NCF Nation: BT position rank 10

The position rankings finish with the special-teams units. For this list, I examine kickers, punters, return men and coverage units and look at each team's overall picture in the all-important third phase. The Big Ten loses several elite specialists, including punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Brett Swenson. It's a little odd not to see Ohio State near the top, but if there's a hole on Jim Tressel's team this year, it might be on special teams.

Here are my top five:

[+] EnlargeDerrell Johnson-Koulianos
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIDerrell Johnson-Koulianos ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast one of the league's top punters in Ryan Donahue, who has averaged more than 40 yards per punt in each of his first three seasons. Iowa also brings back Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009. There's competition at kicker (big surprise), but Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker both boast experience. Colin Sandeman quietly ranked second in the league in punt return average last year.

2. Michigan State: Swenson is undoubtedly a major loss, but Michigan State should improve in the other phases of special teams. Punter Aaron Bates was extremely solid in 2009, averaging 41.6 yards despite a league-high 63 attempts. Look out for Keshawn Martin, who averaged 28.9 yards on kick returns last fall. Martin could be the league's top return man by season's end. The Spartans need to upgrade their kickoff coverage unit.

3. Ohio State: Despite question marks at both specialist spots, Ohio State's history as an elite special-teams squad under Tressel can't be overlooked. Hopes are high for Ben Buchanan at punter, and Devin Barclay has a very big kick on his résumé against Iowa last year. The Buckeyes must replace return man Ray Small, but there's enough talent there. The coverage teams are always good in Columbus.

4. Minnesota: The Gophers' strengths are their return teams, led by Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average, although it had only nine runbacks all year, and finished fifth in kick return average. Eric Ellestad was perfect on PATs and had a decent year on field goals. The Gophers need Dan Orseske to step in at punter for Blake Haudan.

5. Wisconsin: There are some concerns about the Badgers' special-teams units, but everyone is back and should be better. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 42 yards per punt last year, and while kicker Philip Welch took a mini step back, he still booted 17 field goals. David Gilreath is one of the league's most experienced return men, and linebacker Chris Borland proved to be a difference-maker on special teams last year.

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The position rankings march on with the quarterback spot. You've already seen my individual quarterback rankings for the entire Big Ten, but this list is different. I certainly take into account the strength of the starter, but 50 percent of the ranking has to do with the overall depth at the position. If a team has a backup with experience, it helps the cause for sure.

Here's my top five:

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Marc Serota/Getty ImagesRicky Stanzi has come up clutch for the Hawkeyes.
1. Iowa: Say what you want about Ricky Stanzi, but he wins football games. There's no quarterback in the Big Ten I'd rather have in crunch time than No. 12. You also had to like what backup James Vandenberg did last November at Ohio Stadium under pressure-packed conditions. Vandenberg certainly looks ready step in and contribute if anything happens to Stanzi.

2. Ohio State: When Terrelle Pryor is on his game, few defenses can stop him. If he can build off of the Rose Bowl and complement his superior running skills with more consistency in the passing attack, look out. There's a drop-off behind Pryor, but Kenny Guiton has had a good offseason and Joe Bauserman brings some experience to the table.

3. Michigan State: Aside from a few ill-advised throws late in games, Kirk Cousins had a very solid first season as Michigan State's starting quarterback. Cousins has all the ingredients to be a star in this league, and he has a very good group of wide receivers and tight ends at his disposal. Andrew Maxwell and Joe Boisture both are promising quarterbacks, and Keith Nichol always can step in even though he'll work as a wide receiver.

4. Minnesota: People are writing off Adam Weber too soon. He's the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback and should improve in a more simplified offense this fall. Like Michigan State, Minnesota has its backup quarterback playing wide receiver, but MarQueis Gray can step in if need be and bring tremendous athleticism to the backfield.

T-5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are here because of starter Scott Tolzien, a perfect fit for Paul Chryst's system and a smart, efficient quarterback. Wisconsin likely would be higher if Curt Phillips were 100 percent healthy, but Jon Budmayr's up-and-down camp creates plenty of anxiety about the team's quarterback depth. The Badgers really can't afford to lose Tolzien.

T-5. Michigan: It's looking like the "Shoelace" Show in Ann Arbor this fall, and if Denard Robinson can merely be a decent passer, he'll be a very effective weapon in Rich Rodriguez's offense. Tate Forcier made a lot of big plays for the Wolverines last fall and provides an experienced option, while true freshman Devin Gardner might be the team's quarterback of the future and should play this fall.

Up next: Special teams

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Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
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The position rankings move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, who will be grouped together. The Big Ten remains a defense-first conference, but I really like the depth at receiver and, to a lesser extent, tight end throughout the league. Although star power was considered, I put a very strong emphasis on overall depth and 2010 potential here.

This was the toughest position to whittle down to five (actually, six), but here goes ...

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMark Dell (left) and B.J. Cunningham headline an experienced group of receivers for Michigan State.
1. Michigan State: Sure, there's a lack of star power entering the season, but trust me, that will change. There's not a deeper group of receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten than this one. Veterans B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell anchor the receiving corps, and dangerous speedster Keshawn Martin will play a much bigger role in the offense this season. Converted quarterback Keith Nichol also joins the mix there. Michigan State also boasts three talented tight ends, including Mackey Award watch list members Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers return two of the Big Ten's top five receivers in Tandon Doss, a first-team all-conference selection, and Damarlo Belcher. They also add experience with Terrance Turner and exciting young players like Duwyce Wilson and Dre Muhammad. Overall depth is a bit of a question mark, but both Doss and Belcher will get the attention of opposing defensive backs after combining for 1,732 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Max Dedmond returns at tight end after recording 18 receptions in 2009.

3. Wisconsin: I'm not completely sold on this entire group, although receiver Nick Toon and tight end Lance Kendricks should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath both boast a ton of experience, but must take the next step in their development. Wisconsin could use a rebound season from Kyle Jefferson, and walk-on Jared Abbrederis continues to make plays in practice and should be a contributor this fall.

4. Purdue: Surprised by my choices so far? You won't be when the season starts. Like Michigan State, Purdue's depth will reveal itself this fall. The Boilers are led by Keith Smith, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 and the league's top returning receiver (1,100 yards). He's joined by two veterans in receiver Cortez Smith and tight end Kyle Adams. But the real boost could come from young players like Antavian Edison and Gary Bush, as well as Justin Siller, the team's former starting quarterback who brings size and big-play ability to the perimeter.

T-5: Penn State: I'm tempted to rank the Lions a little higher but want to see how the entire group performs this season, provided they get the ball thrown to them. Derek Moye has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten receiver after recording 48 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns last season. Graham Zug is a very solid target who reached the end zone seven times in 2009. Although Chaz Powell moves to defense, Penn State boasts several exciting young wideouts like Devon Smith. Tight end is a big question mark after the departures of Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.

T-5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast the league's top big-play tandem at receiver in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. DJK is on track to become the team's all-time leading receiver this fall, and McNutt averaged 19.8 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns in 2009. I like the potential of guys like Keenan Davis and Paul Chaney Jr., who returns from a knee injury. Tony Moeaki is a major loss at tight end, but Allen Reisner returns and talented freshman C.J. Fiedorowicz enters the fold.

Just missed the cut: Ohio State, Michigan

Up next: Quarterbacks

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The position rankings march on with one of the Big Ten's strongest units: running backs and fullbacks. I looked not only at featured backs like John Clay and Evan Royster, but also tried to identify teams with more than one solid option in the backfield.

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Scott A. Miller/Getty ImagesJohn Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
1. Wisconsin: Everyone knows about Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate entering the fall. But the Badgers also boast good depth here with promising sophomore Montee Ball and veteran Zach Brown. Ball had 98 rushing attempts as a freshman, and he and Brown combined for seven touchdown runs.

2. Penn State: I'm tempted to put Penn State at the top, since the Lions' overall depth at running back could surpass Wisconsin's by the end of the season. Royster enters his third year as the starter and will become Penn State's all-time leading rusher barring injury. Junior Stephfon Green is waiting in the wings after rushing for 319 yards in 2009. Brandon Beachum also returns, and Penn State is excited about freshmen backs Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes. Joe Suhey is an experienced fullback.

3. Ohio State: There might not be a true featured back in Columbus yet, but Ohio State boasts more depth at running back than any Big Ten team. Senior Brandon Saine and junior Dan Herron once again top the depth chart, and Saine has a chance to emerge as the team's go-to runner. Behind them is Jordan Hall, who showed some flashes last fall, and heralded recruit Jaamal Berry looks ready after dealing with leg problems in 2009. Freshman Carlos Hyde has looked good in practice, and the Buckeyes have two good fullbacks in Zach Boren and Adam Homan.

4. Illinois: The Illini boast one of the league's best 1-2 punches at running back in juniors Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. The coaches maintain that the two likely will share carries, but Leshoure certainly looked like a featured back toward the end of last season. Both Leshoure and Ford averaged more than 6 yards a carry in 2009, and they complement each other well in the offense. Don't forget about Justin Green and Troy Pollard, two solid reserves.

5. Iowa: The Brandon Wegher situation and a clavicle injury to freshman Marcus Coker have raised concerns about the group, but Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton still provide two solid options. Hampton had an excellent freshman season in 2008 and will be very effective if healthy this fall. Robinson grew up fast in 2009 and showed tremendous toughness in his quick recovery from a high ankle sprain. If Wegher returns to the team, Iowa has three capable ball carriers.

Up next: Wide receiver/tight end

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The position rankings move to the offensive side of the ball, and the offensive lines are first up. Several Big Ten offensive lines are among the nation's best, while other units boast experience but must step up.

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Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Badgers' Gabe Carimi is entering his fourth season as a starter.
1. Wisconsin: If this group stays healthy, I don't believe there's a better offensive line in college football this season. Left tackle Gabe Carimi is a bona fide NFL prospect who enters his fourth year as a starter. The Badgers boast another All-Big Ten selection at guard in senior John Moffitt, who can play both guard and tackle. Josh Oglesby should be ready to take the next step at right tackle. All the injuries last season forced Wisconsin to use a lot of linemen, and Peter Konz's return makes this one of the league's deepest units.

2. Ohio State: The talent always has been there, and the physical play finally showed up late last fall. Ohio State's line finished 2009 on a very strong note and returns pretty much everyone for 2010. First-team All-Big Ten guard Justin Boren leads the group along with fellow guard Bryant Browning. Center Michael Brewster enters his third season as a starter, and right tackle J.B. Shugarts came along last year. If gifted left tackle Mike Adams effectively protects Terrelle Pryor's blind side, the Buckeyes will be extremely tough to stop.

3. Michigan: The Wolverines boast one of the Big Ten's best interior line tandems in guard Stephen Schilling and center David Molk, who returns from an ACL injury. When Molk was healthy in 2009, Michigan consistently moved the football. His return is a major boost. The Wolverines need to solidify the tackle spots but have experienced options in Perry Dorrestein and Mark Huyge. Michigan's offensive line recruiting also should pay off as redshirt freshmen like Taylor Lewan solidify the depth.

4. Penn State: The line had an average performance in 2009 and struggled against elite defensive fronts, but things should improve this fall. Stefen Wisniewski, who moves back to guard from center, is one of the nation's most experienced and polished offensive linemen. He leads a group that also features veterans Lou Eliades and Johnnie Troutman. Penn State needs big things from new starting left tackle Quinn Barham.

5. Northwestern: All five starters return from 2009, but there's competition at three spots in camp. I see this as a testament to Northwestern's strong O-line recruiting the past four seasons. While experience is great, the Wildcats need to be more physical in run blocking and could benefit from some new faces (or some old ones hardened by competition). Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett are All-Big Ten candidates, and watch out for Patrick Ward, a heralded 2009 recruit who steps into the spotlight at right tackle this season.

Up next: Running back/fullback

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The position rankings march on as I take a look at the top five secondary units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Iowa: Playmaker extraordinaire Tyler Sash leads a group that boasts good experience but must fill a major void following the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey. Sash has recorded 11 interceptions in his first two seasons and already holds the team record with 350 interception return yards. His heroics overshadow the very solid play of fellow safety Brett Greenwood, who has started for two and a half seasons and owns seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. Shaun Prater is a returning starter at corner, and Iowa also has Jordan Bernstine, Micah Hyde, William Lowe and others.

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Tyler Sash will be one of the leaders of the Big Ten's No. 1 secondary.
2. Penn State: The Lions are always solid in the front seven, but the secondary might lead the unit in 2010. Starting safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay both return, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn takes on an enhanced leadership role after recording five pass breakups last fall. Penn State also has high hopes for cornerback Stephon Morris, who recorded 30 tackles and an interception as a freshman in 2009. Converted receiver Chaz Powell should add depth at the corner spot. Opponents completed just 54.1 percent of their passes against Penn State last fall.

3. Ohio State: There are some question marks here after the departures of All-Big Ten standout Kurt Coleman and veteran safety Anderson Russell, but Ohio State almost always finds a way to survive in the back four. The return of Tyler Moeller definitely helps, and safety Jermale Hines could have a big year after recording two interceptions in 2009. Is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a shut-down corner in the Big Ten? We'll find out. Also keep an eye on athletic corner Devon Torrence and safety Orhian Johnson.

4. Wisconsin: This isn't a shut-down secondary -- evidence: 55th in pass defense in 2009 (217.5 ypg) -- but there are playmakers and hard-hitters, specifically veteran safety Jay Valai, among the group. There's good depth at cornerback with returning starter Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie, who has stood out in camp so far. Chris Maragos is a significant loss at safety, and it remains to be seen whether Aaron Henry can regain his pre-injury form as he moves from cornerback to safety.

5. Minnesota: I'm taking a little leap of faith here again, but if safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret are on the field together, good things will happen. The two combined for 159 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2009, and finished with an outstanding performance in the Insight Bowl. I also like talented young cornerback Michael Carter, while Ryan Collado brings experience to the other corner spot. Minnesota expects juco transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins to add depth at safety.

Up next: Offensive line

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It's time to take a look at the top five linebacker units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes boast two of the Big Ten's top 10 linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and they also have good depth. Homan might have been the league's most underrated defender in 2009 after tying for fourth in the league in interceptions (five) and finishing eighth in tackles (8.3 per game). Rolle makes up for his lack of size with speed and explosiveness. Ohio State's supporting cast includes Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Dorian Bell and others.

2. Michigan State: Back-to-back Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones enters the season as the frontrunner to win the Butkus Award. But he's not alone on what should be a loaded linebacking corps. All-Big Ten candidate Eric Gordon has played a ton of football alongside Jones, and the coaches were pleased with Chris Norman this spring. Hopes are extremely high for true freshmen William Gholston, the Big Ten's top-rated recruit, and Max Bullough. It's clear to see why the Spartans are moving closer to the 3-4.

3. Wisconsin: Health remains a concern, as Mike Taylor's knee problems will linger and Chris Borland comes off of shoulder surgery, but Wisconsin has plenty of talent here. Borland is a rare, do-everything player who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. Taylor likely would have contended for the same award if not for a torn ACL against Iowa. The Badgers also bring back Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen.

4. Northwestern: As a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves the look of this group. Senior Quentin Davie is a bona fide NFL prospect who has consistently reached the offensive backfield throughout his career. Middle linebacker Nate Williams enters his third year as the starter, and the coaches have solid options in Bryce McNaul, Ben Johnson and David Nwabuisi. Fitzgerald says this is the most linebacker depth Northwestern has had in his tenure.

5 (tie). Iowa and Penn State: These teams combine to lose five All-Big Ten 'backers from 2009, including first-team selections Pat Angerer (Iowa) and Navorro Bowman (Penn State). But both have historically reloaded at linebacker, and this year should be no different. Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter returns for his third year as a starter, and Jeff Tarpinian and Tyler Nielsen are primed for bigger roles. Troy Johnson and Bruce Davis are two other names to watch, and hopes are high for freshman James Morris. Penn State loses all three starters, but Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu have played a lot of football. Michael Mauti's return from an ACL injury and Penn State's strong recruiting at linebacker also elevate hope for the group.

Next up: Secondary

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As we move closer to the season, I'll be ranking the Big Ten, position by position. After some deliberation, I've decided to change things up and rank only the top 5 units from around the league. While I know you love to rag on the lower-ranked teams and send me spirited e-mails if your team comes in at No. 11, I don't really see much difference between the units ranked in the bottom half of the league.

No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.

The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.

Let's get it started with the defensive line.

1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.

2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.

3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.

4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.

5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.

Up next: Linebackers

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