NCF Nation: 2012 Big Ten proving ground

Earlier this week, we took a look at five players in the Leaders Division with something to prove this fall.

Let's now turn our attention to the Legends Division.

Ready, set, go ...

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe pressure is on Taylor Martinez, who enters his third year as Nebraska's starting quarterback.
1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: To say it's all about the quarterback sounds a bit cliché, but the line truly applies to Nebraska this season. The Huskers return eight starters on offense and look strong at most of the positions, particularly running back. Nebraska's defense could replace star power with greater depth and a more detail-oriented approach. So in many ways, the Huskers' season comes down to Martinez, their third-year starter at quarterback. Martinez struggled with his passing in 2011, completing just 56.2 percent of his attempts and often looking uncomfortable in the pocket. He spent the offseason working on his footwork and drew good marks from the coaches this spring. Martinez will be operating in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons for the first time in his football career (college or high school). He's also fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him in 2010. Bottom line: his time is now.

2. Will Campbell, DT, Michigan: Wolverines fans see Campbell's size and potential as a space eater and continue to wait patiently for the big man to take the next step. There's no better time than this season as Michigan must replace standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The Wolverines could be very good in the defensive back seven, particularly in the secondary, but there are questions up front and Campbell is one of them. Campbell has been better in getting his weight under control, but the senior needs to show he can consistently display the effort and technique needed to make a difference in the interior of the line. A former five-star recruit, the 6-5, 322-pound Campbell has one final opportunity to shine. Michigan needs a big season from No. 73.

3. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: There's little doubt Michigan State will have one of the nation's best defenses for the second consecutive season. But the Spartans lose almost all of their key offensive skill players from 2011, and the biggest void is under center, where three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins departs. In steps Maxwell, who has spent years preparing for this moment in practice but lacks game experience (51 pass attempts in nine career games). Maxwell learned a lot from Cousins and has a personality that some liken to his predecessor. But after missing the second half of spring practice with a knee injury, he needs a strong summer as he builds chemistry with his mostly unproven receivers and tight ends. While Michigan State will be a more run-heavy team this fall with lead back Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned offensive line, the Spartans need Maxwell to establish himself if they intend to return to Indianapolis.

4. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa: Iowa's yet-to-be-named top running back could be listed here, but the Hawkeyes likely will be a pass-oriented team because of their uncertainty at tailback as well as the return of senior quarterback James Vandenberg. While Vandenberg seems to be adapting well to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the new system, he lacks many proven targets, especially after the departure of the Big Ten's top wide receiver, Marvin McNutt. Davis started 12 games last season and finished second on the squad in receptions (50) and receiving yards (713). The big question is whether he can take the next step and become a true No. 1 wide receiver. Coach Kirk Ferentz admitted Davis had an "up and down" spring, and missed the latter part of the session with an injury. Davis needs to show he can stay on the field, make consistent catches and give Vandenberg a reliable top target.

5. Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan: The Wolverines return arguably the Big Ten's most dynamic offensive backfield in quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The offense could be very dangerous this fall, but Michigan will need a bounce-back season from Roundtree. Michigan lacks depth at receiver following Junior Hemingway's departure and Darryl Stonum's dismissal. Roundtree flourished in the spread offense in 2010, leading the Wolverines with 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. But his production dropped off sharply last fall in the new offense (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs). Michigan gave Roundtree the No. 21 jersey worn by Hemingway in 2011, and Roundtree will step into Hemingway's role in the offense. He's the obvious No. 1 target for Robinson, but he has to show he can get it done in this offense.
Taking a page from our friends at the SEC blog, we're going to look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove during the 2012 season.

We'll break this up into divisions, starting with the Leaders.

Here are five players with plenty to prove this fall:

1. Matthew McGloin, QB, Penn State: New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien hasn't officially named his starting quarterback, but the expectation is McGloin will get the nod. McGloin has made 10 starts during the past two seasons but taken the majority of snaps for the Nittany Lions. He'll likely get the first shot to run O'Brien's straight-from-the-NFL offense, which will put a lot of pressure on the signal caller. Most folks have written off Penn State's passing attack after the past two seasons, but McGloin doesn't lack confidence and embraces the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State QB Matthew McGloin will likely get the first shot at running Bill O'Brien's new offense.
2. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: From the moment Ohio State introduced Urban Meyer as its next head coach in November, the assumption was that Miller would flourish in Meyer's spread scheme. Miller showed his speed and athleticism as a freshman last fall, but he rarely got to throw the ball in an ultra conservative scheme and completed only 54.1 percent of his passes. Although he impressed Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman with his passing skills this spring, he has to show consistency when the games begin this fall. Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver isn't a secret, and while Miller has a few nice weapons (Jake Stoneburner, Jordan Hall, maybe freshman Michael Thomas), he'll need to make things happen for the offense to click in Year 1.

3. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: The Illini have grown accustomed to producing elite defensive linemen, and the hope is that Buchanan will be the next surging star. Buchanan impressed the new coaching staff this spring with his explosiveness from the end spot. Illinois must replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). The Illini likely will be a defense-driven team because there's more continuity on that side of the ball. And while the overall defensive line looks strong, Buchanan can provide a major boost if he takes his game from good to great.

4. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin: Speaking of teams that mass-produce elite linemen, Wisconsin's success along the offensive front has been unparalleled in the Big Ten in recent years. The Badgers have had multiple All-Americans on the offensive line in each of the past two seasons. Who's the next star? All eyes are on Wagner, who has started 24 games at the tackle position in the past two seasons. He's entering his second year as the starting left tackle and will be protecting the blind side of the team's new starting quarterback. Wagner also will be instrumental in maintaining Wisconsin's rushing success behind Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball. Again, here's a guy who needs to take his game to the elite level.

5. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: The Boilers have a unique quarterback dynamic entering the season -- they have three players who have made multiple starts -- and it's hard to know where Henry fits into the mix. He would have been the starter in 2011 after a strong offseason, but he tore his ACL in late August and missed the year. Henry was limited this spring and needs to catch Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart. There's no doubt Henry is the best athlete of the bunch, but he'll need to convince the coaches he's the best man to lead the offense. Last month, he had to shoot down rumors (via Twitter) that he would be switching positions. This fall, he can reclaim his place at the helm of the offense.

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