Numbers don't always tell the whole story. But they usually don't lie.
So when cobbling together a list of the Big Ten's top 15 players, it's hard to ignore that the league most consistently sends offensive and defensive linemen to the NFL. Eighteen combined in the 2012 NFL draft and 14 in 2011. And when three of the NFL's consistently best linemen are Big Ten alums — Joe Thomas of Wisconsin, Jake Long of Michigan and Nick Mangold of Ohio State — it's plain to see: If nothing else, Nebraska's new league does good trenchwork.
The numbers don't lie in the other direction, either. Nine of the league's top 11 pass-catchers in 2011 are gone. So are the Big Ten's top three passers — Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Dan Persa.
But 12 of the league's top 14 rushers return. As do seven of the top 10 tacklers for loss.
What's that make the Big Ten? A league short on truly proven quarterbacks but long on good running backs — with even better lines in front of them. And those offensive lines are forged in grass, mud and little bits of FieldTurf rubber by impressive defensive lines.
So this list, to some extent, reflects that reality. It takes into account the importance of the position — nobody on the field affects more than the quarterback — and how much help a given player receives. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball might be the nation's most productive back, for example, but he had a ton of help in 2011 getting there. More help, arguably, than any other back.
Top 15 Big Ten players to watch
1. Denard Robinson, senior quarterback, Michigan: Just the fourth player in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, Robinson added “BCS bowl winner” to his résumé last year. A make-you-miss-in-a-phone-booth playmaker, Robinson appeared to settle into coordinator Al Borges' pro-style offense midway through 2011, and he throws the ball better now than he did as a freshman. The 6-foot, 195-pounder is the Big Ten's top Heisman candidate and best overall player because of the magnitude of his effect on a game. He's the star of the league. No dispute.
2. Ricky Wagner, senior offensive tackle, Wisconsin: Teammates overshadowed Wagner's superb junior season at the money OL position, left tackle. At 6-6, 320 pounds, Wagner appears, at least on video, enormously strong, because he sometimes sets up to pass block a little late and a little deep, but still stalemates his opponent. As a run blocker, he's good, but the girth, intelligence and sheer cohesion of Wisconsin's offensive line makes it hard to assess just how good he is. As a prospect, he's not perennial NFL All-Pro and former Badger Joe Thomas. He could easily be an Outland Trophy winner like Thomas, though.
3. Taylor Lewan, junior offensive tackle, Michigan: Mel Kiper tabbed Lewan the No. 12 overall prospect for the 2013 NFL draft. I like Wagner more. But, yes, he's a keeper at 6-8, 302 pounds. And he dominated Michigan State defensive end William Gholston in a series of one-on-one matchups in the UM-MSU game last year, which is probably why Gholston sucker-punched him. He held his own vs. Ohio State and Illinois defensive ends, too. Fast. Could and will get stronger. He helped Robinson quite a bit in 2011.
4. William Gholston, junior defensive end, Michigan State: At 6-7, 275 pounds, Gholston looks more like a burly NBA power forward than a football player — and that's a compliment. He's a strong, impressive athlete who finished with 70 tackles and 16 tackles for loss last year. Though he was suspended for a game for the aforementioned punch, he could stand to be a little aggressive vs. opposing blockers between the whistles. But, barring injury, he's still a favorite for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
5. Johnathan Hankins, junior defensive tackle, Ohio State: Plum big at 6-3 and 320 pounds — although his belly suggests that he's really around 340 or 350 — Hankins was one reason Nebraska last year abandoned its power game for a spread offense during its 34-27 win. NU's linemen couldn't really move him. Hankins finished with 67 tackles last year — 14 for loss — and figures to be an early entrant into the draft. Hankins isn't a technician at his spot, but most guys aren't after their sophomore years. He has the upside to be an All-American this year. In fact — chalk it up.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Click the image above to join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
6. Kawann Short, senior defensive tackle, Purdue: Underrated, steady producer for three straight years, during which he's compiled 143 tackles and 33.5 tackles for loss. At 6-3, 310 pounds, he's nearly as hard to move as former Michigan State star Jerel Worthy, and he makes more plays downfield than Worthy did — which is a sign of effort. If the Boilers make a surprise run to the Big Ten title game, Short will be a big reason.
7. Montee Ball, senior running back, Wisconsin: He amassed 2,014 total yards and 38 touchdowns last year thanks to quarterback Russell Wilson and the second-best offensive line in college football. But Ball's a player. A smooth, almost elegant runner, Ball stutter-steps, squeezes, shimmies and scoots. He knows how to find the front pylon of the end zone. He's patient and picks up his feet to avoid ankle grabs. At 5-11, 210 pounds, his upright running style doesn't hurt him much. He doesn't truck many guys, but he's slippery.
8. Travis Frederick, junior interior offensive line, Wisconsin: Another piece of that terrific Badger Bulge, this 6-4, 330-pounder can play guard, center or even tackle in a pinch. He's one of the last guys in the country you want to see pulling around the corner.
9. Gerald Hodges, senior linebacker, Penn State: The best player on the team after a somewhat slow start to his college career, the 6-3, 230-pounder finished with 106 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year. Hodges pushes hard to the ball and plays tough, like a typical Nittany Lion linebacker tends to do.
10. Rex Burkhead, senior running back, Nebraska: Swiss Army Rex can do a little bit of everything, including play Wildcat quarterback. Burkhead is a dangerous open field runner because of his array of moves. He doesn't hit a lot of home runs, but he consistently moves the chains and keeps plays alive. Look for him to top 30 catches this year and play more on the edge now that the Huskers have two true power backs in Mike Marrow and Imani Cross.
11. John Simon, senior defensive end, Ohio State: The Youngstown Cardinal Mooney product is not a first-round NFL draft pick. Doesn't matter. His 6-2, 265-pound frame allows him to play end and tackle. And he plays angry. His motor never quits; he'll crawl to a spot if it turns a ball carrier back toward his linebackers. He finished with 17 tackles and seven sacks last year and bench-presses the NFL Combine standard of 225 pounds more than 40 times. And new coach Urban Meyer compared him to Tim Tebow.
12. Johnny Adams, senior defensive back, Michigan State: After 28 starts, the 5-11, 175-pounder has eight career interceptions and 17 pass breakups. In MSU's spring game, he also played wide receiver and should see time there in the fall. Adams can jump, and he's physical enough to make sure wide receivers don't get an angle for that easy slant pattern.
13. Braxton Miller, sophomore quarterback, Ohio State: In a perfectly strange year for the Buckeyes, Miller played surprisingly within himself for the first half of the year, and when he found his stride midseason, he was the best freshman Big Ten quarterback in some time. Big arm, burly runner. With Meyer's tutelage and an offense that suits his talents, look for the 6-2, 210-pounder to eclipse 3,000 total yards and 30 total touchdowns. So why isn't he higher? Because he has to do it first.
14. Le'Veon Bell, junior running back, Michigan State: With the Spartans' terrific defense and inexperience at quarterback, the 6-2, 240-pound Bell could lead the Big Ten in carries. If his focus is right — a target of criticism from MSU coach Mark Dantonio this spring — Bell's the toughest Big Ten back to tackle. He packs a whale of a stiff arm.
15. James Morris, junior linebacker, Iowa: Here's a risk pick. But, in two years, Morris has 18 starts and nearly 200 tackles and figures to turn into a more explosive playmaker in a new, slightly more aggressive defense. He's been a factor for the Hawkeyes since he stepped on campus, and with a sturdier secondary behind him — and a more athletic defensive line in front of him — he gets the nod over some of the league's better-known 'backers, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Chris Borland.
Contact the writer: