August 12, 2009

Big Ten preseason unit rankings

MORE: Big Ten preview

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Penn State: QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster are the Big Ten's top 1-2 punch.

2. Ohio State: QB Terrelle Pryor is ready to explode, but can the Buckeyes adequately replace Beanie Wells? Dan "Boom" Herron gets first crack.

3. Minnesota: Adam Weber is one of nation's most underrated quarterbacks. There is talent and experience at running back, a position of emphasis in the new attack.

4. Illinois: QB Juice Williams is looking for a big senior season, but the Illini have a star-less group of running backs.

5. Iowa: Shonn Greene is impossible to replace, but don't discount Jewel Hampton. QB Ricky Stanzi has yet to reach his potential.

6. Wisconsin: It's RB John Clay's turn to be main battering ram in a deep group of backs. But quarterback remains a big issue.

7. Michigan: All eyes are on true freshman QB Tate Forcier, who holds the key to the season. RB Brandon Minor heads a deep collection of runners.

8. Michigan State: Questions abound at running back with workhorse Javon Ringer gone. And who will play quarterback, Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol?

9. Northwestern: QB Mike Kafka holds the key to this offense taking flight. Can he pass? Diminutive RB Stephen Simmons is the man with the top two backs gone.

10. Purdue: QB Joey Elliott is a fifth-year senior who has waited his turn. RB Jaycen Taylor must be healthy after missing 2008 with injury.

11. Indiana: QB Ben Chappell is a capable passer, but the onus is on Darius Willis and the other backs to provide some punch on the ground.

RECEIVERS

1. Illinois: There are numerous talented and quick options, led by WR Arrelious Benn, Florida transfer Jarred Fayson and TE Michael Hoomanawanui.

2. Iowa: Led by WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and TE Tony Moeaki, this is one of the school's top receiving groups in recent history.

3. Wisconsin: WR David Gilreath and TE Garrett Graham continue the Badgers' underrated tradition of pass catchers.

4. Michigan State: Blair White is an underrated wide receiver, while Mark Dell is the deep threat for the Spartans.

5. Michigan: There's talent with Greg Mathews and Martavious Odoms, but is there a quarterback to take advantage of that talent?

6. Ohio State: There are lots of questions to answer with the Brians (Hartline and Robiskie) gone.

7. Penn State: There are myriad questions with Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler gone. Chaz Powell, Graham Zug and Derek Moye must emerge.

8. Minnesota: Eric Decker is a star, but he and his running mates may not see as many passes in a new offense.

9. Purdue: It's vital that some newcomers fill big roles if this group wants to be effective. Keith Smith is a vet who needs to lead.

10. Indiana: This is a young group, and the talent figures to get better.

11. Northwestern: The top three wide receivers are gone, making this unit the Wildcats' biggest question on offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Iowa: This is one of the best lines in the nation, paced by the physical and massive tackle tandem of Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway.

2. Illinois: Three starters return from a unit that has underrated athletic ability and a tough persona.

3. Ohio State: It's time for the big guys up front to get stronger and tougher.

4. Wisconsin: Yes, only two starters are back, but count on another big, strong, vintage Badgers front.

5. Michigan State: The right side of the line must be rebuilt, but this still could be coach Mark Dantonio's best front yet.

6. Michigan: Five starters return, and the hope is that the group blossoms now that it knows what's expected from a technique standpoint.

7. Penn State: With three starters gone, this unit once again is a big question after being a major strength last season.

8. Northwestern: Always an underrated unit, the Wildcats' front returns four starters who are athletic and smart.

9. Purdue: Count on this veteran group being a much-improved unit. The linemen have to get tougher and stronger in short-yardage situations.

10. Minnesota: There are four starters back, but the line must learn a new blocking scheme as the Gophers morph to more of a run attack.

11. Indiana: There's talk this could be the best Hoosiers line this decade, but is that saying much?

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. Ohio State: This group goes two-deep and teems with talent. Es Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson can be difference-makers.

2. Penn State: There's talent, but it's unproven with the top three ends from last year gone. Ts Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu are standouts inside.

3. Michigan: There is a lack of experience, but talent abounds with star E Brandon Graham leading the way.

4. Iowa: There are big holes at the tackle spots. Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard are tough off the edge, though.

5. Indiana: This could be one of the top lines in the Big Ten. Really. Es Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton are dangerous. T Deonte Mack is an anchor inside.

6. Illinois: The biggest key is finding a pass rusher. Will it be Jerry Brown? Watch T Corey Liuget shine.

7. Wisconsin: This inexperienced unit is filled with questions, but E O'Brien Schofield is a proven playmaker.

8. Purdue: Mike Neal will be one of the top tackles in the league. There are lots of promising ends, including Ryan Kerrigan and Gerald Gooden.

9. Michigan State: E Trevor Anderson can bring the heat. But can the interior guys stop the run?

10. Northwestern: Corey Wootton should be one of the top ends in the nation.

11. Minnesota: There are three starters back, but are there any playmakers on a unit that usually gets run over?

LINEBACKERS

1. Penn State: Sean Lee is back from injury and ready to dominate, and Navorro Bowman may be the top defender in the Big Ten.

2. Michigan State: This is an undersized crew that relies on speed. The Spartans have a top duo in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon.

3. Iowa: Workmanlike Pat Angerer emerged as one of the Big Ten's best last fall. A.J. Edds is a quick-striking force off the edge.

4. Ohio State: There is no replacing James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, but the Buckeyes still have talent.

5. Michigan: There is plenty of experience and talent, which is good with the team moving to a 3-4 scheme. Obi Ezeh is the leader. Stevie Brown will play a new hybrid linebacker/safety spot.

6. Northwestern: Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are good building blocks for a corps that always plays hard and rarely is out of position.

7. Illinois: Martez Wilson has been moved to middle linebacker. Will it work? This unit needs to make more plays and be tougher.

8. Wisconsin: Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy are gone, leaving two big holes. Jaevery McFadden must become a star.

9. Indiana: This is a rising unit with better-than-expected athletic ability; Matt Mayberry and Will Patterson are the leaders.

10. Minnesota: There is a nice collection of underrated athletes, but the players are working for their third coordinator in three seasons.

11. Purdue: There appear to be more questions than answers. Newcomers may have to help.

SECONDARIES

1. Ohio State: This should be another standout unit and is paced by the stud safety duo of Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans will have one of the top corner tandems in Ross Weaver and Chris L. Rucker. Each is equally adept in coverage and playing the run.

3. Iowa: Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood form a solid safety duo, and Amari Spievey has a chance to be one of the best corners in the nation.

4. Wisconsin: There are three starters back for a second season in a row, making this yet another strong Badgers secondary. Plus, CB Aaron Henry returns after missing 2008 with injury.

5. Michigan: There are a lot of new faces, as only CB Donovan Warren is a returning starter. But there also is plenty of athletic ability.

6. Northwestern: This looks like the Wildcats' top secondary this decade. Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith are a strong safety duo. Sherrick McManis is a top cover corner.

7. Penn State: This group is under construction, as all four starters from last season are gone. There is talent; it's just inexperienced.

8. Purdue: This should be a strong unit, as all four starters are back. FS Torri Williams was given a sixth year of eligibility. CB David Pender is underrated.

9. Illinois: CB Vontae Davis left school early, but seven players with starting experience are back. Safety play needs to improve.

10. Indiana: There are six players with starting experience. Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, a safety, is a wild card.

11. Minnesota: This will be the most experienced secondary during coach Tim Brewster's three-year tenure, but the unit lacks athletic ability.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Michigan State: There may be no better duo than K Brett Swenson and P Aaron Bates. Swenson led the Big Ten with 22 field goals. And there are plenty of speedy options in the return game.

2. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a dual kicking tandem in Trent Mossbrucker and Daniel Murray. P Ryan Donahue is one of the Big Ten's best. The return game needs juice, though.

3. Wisconsin: WR David Gilreath is a big-time return guy. Philip Welch is a solid kicker, while Brad Nortman is a capable punter.

4. Ohio State: Aaron Pettrey had the top field-goal percentage in the league, but a punter is needed. Ray Small can be a deadly return man if he is cleared to play this season.

5. Michigan: Zoltan Mesko may be the top punter in America, but a kicker is needed. Martavious Odoms is one of several capable return men.

6. Penn State: Jeremy Boone is one of the nation's top punters, but a new kicker must be found with Kevin Kelly gone. And standout return man Derrick Williams also is gone.

7. Purdue: The Boilermakers have an emerging weapon in K Carson Wiggs, while former K Chris Summers has become a decent punter.

8. Northwestern: The coaches like P Stefan Demos, but a kicker needs to emerge.

9. Indiana: Austin Starr is gone, so a kicker is needed. Chris Hagerup is a good punter and Ray Fisher has some skills as a return man.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers have a solid return man in Troy Stoudermire. But kicking and punting are works in progress.

11. Illinois: Special teams have been a sore spot in the Ron Zook era. Arrelious Benn is the top weapon as a return man, and the kicking and punting have been spotty at best.

COACHING STAFFS

1. Penn State: Joe Paterno is an icon who has regained his stride. Tom Bradley (defense) and Galen Hall (offense) are the top coordinator duo in the league.

2. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz has built one of the nation's top programs. A big key has been continuity, with defensive coordinator Norm Park and offensive coordinator Kevin O'Keefe being loyal soldiers.

3. Ohio State: Jim Tressel has built a great defensive staff led by coordinator Jim Heacock. The offensive staff will be under the microscope this season.

4. Michigan: It's just a matter of time before Rich Rodriguez gets his system in place and starts winning big. Greg Robinson is one of the country's top defensive coordinators.

5. Michigan State: No-nonsense Mark Dantonio has restored discipline and toughness. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is a rising star.

6. Wisconsin: This could be a make-or-break season for Bret Bielema. Coordinator Paul Chryst is a top offensive mind, while Dave Doeren is an intense and smart defensive coordinator.

7. Illinois: Ron Zook answered a lot of critics with a Rose Bowl bid after the 2007 season. New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz may provide a needed boost.

8. Northwestern: Coach Pat Fitzgerald continues to grow in the job and is a future star. The arrival of coordinator Mike Hankwitz has given the Wildcats a strong defense.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope takes over after a year as coach-in-waiting. He's a master motivator and underrated technician. Offensive coordinator Gary Nord is a solid veteran.

10. Minnesota: Tim Brewster continues to make strides, scoring a bowl bid last year. Now, it's time to score some big wins. Hiring co-defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove will pay dividends. New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is an unknown.

11. Indiana: Trouble could loom for coach Bill Lynch, whose program has lost the momentum it gained following the 2007 season.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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