Two years ago in the Big Ten, running backs grabbed the headlines. Last season, it was supposed to be the year of the quarterback, although some of the preseason hype fell flat.
Another season brings a new debate. As we examine the top position battles of the spring this week on every Big Ten roster, let’s take a broader look across the league at positions that may carry the flag for the league in 2016. Our writers discuss:
Brian Bennett: Cornerback
You want to talk deep position groups? How about the one with a returning national award winner and another All-American? Yes, it could be a long year for receivers in the Big Ten, given the top-notch cover guys hanging around. They include reigning Thorpe Award winner Desmond King of Iowa and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, an All-American last season. Northwestern’s Matthew Harris is an underrated pass defender, while Ohio State insiders expect Gareon Conley to take the next step toward stardom. Minnesota continues to produce standout defensive backs, and senior Jalen Myrick should be the latest. Maryland’s Will Likely is a big-play machine, while Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton is entering his third year as a starter. Michigan State’s young cornerbacks should improve this year, especially if Vayante Copeland is healthy. It should be a banner year for Big Ten corners.
Mitch Sherman: Running back
Was it just two years ago that Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah ran wild in this league? Upon their departure and the loss after the 2015 season Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Indiana’s Jordan Howard, it seemed the league may need some time to regroup in the backfield. Not so, with the likes of Saquon Barkley at Penn State, Markell Jones at Purdue, Minnesota’s Shannon Brooks, Ke’Shawn Vaughn at Illinois and Michigan State’s L.J. Scott. And those are just the top freshmen from 2015. All are threats to rush for 1,000 yards next season. Barkley got there in his first year, in fact, as did Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who returns as a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and the premier workhorse among Big Ten backs. He is far from the lone star, though. Don’t forget Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, limited to four games last year because of injuries, and Michigan’s De’Veon Smith, who appears ready for a big senior year. Robert Martin and Josh Hicks at Rutgers are back after combining to rush for 1,437 yards. Iowa’s LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley form a nice duo, as do Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo at Nebraska. League-wide, the depth is impressive.
Dan Murphy: Defensive Line
Despite losing the likes of Joey Bosa, Carl Nassib and Yannick Ngakoue, the Big Ten will remain in good shape on the defensive front again this year. Michigan State's Malik McDowell may be one the country's most dominant defenders in 2016 when surrounded by a reloaded Spartan line. Ohio State is in good shape with Sam Hubbard returning and Nick Bosa taking over for his older brother. Michigan expects to have its best group in a long time, led by a deep and veteran core that will soon be joined by the country's top-rated freshman. Other individuals to look out for in the trenches next fall include Darius Hamilton at Rutgers and Dawuane Smoot from Illinois.