Published Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 10:09 pm / Updated at 11:17 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Big Ten talent level down but on the rise

Ohio State is among the favorites to play for the national title. Its quarterback, Braxton Miller, could push Johnny Football for the Heisman Trophy. Five Big Ten teams may nudge their way into preseason top 25 polls. Penn State provided one of the nation's best on-the-field stories last year.

But when it comes to the league's individual talent, high tide is two years away. Maybe three.

A good share of the most talented skill players — quarterbacks, running backs, linebackers, especially — have transitioned out of the league since 2010. The big-name defensive tackles left en masse last year, including Kawann Short, William Gholston and Jonathan Hankins. Strong recent recruiting classes by Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are only beginning to mature.

This year, two quarterbacks rank among the top three players, with Miller topping the list and NU's Taylor Martinez nipping at his heels. Taylor Lewan — the Michigan offensive tackle who easily could have been a first-round NFL draft pick this year — returned for his senior year. His presence saved me from putting a true junior linebacker — Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, a poor man's Lavonte David who still doesn't take on blocks — in my top three.

If many of the juniors on this list — including Miller, Shazier, OSU cornerback Bradley Roby and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah — stick around for another year, this list will grow in potency. As for now, you wouldn't want to make much of a comparison between this top 20 and the SEC's top 20. There isn't much of one to make.

Big Ten Players to Watch

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (6-foot-2, 205 pounds): Try to tackle a splash of water, and you've approximated how elusive the Big Ten's Heisman Trophy front-runner can be in the open field. Able to shoulder-shake his way out of nearly any jam, Miller ran for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, making him the league's third-best rusher. He also completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he threw only six interceptions, which shows Miller knows how to avoid mistakes. OSU finished undefeated last season, and Miller's virtuosity was the top reason. He has an extra season in Urban Meyer's offense. Now he'll have to stay healthy. Last year's No. 1, Denard Robinson, did not.

2. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-8, 302): He could be the top offensive tackle in the country if he plays like he did in the Outback Bowl, when he generally neutralized South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Lewan did the same one year before to Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. When Lewan is locked in against a top talent, he seems to play better. He has all of the size and athleticism that the best NFL tackles do, and he's projected as a top 10 pick in next year's NFL draft. Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner should feel comfortable knowing his blind side is protected.

3. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska (6-1, 210): The Huskers' most explosive offensive player took a big jump in 2012, accounting for nearly 4,000 yards and 33 total touchdowns as a junior. As fast as any quarterback in college football, Martinez's penchant for the big play came to bear often last year. He conducted fourth-quarter thrilling comebacks at Northwestern and Michigan State, beating the Spartans almost single-handedly with long, breathtaking runs. He'll have to cut down on the turnovers.

4. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State (6-2, 222): He's a top blitzing linebacker and athlete who still wants to run around blockers in the run game instead of taking them head on. When he guesses right or jukes successfully, he's a showstopper. When he doesn't, he's six yards from the play. The kid has an admirable motor; he'll worm his way through a lineman's legs for a tackle if he must. He needs freedom, and OSU's defense gives it to him.

5. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (5-11, 248): Short, squat and tough, Borland is a great fit for the physical, between-the-tackles nature of Big Ten football. He had 104 tackles last year and has 308 in his Badger career. A big hitter and creative tackler, Borland has figured out that few ballcarriers have the center of gravity and balance to shake ankle swipes. Not fast, but fast enough. He's known as a locker room leader, too.

6. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State (5-11, 192): Shutdown city. Roby's a strong, confident corner who finished last year with 17 pass breakups and two interceptions. He can tackle, bump-and-run, and stick his hands in to break up passes. Teams won't test him much this season. Roby might be the Big Ten's most dynamic defensive special teams player, too.

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7. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State (6-3, 242): Ultra-disciplined linebacker who patrols the middle of the Spartans' excellent, stingy defense. He had 111 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss last year. He's very good at fitting his run responsibility and sure tackling. He's average in pass coverage, and quarterbacks can find tight ends over the top of him. Just a shade below the two linebackers above him.

8. Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern (6-0, 190): The true triple threat — a passer, a runner, a receiver — has taken Northwestern's offense to the next level and helped save the defense's legs in the process. The Wildcats have a grind-clock offense, and Colter runs the zone read with efficiency. Can Colter grab the starting job in its entirety? Northwestern would be better off if he did, but coach Pat Fitzgerald likes to turn over the pass-first duties to Trevor Siemian.

9. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan (6-4, 210): All the talent you'd want to pour into a mobile passer, Gardner has. He looked awkward in 2011 when Wolverine coaches tried to integrate him into the offense. He switched to wide receiver for part of last season and returned to QB when then-quarterback Denard Robinson got hurt. Now Gardner will have a full season, no quarterbacks behind him and a pro-style offense at his command. After a slow start, look for Gardner to find his stride. NFL scouts are watching closely.

10. Darqueze Dennard, DB, Michigan State (5-11, 185): If you start for more than two years in the Spartans' salty defense, you're doing something right. Dennard's quick to break on the ball and is one of the better tacklers among Big Ten defensive backs. He's not quite as athletic as his cousin, former Nebraska corner Alfonzo Dennard, but he's close. He's better on deep routes than challenging underneath ones.

11. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (5-8, 190): The junior-to-be stepped up admirably in Rex Burkhead's injury absence, rushing for 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns and returned a punt for a touchdown. If he shrugs off fumble problems — and holds two talented freshmen at bay — he could be the Big Ten's top running back.

12. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern (5-8, 175): He's an elite special teams player who became the team's starting running back in 2012, benefiting from a soft Big Ten schedule and the zone-read talents of quarterback Kain Colter. Mark's slippery in a scrum and plenty fast in the open field. He's not going to duplicate his 1,366 yards and 13 touchdowns from last year, however.

13. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 311): A full-season starter for the Gophers, one of the top recruits in Minnesota's program has morphed from a tight end into a thick, strong tackle in the middle. The transformation took time, but now that Hageman has filled in, look for a big senior year on the order of a Kawann Short or Jerel Worthy. He's bigger than both and possesses more potential.

14. Spencer Long, OG, Nebraska (6-4, 315): The Huskers' latest success story with the walk-on program, the third-year starter from Elkhorn has packed on more than 50 pounds to become NU's best first-team All-America candidate on the offensive line in more than a decade. There's nothing fancy about his style. He takes good steps, sticks to blocks and finishes them. He's a perfect guard: smart to pick up blitzes, unassuming to do the grunt work.

15. Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska (6-1, 185): Big smile, big personality, big hair, big-time playmaker. That's Bell in a nutshell after he caught 50 passes for 863 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore. Teams are now wary of his downfield speed, so he burns defenses with skinny posts underneath the safeties. He also creates opportunities for teammates Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa. For his slight build, he's a committed, consistent blocker.

16. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (6-1, 200): The Badgers return two very good running backs — Gordon and James White — both of whom backed up star Montee Ball last year. Gordon, NU fans might recall, was the sweep back on all of those end-around runs during the Big Ten championship game. After averaging 10 yards per carry last year, Gordon will eventually overtake White as the lead back and be on his way to an NFL draft spot in 2014 or 2015. Look for more than 1,000 yards.

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17. C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (6-7, 265): The Hawkeyes' terrible offense isn't this senior's fault. He caught 45 passes for 433 yards and a touchdown as a junior, and no matter what Iowa's offense does this year, he'll be a bigger part of it. Fiedorowicz played seven positions in high school and starred in hoops, too. Any Big Ten team would take his talents in a heartbeat. So would most NFL teams.

18. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin (6-2, 188): The Badgers' only decent receiving target last year, playing with three quarterbacks and a brand-new offensive coordinator, Abbrederis caught 49 passes for 837 yards and five touchdowns. He's moved on from kick and punt return units, but if Wisconsin still needed him to do it, he could.

19. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State (6-3, 211): He benefited greatly last year from Bill O'Brien's offense — and, for that matter, from the departure of top receiver Justin Brown to Oklahoma. Robinson caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. Look for his numbers to decline by roughly one-third this season as PSU breaks in a new quarterback and turns its attention to the running game.

20. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State (6-7, 308): He's not quite as special as Lewan from Michigan, but clearly the anchor of a line that appeared unsteady at the start of last year. He made the transition from guard in 2011 to tackle last year. Mewhort has a taste of nasty that Lewan sometimes lacks.

Six more to watch

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois (6-1, 235): He missed more than three games because of injury as a junior, but still had 59 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. He's a great athlete and an excellent blitzer who could play a kind of hybrid role if need be. He's not the best power run stuffer.

Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State (6-0, 245): The dive back in coach Urban Meyer's offense, Hyde has separated himself from the pack to become a dependable yardage chewer in OSU's spread offense. He ran for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last year in just 10 games. Those numbers will go up and Hyde will be in the running for All-Big Ten honors. He's overshadowed on that Buckeye offense, but is valuable.

Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan (6-5, 230): He had just 15 catches for 234 yards in his freshman year, but that number will bloom this year as the Wolverines pass the ball more often.

Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State (6-3, 250): A true sophomore who was the nation's top defensive line recruit last year, Spence is likely to start for the Buckeyes this season and pick up relatively where John Simon left off. He's a star in the making.

Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana (6-3, 210): A top Hoosier deep threat last year who caught 51 passes for 805 yards, Latimer has the size and hands to make tough catches outside in a spread offense catered to wide receivers. He forces defenses to occasionally assign a safety to cover him over the top, which opens up the slot routes underneath.

Bruce Gaston, DT, Purdue (6-2, 302): A big boy in the middle who finished with 30 tackles last year for the Boilermakers, and he is headed for continued improvement as a senior.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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