- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nationally, the countdown of top 100 players is rolling along, and to complement that list, a separate but no less important look at rankings solely within the Big Ten is continuing as well.
After kicking off the list with the opening five spots, the conference rolls into the top 20 with a decidedly defensive vibe today.
No. 16: Northwestern RB Justin Jackson
There wasn’t all that much for the Wildcats to get excited about offensively last season, so it's hard to imagine just how much worse the attack might have been without the rapid emergence of Jackson in the backfield. Few true freshmen anywhere had a larger impact than the Northwestern tailback, who proved quickly that he was capable of handling the every-down load and delivering an oversized impact at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. With a new quarterback leading the Wildcats, Jackson will continue to be the focal point for a program trying to get back to a bowl game this fall.
No. 17: Nebraska DT Maliek Collins
If the Cornhuskers are going to return to defensive glory and start living up to the reputation of the Blackshirts again, that effort will start in the trenches with one of the toughest tackles in the conference leading the way. Collins developed into both an invaluable playmaker in the backfield with 14 tackles for loss a year ago and became a respected voice in the locker room worthy of a captaincy this fall, raising the bar heading into his junior campaign. Collins will no doubt be setting the tone for Nebraska on the field and in the locker room.
No. 18: Minnesota CB Eric Murray
Neither side of the field is all that safe to throw to against the Golden Gophers, and the cornerback combination makes Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun something of a package deal in the rankings. Both are talented and would stand out among the best in the conference even without the help of a top-notch teammate alongside him, but the way the two work together is what makes Minnesota so tough against the pass. Murray is often tasked with the toughest schematic assignment and is projected as a better professional prospect, giving him the slightest of edges in the preseason poll.
No. 19: Minnesota CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun
The other half of Minnesota's formula to slow down the pass, Boddy-Calhoun has made it clear that when opportunities come his way, he knows how to capitalize. The senior nabbed five interceptions, forced two fumbles and recovered another during his breakout season for the Gophers a year ago. If quarterbacks are unwilling to test Murray, there’s a decent chance they might just be turning the football over anyway with Boddy-Calhoun lurking in the secondary.
No. 20: Ohio State S Vonn Bell
After surprisingly spending much of his freshman season playing a limited role, the decorated recruit left little doubt that the hype surrounding his decision to sign with Ohio State had been justified by exploding on the scene as a sophomore. Taking over a full-time starting role in the secondary, Bell led the Buckeyes with six interceptions, finished second on the team with 92 tackles and also scooped up a fumble for the national champions. With yet another year under his belt, the bar is only going to be raised for one of the most notable recruits landed by Urban Meyer since taking over the Buckeyes.