't dismiss "Boom."

5. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Burkhead in Nebraska's first season as a Big Ten member. He turned in a solid performance as a sophomore, recording 951 rush yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Although Burkhead can be used in a variety of ways in the offense, he's a good bet to become Nebraska's featured running back after a strong spring. He seemed to grasp the new offense well and will challenge Big Ten defenses with his speed. While Burkhead will be pushed by heralded incoming recruit Aaron Green and others, he seems ready for a breakout season.

6. Marcus Coker, Iowa, sophomore: It's dangerous to take too much from one game, but Coker looked like the real deal in the Insight Bowl. Starting for the suspended Robinson, Coker earned bowl MVP honors with a record 219 rush yards and two touchdowns against Missouri. He showed speed on a 62-yard score, but he looks like a true power back who should only improve over time. Coker drew good reviews in spring practice and was elected to the Iowa's Leadership Council, a good sign. Iowa isn't deep at running back, so Coker will have plenty of opportunities to showcase himself this fall.

[+] EnlargeRalph Bolden
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRalph Bolden hasn't played since the 2009 season after an ACL injury sidelined him for the year.
7. Ralph Bolden, Purdue, junior: A lot depends on how Bolden performs following a lengthy ACL rehab, but unlike some others on this list, he has proven himself as a featured back in the Big Ten. Bolden started all 12 games in 2009 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing third in the league in rushing average (77.9 ypg) and second in rushing touchdowns (11). He also can be effective as a receiver after recording 20 receptions for 261 yards in 2009. Bolden fought back from an ACL injury in high school and performed well. Can he do it again?

8. Silas Redd, Penn State, sophomore: This is another projection pick, a player who did some impressive things in 2010 but should contribute much more this coming season. Penn State needs a featured back after Evan Royster's departure, and Redd has the tools to fill the void. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman and finished with 437 rush yards despite somewhat limited opportunities. Redd's speed and quickness give him a chance to be special, but he'll need to show he can take a pounding as an every-down back. He'll be pushed by both Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, but we expect Redd to enter the fall as Penn State's No. 1 back.

9. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, sophomore: Until hitting the proverbial freshman wall last October, Bell was one of the Big Ten's best running backs. He racked up 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Spartans' first six games. While Bell didn't do much down the stretch, another offseason in the program should help him immensely. At 6-2 and 237 pounds, Bell has the body to become a featured back in this league. And despite his size, he showed last fall that he can record big plays. Bell certainly has to prove himself again, but you have to like his chances.

10. Jason Ford, Illinois, senior: Ford has more game experience than most of the men on this list. His career numbers include 277 carries, 19 rush touchdowns and 1,362 rush yards to go along with 27 career receptions. Ford's career yards-per-carry average of 4.92 also stands out. The big question is whether he can take the next step and become an every-down back for Illinois, which wants to run the ball and boasts one of the league's best offensive lines. Ford was limited this spring and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to see more from him, but coach Ron Zook sounds like a believer. He's a big back who has a chance for a big senior season.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.