Spring practice has allowed some players to establish themselves as the new cream of the crop on rosters across the Big Ten. While summer might bring another shake-up with the arrival of more freshmen and transfers, it’s time to take a look at the best players on campus for each school right now.
After rolling through the top-10 lists for Big Ten East Division teams last week, now it's time for the West. Up next: Minnesota.
1. QB Mitch Leidner: Unquestionably one of the toughest dudes in the Big Ten, Leidner has one more season left in control of the Minnesota offense and one final chance to take the next step as a passer. The Gophers have made no secret of their desire to improve their aerial attack, and the tireless Leidner will no doubt be working hard to ensure it heading into summer workouts.
2. TE Brandon Lingen: The Gophers didn’t have many problems replacing an NFL-caliber tight end last season, simply plugging Lingen into the lineup to fill the void left by Maxx Williams and watching him develop into another consistent, reliable target. At 6-foot-5, 247 pounds and with more experience under his belt, Lingen might emerge as one of the most productive players at his position in the league.
3. RB Shannon Brooks: The rising sophomore didn’t need long to prove he could thrive in the rugged Big Ten, leading Minnesota in rushing during his first season on campus and raising expectations for what he has planned for an encore. After averaging 6 yards per carry with seven touchdowns a year ago, the ground game should continue to be a strength for the Gophers no matter what happens through the air.
4. DB Jalen Myrick: Minnesota’s pipeline in the secondary isn’t tapped out yet, and it’s Myrick’s turn to help continue the stingy tradition against the pass. Despite largely remaining in the shadows cast by Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray, Myrick snagged three interceptions a year ago and is poised to build on that campaign as a senior.
5. DB Damarius Travis: His only appearance a year ago offered a reminder of just how valuable the veteran can be defensively, making 10 tackles against TCU before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season and take a medical redshirt. If Travis can get back to the form he showed as a do-it-all junior two years ago, the Gophers will be dangerous again in the defensive backfield.
6. LB Jack Lynn: Nobody made a bigger impact for the Gophers in opposing backfields last season than Lynn, and the defense will be leaning heavily on him to keep building on that campaign and top his 11 tackles for loss from a year ago. A solid, steady performer, Lynn might not be a household name but could be one of the most productive defenders in the Big Ten this fall.
7. DL Steven Richardson: The Gophers could use a bit more pressure on the passer this season, and Richardson could help provide that even from the interior of the unit. The junior chipped in 3.5 sacks last season and has room to grow, but for a team that had only 22 collectively a year ago, Richardson is one of Minnesota’s most proven options up front.
8. RB Rodney Smith: As much as Minnesota might want to throw the ball more often, the backfield remains well stocked with dynamic, physical rushers. Smith didn’t show quite the same type of explosive ability as Brooks a year ago, but he can steadily pile up yards, take some hits and temp the coaching staff to keep the ball on the ground.
9. WR Drew Wolitarsky: With KJ Maye now gone, the Gophers need a new go-to target on the perimeter, and Wolitarsky appears ready to slide into that role. The senior proved to be nice complement to Maye a year ago as he finished second on the team with 39 receptions and three touchdowns, but Minnesota will need both of those totals to improve significantly to keep the passing attack moving forward.
10. K Ryan Santoso: The junior has a big leg, only missed four field goals last year and has delivered for the Gophers in the clutch, none of which should be overlooked in a league where special teams can still make a big difference. If Minnesota finds itself in close games this fall in what could be a wide-open race in the West Division, having a kicker it can count on could prove plenty useful -- and there's a chance Santoso might punt as well.