Big Ten: Emerging players spring 2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Spring practice is often the most competitive time of the year for a football team, and players on both sides of the ball take full advantage.

Here's a snapshot of who emerged for each Big Ten team, from what I've seen, heard and read.

ILLINOIS

Offense
Mikel LeShoure RB, So.
-- After getting his weight right, LeShoure looks like the total package at running back. He'll complement fellow sophomore Jason Ford this fall.

Defense
Tavon Wilson, CB, Sr.
-- Vontae Davis' protégé appears ready to take over as the team's top cover corner. Like Davis, Wilson welcomes contact and has improved his tackling.

INDIANA

Offense
Darius Willis RB, Fr.
-- Heralded recruit looked the part this spring after battling groin, shoulder and back injuries last fall. Willis rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries in the spring game.

Defense
Larry Black Jr., DE, Fr.
-- Defensive tackle is a major question mark, but Black made a strong push for a starting job and finished with two sacks in the spring game.

IOWA

Offense
Marvin McNutt, WR, So.
-- Converted quarterback with excellent physical tools wowed the coaches this spring and moved to the top of the depth chart.

Defense
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Jr.
-- Clayborn is a known commodity, but he elevated his play as a pass-rusher and a leader on Iowa's defensive line.

MICHIGAN

Offense
Vincent Smith RB, Fr.
-- The bite-size Smith (5-foot-6, 158) stood out in a crowded offensive backfield, showcasing tremendous speed and agility.

Defense
Stevie Brown, S/LB, Sr.
-- The hybrid role in coordinator Greg Robinson's defense suits Brown, who won the Meyer Morton Award as the senior who made the most progress during spring drills.

MICHIGAN STATE

Offense
Brian Linthicum, TE, So. --
Clemson transfer worked himself into a crowded mix at tight end and should log plenty of field time this fall. He had six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Defense
Trenton Robinson, S, So. --
Head coach Mark Dantonio could not stop raving about Robinson, who provides even more depth in a stacked Spartans secondary.

MINNESOTA

Offense
MarQueis Gray, QB, Fr. --
With starter Adam Weber held out of contact this spring, Gray took a ton of snaps and capitalized, cementing himself as a 1a option for Minnesota. Expect the Gophers to incorporate a package of plays for Gray into every game plan.

Defense
Cedric McKinley, DE, Sr. --
McKinley built on a strong Insight Bowl performance and looks ready to take over for Willie VanDeSteeg as Minnesota's primary pass-rusher. He recorded three sacks in the spring game.

NORTHWESTERN

Offense
Jeravin Matthews, RB, So. --
The speedy Matthews made a smooth transition from wide receiver to running back and provides another option in a new-look backfield this fall.

Defense
Ben Johnson, LB, So.
-- Johnson cemented himself as Northwestern's third starting linebacker, impressing head coach Pat Fitzgerald with his speed and instincts. He broke up two passes in the spring game.

OHIO STATE

Offense
Brandon Saine, RB, Jr. --
The wait for big things from Saine might be over as the gifted junior stayed healthy this spring. He showcased excellent moves and wasn't afraid to take on tacklers and get right back up.

Defense
Devon Torrence, CB, Jr.
-- A physical corner with good athleticism, Torrence will continue to push Andre Amos for a starting spot this summer. The big question is whether he wants to continue playing baseball in the Houston Astros organization.

PENN STATE

Offense
Derek Moye, WR, So.
-- Moye has all the tools to be a top receiver in the Big Ten, and he seemed to seize the opportunity this spring as Penn State rebuilds at receiver.

Defense
Jack Crawford, DE, So. --
The Larry Johnson factory might have churned out another superstar pass-rusher as Crawford turned in a very impressive spring. He's still a little raw but has the skills to do major damage.

PURDUE

Offense
Ralph Bolden, RB, So.
-- Few players in the country had as good a spring as Bolden, who came out of nowhere to record 420 rushing yards and four touchdowns in scrimmages. He might be the frontrunner for the starting running back job entering the fall.

Defense
Kawann Short, DT, Fr.
-- Short made a strong push for a starting spot alongside Mike Neal on a solid Boilers defensive line. He can draw double teams and boasts impressive strength to generate push off the line.

WISCONSIN

Offense
Nick Toon, WR, So.
-- Wide receiver was a major question mark entering spring ball, and Toon made the most of his opportunity with an excellent performance. He boasts excellent size, speed and hands, and should enter the summer as a starter.

Defense
J.J. Watt, DE, So.
-- The Central Michigan transfer transformed his body during the offseason and saw dividends this spring, as he claimed a starting spot on the defensive line. Watt can play both end and tackle.

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