NCF Nation: BT player position rank 11

The 2011 Big Ten preseason position rankings are complete, and we hope you enjoyed them. We fully expect the rankings to look very different by November, but this is a fun way to prepare for the season.

In case you missed them, check out all the team and individual rankings.

Let's look closer at the team rankings.


What can we take away from this?

While I'd certainly caution against reading too much into any preseason rankings, this provides a picture of the Big Ten landscape entering 2011. The top two teams on average are Michigan State and Wisconsin, which would have had a higher quarterback ranking and overall ranking had Wilson's transfer been included. Nebraska and Ohio State both are in that top mix, although both teams have some potential red flags (Nebraska's offensive line and receivers, Ohio State's receivers and quarterbacks).

Minnesota and Indiana look like the league's two weakest teams, or at least the teams that have the biggest question marks. Although Minnesota's average rank is weaker, Indiana might have more units needing to prove themselves, particularly on the defensive side.

The Big Ten's wild cards include Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State, Illinois and Purdue. Iowa's average rank finished about where I expected. Michigan is buoyed by strong quarterbacks and receivers, and the promise of a better defensive line, but the Wolverines remain a pretty big mystery before the games begin.

Purdue's average rank -- ahead of Northwestern and Illinois -- might surprise some folks, while both Northwestern and Illinois are hurt by question marks on defense. Penn State boasts some of the league's better skill groups -- secondary, linebacker, wide receiver -- but could have troubles along the line.

Which units could finish a lot higher after the season? Here are a few: Minnesota's running backs, Purdue's receivers, Nebraska's receivers, Michigan State's offensive line, Penn State's offensive line, Northwestern's defensive line, Illinois' secondary and Michigan's secondary.

The individual rankings don't necessarily translate into elite position groups or elite overall units, but a team-by-team breakdown is in order.

Here's how the teams fared in placing players in the top 10/top 5 lists.

Illinois: 12 (7 offense, 4 defense, 1 special teams)
Indiana: 5 (2 offense, 2 defense, 1 special teams)
Iowa: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense, 0 special teams)
Michigan: 8 (5 offense, 2 defense, 1 special teams)
Michigan State: 12 (6 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams)
Minnesota: 5 (3 offense, 1 defense, 1 special teams)
Nebraska: 10 (4 offense, 6 defense, 0 special teams)
Northwestern: 8 (4 offense, 3 defense, 1 special teams)
Ohio State: 14 (5 offense, 6 defense, 3 special teams)
Penn State: 11 (4 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Purdue: 10 (3 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams)
Wisconsin: 15 (7 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams)
Meant to post this Friday, but we finally wrap up the Big Ten preseason position rankings with the individual specialists. I'll break down the top five kickers, punters and return men in the league (sorry, long snappers).

[+] EnlargeDerek Dimke
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireIllinois kicker Derek Dimke led the Big Ten with 24 field goals last season.
Although the Big Ten loses its most famous specialist from 2010 -- Michigan State punter Aaron Bates -- and Nebraska says goodbye to All-American Alex Henery, there are a few standout players back in the fold. Quite a few strong punters depart, although keep an eye on the sophomores coming back.

Let's take a look.

KICKER

1. Derek Dimke, Illinois, senior: Dimke had a terrific junior season, converting a league-high 24 field goals on 29 attempts. He also was perfect on extra-point tries, going 43-for-43, and led the Big Ten with 22 touchbacks. Dimke earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and will be on the radar for the Lou Groza Award this fall.

2. Dan Conroy, Michigan State, junior: Thanks to Conroy, the loss of standout kicker Brett Swenson didn't sting too much for the Spartans. Conroy led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage, converting 14 of 15 opportunities, and missed only one of his 46 extra-point tries. Conroy earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts.

3. Philip Welch, Wisconsin, senior: Doesn't it seem like Welch has been at Wisconsin for a decade? The three-year starter enters his final season in Madison after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. Welch was perfect on 67 extra-point attempts last fall and went 17-for-22 on field-goal attempts.

4. Carson Wiggs, Purdue, senior: There's no doubt as to who has the strongest leg in the Big Ten, if not the country. Wiggs can connect from just about anywhere, as he showed in April during Purdue's spring game with a 67-yard field goal. His leg strength gets the attention, but Wiggs is a little underrated as an overall kicker. He connected on 15 of 19 attempts in 2010, going 4-for-4 between 40 and 49 yards, and had 11 touchbacks as Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff coverage.

5. Mitch Ewald, Indiana, sophomore: Ewald had an excellent freshman season for the Hoosiers, capitalizing on limited opportunities. He finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage, connecting on 16 of 19 attempts, and he was perfect on 33 extra-point tries. Ewald had five games with multiple field goals and will once again be a big weapon for IU this fall.

PUNTER

1. Brad Nortman, Wisconsin, senior: Like Welch, Nortman has been a fixture in Madison the past four years and enters 2011 as the league's most experienced punter by far. Nortman averaged 42.7 yards per punt in 2010, blasting eight punts of 50 yards or more and placing 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has averaged 42.1 yards per punt during his career.

2. Anthony Fera, Penn State, sophomore: Fera had an excellent freshman season for Penn State, which improved in punt coverage and other special teams areas. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt, placed 13 punts inside the opponents' 20 and had nine punts of 50 yards or longer. Fera also forced 19 fair catches.

3. Cody Webster, Purdue, sophomore: Webster helped Purdue address a need at punter and turned in an excellent freshman season. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.3 ypp), booming 17 punts of 50 yards or longer and placing 12 inside the opponents' 20.

4. Will Hagerup, Michigan, sophomore: Hagerup was the lone bright spot for Michigan's special teams in 2010. He started 10 games and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.6 ypp), a mark that ranked second in team history (minimum of 30 attempts). He placed 11 punts inside the 20.

5. Ben Buchanan, Ohio State, junior: Ohio State needs to be sharper in the kicking game this fall, and Buchanan will play a huge role. He averaged 41 yards on 44 attempts in 2010, placing 15 punts inside the opponents' 20 and forcing 17 fair catches. Expect Buchanan to take another step in his development this season.

RETURNER

1. Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota, senior: Already a record-setting return man, Stoudermire needs only 16 kick returns and 189 kick return yards to set NCAA all-time records in both categories. Stoudermire has 2,929 kick return yards, recording 30 runbacks or more in each of the past three seasons. He averaged 27.2 yards on returns in 2010.

2. Jordan Hall, Ohio State, junior: Hall is likely the Big Ten's best all-around returner. He finished second in the league in kick return average (27.9 ypr) and third in punt return average (9.9 ypr). Hall really emerged as Ohio State's go-to return man last season. It will be interesting to see if his return responsibilities change at all depending on who emerges as the Buckeyes' top running back.

3. Keshawn Martin, Michigan State, senior: Expect teams to punt the ball away from Martin this fall. He led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally in punt return average (14.2 ypr). His touchdown return against Wisconsin set the stage for Michigan State's come-from-behind win. Martin's kick return average of 17.8 yards should increase this fall.

4. Venric Mark, Northwestern, sophomore: For the first time in recent memory, Northwestern has a true difference maker in the return game. Mark came on strong late in his freshman year, finishing fourth in the league in kick return average (26.2 ypr) with a touchdown runback against Wisconsin. He also showed promise as a punt returner, averaging 12.9 yards on nine attempts.

5. Jaamal Berry, Ohio State, sophomore: Berry forms a dangerous Buckeye return tandem with Hall. He finished fifth in the league in kick return average (25.4 ypr) but had three more attempts than Hall. Berry clearly has big-play skills as a running back, so don't be surprised if he breaks off some big returns this fall.

Ranking the Big Ten safeties

July, 13, 2011
7/13/11
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We wrap up our preseason look at Big Ten secondaries with a look at the safeties.

Safety isn't quite as stacked as cornerback, and the Big Ten loses some solid players like Iowa's Tyler Sash and Ohio State's Jermale Hines. There are fewer elite prospects at safety, but several teams have potential playmakers.

Here are the top 10 entering 2011:

[+] EnlargeTrenton Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSafety Trenton Robinson is entering his third season as a starter for Michigan State.
1. Trenton Robinson, Michigan State, senior: Robinson played a big role in Michigan State's improvement as a secondary in 2010. He led the Spartans with four interceptions and tied for the team lead in passes defended with eight. Robinson, who enters his third season as a starter, had 76 tackles last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

2. Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, senior: After emerging as a playmaker in 2010, Henry should be primed for even bigger things in his second season at safety. The former cornerback made the switch and recorded two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries last season. Like Robinson, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

3. Tyler Moeller, Ohio State, senior: Moeller will provide a huge boost for a new-look Ohio State defense as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle that shortened his 2010 season. He can play either safety or linebacker and showed impressive playmaking skills early last fall, recording two forced fumbles, an interception and 4.5 tackles for loss in just five games. If Moeller stays healthy, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

4. Brian Peters, Northwestern, senior: Peters boasts a lot of experience, appearing in every game the past three seasons. He also shows a knack for the football, recording three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 after recording 107 tackles, Peters must get a bit more consistent in coverage but looks ready to lead the defense.

5. Micah Hyde, Iowa, junior: After starting all 13 games last season at cornerback, Hyde likely will move to safety as the Hawkeyes lose two multiyear starters in Sash and Brett Greenwood. Hyde showed last fall that he's a tremendous playmaker, recording four interceptions, including the pick-six that won the Insight Bowl against Missouri. He led the team with 11 passes defended, finished second with 82 tackles and had a forced fumble.

7. Nick Sukay, Penn State, senior: Like Moeller, Sukay was doing big things in 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Sukay recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and 29 tackles in just six games. He's a natural playmaker who finished third in the Big Ten in passes defended with 13 in 2009. His return makes a very good Lions secondary even better.

8. Trulon Henry, Illinois, senior: An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2010, Henry will help anchor an Illini secondary that could do some big things this fall. Henry led Illinois with three interceptions and two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and 64 tackles. He should be helped by the return of Supo Sanni from injury.

8. Logan Link, Purdue, senior: Link quietly turned in a solid 2010 season, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in tackles with 91. He's a solid tackler who added an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The former walk-on has emerged as a really nice contributor for the Boilers' defense.

9. Drew Astorino, Penn State, senior: Astorino has been the iron man in Penn State's secondary, starting each of the past two seasons as well as three games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He has played through injuries, including a shoulder problem that impacted him last fall, when he recorded 70 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups. If Astorino stays healthy, he could blossom in his final season.

10. Courtney Osborne, Nebraska, junior: This is a bit of a projection pick, but Osborne should be able to help fill Nebraska's gaps at safety this fall. He appeared in every game last season, starting four, and recorded 41 tackles, an interception, a sack and five tackles for loss. Osborne did some nice things down the stretch and seems primed for bigger things in a bigger role.

Also considered: Minnesota's Kim Royston, Michigan's Jordan Kovacs, Indiana's Greg Heban
Let's delve a bit deeper into the Big Ten secondaries by breaking down the league's top cornerbacks entering 2011.

This group could be one of the league's best, as it features a nice mix of established veterans and budding young players. Only two Big Ten cornerbacks -- Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard and Wisconsin's Antonio Fenelus -- made the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, but I expect several more players to make their way onto the radar in the coming months.

Here's the rundown ...

1. Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska, senior: He's the final member of Nebraska’s triumvirate on defense along with tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David. Dennard earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2010 after recording 30 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defended. After working alongside All-American Prince Amukamara, Denard is ready to take center stage.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Allen
Andrew Weber/US PresswirePurdue's Ricardo Allen, 21, shown returning an interception for a TD last season against Michigan State, is one of the Big Ten's top cornerbacks.
2. Ricardo Allen, Purdue, sophomore: Get to know this name, Big Ten fans. Allen is one of the nation’s most dynamic young defensive backs. He recorded three interceptions in 2010, returning two for touchdowns, and finished fourth on the team with 73 tackles. Just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Allen uses an aggressive style that's a lot of fun to watch.

3. Shaun Prater, Iowa, senior: Prater considered a jump to the NFL before returning to Iowa, where he'll lead a new-look secondary in 2011. He earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2010 after recording four interceptions, 10 passes defended, a fumble recovery and 68 tackles. After losing two multiyear starters at safety, Iowa needs Prater to shut down one half of the field this fall.

4. Antonio Fenelus, Wisconsin, senior: Fenelus played an integral role in the Badgers' overall improvement as a playmaking secondary in 2010. He led the team in both interceptions (4) and passes defended (11) and finished second in fumbles recovered (2). The media rewarded Fenelus by selecting him first-team All-Big Ten. He forms a solid cornerback tandem with Devin Smith.

5. D'Anton Lynn, Penn State, senior: Lynn took a significant step forward in 2010 and should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He emerged in the second half of the season and finished with 75 tackles, three interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery. Penn State's secondary will be a strength this fall, and Lynn will showcase his talents against the Big Ten's top receivers.

6. Johnny Adams, Michigan State, junior: Here's another player who appears to be on the verge of big things in 2011. Adams surged throughout spring practice and was the first player selected in Michigan State's spring game draft. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches last season after recording three interceptions and 10 passes defended. Adams also had a forced fumble and recovered a blocked punt that helped cap Michigan State's come-from-behind win against Purdue.

7. Jordan Mabin, Northwestern, senior: Mabin is the Big Ten's most experienced cornerback, as he enters his fourth season as a starter and boasts 37 career starts. After a so-so-sophomore season in 2009, Mabin earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, as he led the Big Ten and tied for 12th nationally in passes defended with 15 (1.15 per game). He capped his season with a pick-six in the TicketCity Bowl and should be in the mix for All-Conference honors this season.

8. Travis Howard, Ohio State, junior: This is a projection pick, as Howard moves into a featured role this fall after playing behind Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence. He showed some promise in 2010 with two interceptions, four passes defended and a fumble recovery in limited action. There's a lot of buzz about Howard entering the fall as Ohio State looks for its next shutdown corner.

9. Tavon Wilson, Illinois, senior: A rash of injuries forced Wilson to move to safety in 2010, but he's back at his preferred position entering the fall. He recorded 74 tackles, an interception and seven pass breakups at cornerback in 2009 and continued to make plays at safety last season, leading the team in passes defended (9) and adding an interception and two fumble recoveries. Wilson brings versatility to a secondary that might take a big step forward this season.

10. Josh Johnson, Purdue, junior: Allen garnered much of the attention in 2010, but Johnson forms a nice complement on the other side. He tied for second in the league with three forced fumbles and added an interception, seven passes defended, a fumble recovery and 53 tackles. Johnson's playmaking ability should come in handy, especially if opposing teams start throwing away from Allen.

Just missed the cut: Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire, Michigan's Troy Woolfolk, Illinois' Terry Hawthorne, Wisconsin's Devin Smith.
It's time to wrap up the defensive line rankings with a closer look at the ends.

Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.

This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireJohn Simon has played all over the defensive line for Ohio State.
1. John Simon, Ohio State, junior: This selection might surprise some because Simon has spent much of his time at defensive tackle. He'll likely play both line spots for Ohio State this fall, but expect the junior to have a breakout season in 2011. Simon is among the strongest players in the league and provides explosiveness up front for the Buckeyes.

2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.

3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.

4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.

5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.

6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.

7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.

8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.

9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.

10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.

Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
It's time to take a closer look at the Big Ten's top defensive linemen. We'll start off with the tackles before examining the ends.

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireNebraska's Jared Crick is the best of a strong group of defensive tackles in the Big Ten.
Defensive tackle is arguably the Big Ten's strongest position, along with center and possibly wide receiver. Three teams boast potential first-round draft picks at tackles, and there's no shortage of space eaters throughout the league.

Note: Some players see time at both line spots, but they'll be ranked at the position where I think they'll play more this fall (i.e. Ohio State's John Simon at end).

Here are the top top entering 2011:

1. Jared Crick, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers got a big boost when Crick decided to return for his senior season. He put up monster numbers for a defensive tackle in 2010, leading the team in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17) and finishing with 70 total tackles. A unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection, Crick earned second-team All-America honors and is one of the leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Mike Martin, Michigan, senior: Like Crick, Martin enters his senior season on the NFL radar and could be one of the league's most disruptive defenders. He lacks the stats of some other players on this list, but he creates just as many problems, if not more, for opposing teams. One of the strongest players in the Big Ten, Martin has started the past two seasons at nose tackle and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, junior: The hype machine has cranked up for Worthy, as colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper project the Michigan State junior as a top 10 pick in the 2012 draft. Worthy led Michigan State defensive linemen with 40 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. He boasts both size and tremendous explosiveness inside.

4. Kawann Short, Purdue, junior: Overshadowed by line mate Ryan Kerrigan in 2010, Short should dominate the spotlight this fall after a terrific sophomore season. He led Big Ten defensive tackles in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5), finishing fourth in the league in both categories. Short dropped some weight during the offseason to improve his stamina. He should be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

5. Mike Daniels, Iowa, senior: Like Short, Daniels will take on a more featured role this season following some key personnel losses. He turned in a solid junior season, recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks en route to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Daniels fits the mold of previous Iowa standout tackles -- a bit undersized but strong and disruptive -- and the Hawkeyes need a big season from him.

6. Devon Still, Penn State, senior: Don't be surprised to see Still climb up this list, especially if he picks up where he left off in the Outback Bowl. Still recorded 3.5 tackles for loss against Florida and led Penn State in both sacks (4) and tackles for loss (10). His injury troubles are in the past and he's ready to lead a line that needs to regain its edge this fall.

7. Baker Steinkuhler, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Steinkuhler in his second season as a starter. He earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after recording 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hurries. Steinkuhler should benefit from playing alongside Crick, who will command double teams.

8. Akeem Spence, Illinois, sophomore: Illinois hopes Spence can play a big role in replacing first-round draft pick Corey Liuget. A talented young player with tremendous strength, Spence started all 13 games alongside Liuget in 2010 and recorded 45 tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. He made multiple freshman All-America squads for his efforts.

9. Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State, sophomore: This is a projection pick, but Hankins is a name to know entering the 2011 season. He looked very impressive at times this spring and has the size and strength to dominate inside for Ohio State. With John Simon likely spending more time at defensive end, the Buckeyes will lean on Hankins to shore up the interior. Hankins had 16 tackles and a sack as a reserve in 2010.

10. Patrick Butrym, Wisconsin, senior: Butrym already is taking on a greater leadership role after the departure of All-American J.J. Watt, and his on-field production should increase this fall. He tied for second on the team in quarterback hurries (3), and finished third in sacks (2.5) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (3) last season.

Just missed the cut: Northwestern's Jack DiNardo, Indiana's Adam Replogle, Purdue's Bruce Gaston Jr., Michigan State's Anthony Rashad White.
My apologies for posting these a day late -- blame it on Russell Wilson -- but it's time to break down the Big Ten offensive linemen entering the 2011 season.

Rather than list the top 10 across the three position groups, I've decided to go a different route: top five players at each spot. Despite losing standout linemen like Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, the Big Ten returns several of the nation's top players at their positions.

Center might be the Big Ten's deepest position, while the league also boasts several standout tackles. The guard spot is a bit thin.

Let's take a look.

CENTER

Michael Brewster
Greg Bartram/US PresswireMichael Brewster may be the best center in the country.
1. Michael Brewster, Ohio State, senior -- Brewster enters the season as the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. He has started each of the past three seasons and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. Boasting 36 career starts, Brewster could be the top center selected in next April's NFL draft.

2. David Molk, Michigan, senior -- Molk is right up there with Brewster among the nation's truly elite centers. If not for some injury trouble, he could be at the top of the list. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in 2010 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy. Molk has made 29 career starts and displays top-notch blocking skills and leadership.

3. Peter Konz, Wisconsin, junior -- Konz is a big reason why Wisconsin's line shouldn't take a step back despite losing Carimi, Moffitt and Bill Nagy. He has made 20 starts at center in the past two seasons and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. After missing most of spring practice with an ankle injury, Konz's health this fall is a big key for Wisconsin.

4. Mike Caputo, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers' line has a few question marks entering the season, but center isn't one of them. Caputo is the undisputed leader of the group after starting every game in 2010. The former walk-on earned consensus honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and helped Nebraska eclipse 200 rushing yards in 10 of 14 games.

T-5. James Ferentz, Iowa, junior: Ferentz has emerged as an All-Big Ten caliber lineman and will lead one of the league's better groups this season. He started every game in 2010 and showed impressive durability, playing every offensive down in nine contests. Iowa needs an elite offensive line this season, and Ferentz will be leading the charge.

T-5. Graham Pocic, Illinois, junior: Along with Jeff Allen and others, Pocic leads an Illinois line that punished opponents at times last season. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter. Pocic solidified a line that helped Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank 11th nationally (246.1 ypg).

TACKLE

1. Riley Reiff, Iowa, junior: Reiff has put himself in position to become the next truly great Hawkeyes offensive lineman. He started every game in 2010 and 11 of 13 contests in 2009, earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. Already projected as a potential top-15 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Reiff should be in the mix for the Outland Trophy as he anchors the Iowa line.

2. Mike Adams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes will be counting the days until Adams returns from his suspension to open the season. After some ups and downs early in his career, Adams blossomed last season and started to meet the lofty expectations placed on him coming out of high school. He earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. If not for the five-game suspension, he would be a top contender for the Outland Trophy.

3. Jeff Allen, Illinois, senior: One of the league's best and most experienced offensive linemen, Allen will lead a strong Illini line this fall. He has started 34 games in his first three seasons at Illinois, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last fall. Allen is a bona fide NFL prospect who should challenge players like Brewster, Molk and Reiff for Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors.

4. Al Netter, Northwestern, senior: Besides star quarterback Dan Persa, Netter is the only player coach Pat Fitzgerald considers an undisputed starter entering the fall. Perhaps it's because Netter has started each of the past 39 games. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 and should be primed for a big senior season. Northwestern needs him to help spark its rushing attack.

5. Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin, junior: We'll get a full read on Wagner after he switches from right tackle to the left side to replace Carimi, but the expectations are high. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 after stepping in for the injured Josh Oglesby at right tackle. Wisconsin really likes Wagner's potential, and he'll have a chance to blossom at the more prestigious tackle position.

GUARD

1. Joel Foreman, Michigan State, senior: An easy pick here as Foreman enters the season as one of the nation's top left guards. He has earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and started 36 games at left guard, including each of the past 22. Offensive line is a huge question mark for the Spartans, so Foreman's play will be huge.

2. Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, senior: Zeitler will be a leader this fall for a Wisconsin line looking to continue its tradition of excellence. He has started 22 games at right guard in each of the past two seasons and helped Wisconsin rank among the nation's top rushing offenses. Zeitler earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Hugh Thornton, Illinois, junior: Thornton has played a lot of football in his first two seasons and could take another step in his development this fall. He started eight games at weak-side guard in 2010 after starting seven games at tackle in 2009. Illinois expects the offensive line to be its strength, and Thornton is a big part of the group.

4. Ken Plue, Purdue, senior: This pick is a bit risky after Plue worked his way into the coaches' dog house in spring practice. But he has the size, the skills and the experience (28 starts) to become one of the Big Ten's top guards this fall. If the 6-7, 358-pound Plue can work out his issues, look out for him and the Boilers.

5. Patrick Omameh, Michigan, junior: After starting all 13 games for a record-setting offense in 2010, Omameh is a reason why hopes are high for the Wolverines offensive line. He has started 16 consecutive games and has the ability to contend for All-Big honors. Omameh must get a little more consistent this fall, but I like how he projects for 2011.
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
Earlier today, Brian ranked the groups of wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten. Now it's time to look at the individuals. We'll break these into two sections: wide receivers are below, and tight ends will be posted Thursday.

The Big Ten is loaded with No. 1 receivers, so sorting them out for this list wasn't easy. Unlike the running backs or quarterbacks, there isn't a huge gap between No. 1 and No. 10 in the wide receiver rankings. And since many of the league's top wideouts have strong track records, these rankings lean heavily on past performance and also consider potential for 2011.

There are quite a few good receivers who don't appear on this list.

Here are the top 10:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert is Dan Persa's favorite target; Ebert caught three TD passes last week in Persa's return to the lineup.
1. Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern, senior: Ebert is as solid as they come, having earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. He led the league in receiving yards (953) as a junior and showed the ability to stretch the field, averaging 15.4 yards a catch. Ebert hauled in eight touchdowns as quarterback Dan Persa's top target. He headlines one of the league's deepest receiver groups this fall.

2. Derek Moye, Penn State, senior: It took a while for Penn State's offense to get on track last season, but Moye made the most of somewhat limited opportunities. He had 53 receptions but averaged 16.7 yards per catch with eight touchdowns and 68.1 receiving yards per game. The 6-foot-5 Moye can stretch the field and out-jump opposing defenders. If Penn State's quarterbacks indeed take the next step in their development, Moye will have a very big senior season.

3. Marvin McNutt, Iowa, senior: After starting his college career as a quarterback, McNutt has found his natural position at receiver. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010, and he could have an even bigger year as Iowa's clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game. Boasting size, speed and athleticism, McNutt is on the NFL radar and could emerge as the league's top pro prospect and receiver following the 2011 season.

4. Roy Roundtree, Michigan, junior: Roundtree definitely has the potential to move up this list if he can build on a solid 2010 season (72 catches, 935 receiving yards, seven TDs). His big challenge is eliminating drops that plagued him at times last fall. Michigan's new offensive scheme could mean even bigger things for the receivers, and if Darryl Stonum remains suspended, Roundtree might take on a bigger role in the offense. He boasts big-play ability and ended the 2010 season with several good performances.

5. Damarlo Belcher, Indiana, senior: Some folks might forget that Belcher led the Big Ten in receptions (78), recording six or more catches in eight of 12 games. He needs to find the end zone more after scoring only four touchdowns in 2010, but he's one of the league's most experienced receivers on a team loaded with talent at the position. Belcher slimmed down a bit this winter, which should help his speed and durability. Look for Indiana's new quarterback to look for No. 88 a lot this fall.

6. Da'Jon McKnight, Minnesota, senior: Like several players on this list, McKnight has a chance to put himself on the NFL draft radar with a strong senior season. He finished tied for second in the Big Ten in touchdown receptions with 10 last season and averaged 15.6 yards per catch. After splitting catches with MarQueis Gray in 2010, McKnight now will be receiving passes from Gray, the Gophers' projected starter at quarterback. Minnesota lacks much proven depth at receiver, so Gray will be looking for McKnight quite a bit.

7. B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State, senior: Cunningham has been somewhat overlooked during his career, but things should change this fall. Expect the senior to build on his 2010 performance (50 receptions, 611 receiving yards, nine TDs) as he moves into a No. 1 role following Mark Dell's departure. Cunningham has good size (6-2, 223) and will be entering his fourth season as the starter. He's got plenty of help at receiver with Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler.

8. DeVier Posey, Ohio State, senior: Of the four Ohio State players suspended for the first five games, Posey might be missed the most. He has started the past two seasons and represents the only proven wide receiver on the 2011 roster. Although Posey didn't turn in a breakout year in 2010 like many had expected, he still put up some good numbers (53 catches, 848 receiving yards, eight TDs). The pro potential is there, and he can help himself with a more consistent year. His early-season absence creates opportunities for other receivers to emerge, but he'll almost certainly reclaim the No. 1 receiver spot upon his return.

9. Nick Toon, Wisconsin, senior: Toon had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010, as he dealt with injuries and some inconsistent play. But I expect him to bounce back and reclaim the form he showed in 2009, when he had 54 receptions and 805 receiving yards. As Lance Kendricks departs, Toon becomes the No. 1 option in Wisconsin's passing game. He could play a big role in easing the transition for the Badgers' new starting quarterback.

10. A.J. Jenkins, Illinois, senior: After nearly leaving the program in December 2009, Jenkins reaffirmed his commitment to the Illini and turned in a solid junior season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is making strides as a passer and Jenkins should benefit after recording 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. Illinois is looking for greater depth at receiver, but Jenkins provides a good No. 1 option.

Others to watch: Nebraska's Brandon Kinnie, Michigan State's Keshawn Martin, Purdue's Justin Siller and Antavian Edison, Michigan's Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum (if suspension lifted), Indiana's Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes.
The 2011 position rankings continue with the most important spot on the field.

After several down years, quarterback became a strength in the Big Ten last season as six signal-callers ranked among the top 20 nationally in pass efficiency. Three of those quarterbacks return along with promising young players like Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez.

But the Big Ten quarterback landscape is shrouded in mystery. Reigning offensive player of the year Denard Robinson is transitioning to a new offense. All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is coming off of a serious injury. Two teams that shared the league title in 2010 -- Wisconsin and Ohio State -- have very shaky situations at quarterback. One quarterback who could transfer into the league, Russell Wilson, would change the rankings quite a bit.

These rankings take into account both past performance and potential for the 2011 season.

Here are the top 10 quarterbacks entering 2011:

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Eric Bronson/Icon SMIBecoming a better all-around quarterback in 2011 will make Denard Robinson even more dangerous.
1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, junior: Robinson will have an adjustment period and likely some growing pains along with it. He won't run the ball as much as he did in 2010. But when it comes to pure playmaking skills and pure athleticism, Robinson is unmatched in the league. His record-settling accomplishments in 2010 shouldn't be overlooked and neither should the strides he made as a passer. He must show greater overall consistency and the ability to attack upper-tier defenses, but he'll be working with a good crop of receivers and behind a solid offensive line.

2. Dan Persa, Northwestern, senior: How Persa bounces back from a ruptured Achilles' tendon could determine Northwestern's season, but his progress so far has been encouraging. He has been well ahead of schedule throughout the rehab process. If Persa is indeed 100 percent, Northwestern should have one of the Big Ten's most dangerous offenses. Arguably no Big Ten player meant more to his team than Persa did to Northwestern in 2010. He has a deep and talented receiving corps at his disposal and will operate behind the nation's second-most experienced offensive line. Northwestern must find ways to take some of the running burden off of Persa.

3. Kirk Cousins, Michigan State, senior: Cousins is the most-experienced Big Ten quarterback and, unlike Robinson and Persa, doesn't have major question marks lurking over him. The Spartans' signal-caller had a terrific 2010 campaign, passing for 2,825 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and ranking 18th nationally in efficiency (150.7 rating). He fought through injuries during the second half of the season to lead Michigan State to a share of the league title. Cousins must eliminate performances like Iowa and Alabama, and he'll be operating behind a new-look offensive line this fall. The senior has a good group of receivers and tight ends, led by B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, sophomore: If you can't tell, I'm pretty excited about Scheelhaase's prospects for 2011. He finished a very solid freshman season by making major strides in bowl practice and showcasing improved passing skills in the Texas Bowl against Baylor. Scheelhaase is a dynamic athlete who rushed for 868 yards and five touchdowns last season and will work behind a solid offensive line in 2011. He must continue to take steps as a passer, especially since Illinois doesn't have much proven depth at receiver other than A.J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase also has displayed good leadership and maturity, two areas where he should continue to thrive.

5. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, sophomore: Martinez looked like two different players during and up-and-down freshman season. When healthy, he was just as dangerous as Michigan's Robinson with the ball in his hands. Martinez racked up 112 or more rushing yards in five of Nebraska's first seven contests, and had 435 yards of offense in a win against Oklahoma State. But injuries and a loss of confidence derailed the second half of his season. Martinez must show he can stay healthy and, if not, that he can play through pain in a physical conference. His receiving corps should be decent despite few proven players, but Nebraska's offensive line is a question mark.

6. James Vandenberg, Iowa, junior: Vandenberg played sparingly in 2010, but his impressive performance in relief of Ricky Stanzi in 2009 shouldn't be overlooked. He held his own against a talented Ohio State defense at The Shoe in a game that could have sent Iowa to the Rose Bowl. While he hasn't been on the big stage in a while, Vandenberg continues to make strides behind the scenes and emerged this spring as Iowa's clear-cut leader on offense. This ranking is clearly based heavily on how Vandenberg projects for 2011, but he has the tools and the makeup to be a good one for the Hawkeyes. He'll benefit from a strong No. 1 receiver in Marvin McNutt and a talented offensive line.

7. Rob Bolden, Penn State, sophomore: The big unknown is whether Bolden stays with Penn State for the season after keeping the door open for a possible departure even after spring practice. If he does, he has a chance to take a big step forward in his development. His experience in 2010 as a true freshman should pay off, and he drew good reviews from both his coaches and his teammates this spring, not only from a technical standpoint but perhaps more importantly as a leader. The talent is there, and Bolden will be surrounded by some good receivers and running backs.

8. Rob Henry, Purdue, sophomore: This is another projection pick, but Henry has taken the steps to be a more complete and consistent quarterback in 2011. He battled a nasty hand injury for much of the Big Ten season last fall and became one-dimensional, but he looked better throwing the ball this spring. Coach Danny Hope called Henry the team's most-improved player during the offseason, and Henry clearly has his teammates' support. The big question is if and when he'll be named Purdue's starter as Robert Marve returns from a knee injury.

9. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, junior: The most encouraging part of Minnesota's spring session was Gray's ability to grasp the new offense. It's a system where dual-threat quarterbacks can thrive, and Gray fits the description after transitioning back from wide receiver. Some growing pains should be expected, but Gray can make things happen with his size and athleticism. He also has an excellent No. 1 target in Da'Jon McKnight. Gray must continue to lead the way and help his teammates get up to speed, but he has been taking the right steps so far.

10. Matt McGloin, Penn State, junior: It was a tough call between McGloin and Purdue's Marve for the final spot, but there are too many questions about Marve following two ACL tears. McGloin had a miserable end to the 2010 season, but he did some good things along the way and instilled some fire in a seemingly lifeless Penn State offense. He turned in impressive performances against both Michigan and Northwestern, rallying Penn State past the Wildcats to give coach Joe Paterno his 400th career victory. McGloin must increase his completion percentage and trim his interceptions total, but like Bolden, he can build off of the 2010 season.
You know the season is getting closer when the position rankings are under way. By now, you've likely seen the group rankings for Big Ten running backs. Now it's time to rank the individual players.

These rankings are based in part on past performance but also on how players project for the 2011 season. The Big Ten loses three of its top four running backs (Mikel Leshoure, John Clay and Adam Robinson) but several promising players return and others are primed for breakout seasons. One thing that stands out about this year's running back crop is the number of non-seniors.

Here's the top 10 entering '11:

[+] EnlargeJames White
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMIJames White rushed for 14 touchdowns and more than a thousand yards on 156 carries last season.
1. James White, Wisconsin, sophomore: Wisconsin is no stranger to elite running backs, but White provides a different element to the ground game with his speed and elusiveness. He came out of nowhere to win Wisconsin's backup job in preseason camp and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He finished fourth among Big Ten running backs in rush yards but averaged nearly a yard per carry more than any of them (6.7). White worked on strengthening his lower body in the winter and should be even better this fall.

2. Edwin Baker, Michigan State, junior: The man known as "Rock" flattened the competition for much of 2010, racking up 1,201 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. He boasts breakaway speed but isn't afraid to mix it up between the tackles. Don't be fooled by Baker's 5-foot-9 frame -- he's extremely sturdy and can take a pounding. Although he'll be pushed by teammates Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, Baker expects to build on the 2010 season and has set even higher goals for the fall. The main challenge for Baker is to record big rushing performances against elite defenses.

3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, junior: Some might see this as too lofty for Ball, who only came on in the second half of the 2010 season. But what a half-season it was, as he racked up 777 rush yards and 15 touchdowns in Wisconsin's final five games. These rankings aim to project the coming season, and if Ball can build on his finish to 2010, look out. It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries between Ball and White, but you can make a case for Ball as the Badgers' featured back. Like White, Ball worked on his body during the offseason and should be a little lighter on his feet.

4. Dan Herron, Ohio State, senior: Respect hasn't come easy for Herron, especially among Buckeyes fans, but he earned some with his performance in Big Ten play last fall. Herron recorded all three of his 100-yard rushing performances against league opponents (Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Like Ball, he finished strong with 800 rush yards in the final seven games. Herron also reached the end zone in all but one contest last fall. His five-game suspension to open the season could impact his carries and his ability to compete for postseason awards, but Ohio State shouldn't dismiss "Boom."

5. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Burkhead in Nebraska's first season as a Big Ten member. He turned in a solid performance as a sophomore, recording 951 rush yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Although Burkhead can be used in a variety of ways in the offense, he's a good bet to become Nebraska's featured running back after a strong spring. He seemed to grasp the new offense well and will challenge Big Ten defenses with his speed. While Burkhead will be pushed by heralded incoming recruit Aaron Green and others, he seems ready for a breakout season.

6. Marcus Coker, Iowa, sophomore: It's dangerous to take too much from one game, but Coker looked like the real deal in the Insight Bowl. Starting for the suspended Robinson, Coker earned bowl MVP honors with a record 219 rush yards and two touchdowns against Missouri. He showed speed on a 62-yard score, but he looks like a true power back who should only improve over time. Coker drew good reviews in spring practice and was elected to the Iowa's Leadership Council, a good sign. Iowa isn't deep at running back, so Coker will have plenty of opportunities to showcase himself this fall.

[+] EnlargeRalph Bolden
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRalph Bolden hasn't played since the 2009 season after an ACL injury sidelined him for the year.
7. Ralph Bolden, Purdue, junior: A lot depends on how Bolden performs following a lengthy ACL rehab, but unlike some others on this list, he has proven himself as a featured back in the Big Ten. Bolden started all 12 games in 2009 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing third in the league in rushing average (77.9 ypg) and second in rushing touchdowns (11). He also can be effective as a receiver after recording 20 receptions for 261 yards in 2009. Bolden fought back from an ACL injury in high school and performed well. Can he do it again?

8. Silas Redd, Penn State, sophomore: This is another projection pick, a player who did some impressive things in 2010 but should contribute much more this coming season. Penn State needs a featured back after Evan Royster's departure, and Redd has the tools to fill the void. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman and finished with 437 rush yards despite somewhat limited opportunities. Redd's speed and quickness give him a chance to be special, but he'll need to show he can take a pounding as an every-down back. He'll be pushed by both Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, but we expect Redd to enter the fall as Penn State's No. 1 back.

9. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, sophomore: Until hitting the proverbial freshman wall last October, Bell was one of the Big Ten's best running backs. He racked up 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Spartans' first six games. While Bell didn't do much down the stretch, another offseason in the program should help him immensely. At 6-2 and 237 pounds, Bell has the body to become a featured back in this league. And despite his size, he showed last fall that he can record big plays. Bell certainly has to prove himself again, but you have to like his chances.

10. Jason Ford, Illinois, senior: Ford has more game experience than most of the men on this list. His career numbers include 277 carries, 19 rush touchdowns and 1,362 rush yards to go along with 27 career receptions. Ford's career yards-per-carry average of 4.92 also stands out. The big question is whether he can take the next step and become an every-down back for Illinois, which wants to run the ball and boasts one of the league's best offensive lines. Ford was limited this spring and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to see more from him, but coach Ron Zook sounds like a believer. He's a big back who has a chance for a big senior season.

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