The seven top pass catchers from 2011 are gone: Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins; Iowa’s Marvin McNutt; Northwestern’s Jeremy Ebert; Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham; Wisconsin’s Nick Toon; Michigan State’s Keshawn Martin; Minnesota’s Da’Jon McKnight. So, who’s best of who’s left? Here’s my ranking of the top 10 receivers in the Big Ten.
1. Keenan Davis, 6-3, 214, Iowa, Sr. Say “hello” to the Big Ten’s leading returning receiver from a receptions-per-game standpoint (4.2). Davis was the yang to Marvin McNutt’s yin last season, catching 50 passes for 713 yards and four scores. To become great, Davis—who never was 100 percent last season because of an ankle issue–needs more consistent hands. Davis could join Kevonte Martin-Manley to form the Big Ten’s top 1-2 receiver punch. And working with star quarterback James Vandenberg will help.
2. Jared Abbrederis, 6-2, 180, Jr., Wisconsin, Jr. Now that Nick Toon is gone, Abbrederis must step up as the No. 1 wideout. Not bad for a former walk-on. He paces all returning Big Ten receivers in receptions (55), yards (933) and touchdown catches (eight). Abbrederis also doubles as a dangerous return man, leading the nation in punt returns in 2011. Abbrederis will be joined by Jeff Duckworth and Chase Hammond to form a nice set of wideouts who figure to work well with Maryland transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien.
3. Roy Roundtree, 6-0, 177, Michigan, Sr. He needs to regain his sophomore year form, when he grabbed 72 passes for 935 yards and seven scores. That year, he set a Michigan single-game record for receiving yards with 246 vs. Illinois. But last season, Roundtree caught just 32 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He will need to step up along with wideouts like Jerald Robinson, Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to help quarterback Denard Robinson.
4. Kenny Bell, 6-1, 185, Nebraska, So. He stepped up as a go-to target last season as a redshirt freshman. The speedy Bell, who will be part of a strong receiving corps that also will include Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner, doubles as a deadly return man. He came on down the stretch to finish the season as the Cornhuskers’ leader in receptions (32), receiving yards (461) and touchdown catches (three). Bell was just the second freshman in Nebraska annals to pull that feat. And the last player who did it (Nate Swift in 2005) went on to become the school’s all-time leader in receptions. Hmmm. Taylor Martinez must get him the ball.
5. Justin Brown, 6-3, 209, Penn State, Sr. He’s a big, physical talent who is ready to emerge as a top target with Derek Moye gone. Brown—also a top return man–is a rare combination of size, speed and athletic ability, but he has battled inconsistency in his career. He needs to be the leader of a unit that also will include Alex Kenney and Shawney Kersey. Now, who will throw to them?
6. Antavian Edison, 5-11, 175, Sr., Purdue, Sr. He was arrested in May and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. Will he be back? The Boilermakers need him after he led the team with 44 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. The year before, Edison caught 32 passes for 316 yards and four scores. If Edison isn’t back, Purdue will likely turn to O.J. Ross, Raheem Mostert and Gary Bush.
7. Michael Thomas, 6-2, 192, Ohio State, Fr. He enrolled early and took part in spring drills. And Thomas impressed, displaying great skill in the spring game. On that day, he was the star, grabbing 12 passes for 131 yards. But don’t be shocked if a veteran like Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Corey Brown, Chris Fields or Tyrone Williams emerges as the top wideout option. Still, Thomas looks like he could be that next great Buckeye receiver.
8. Kofi Hughes, Indiana, 6-2, 211, Jr., Indiana. He’s back after leading the team with 35 receptions for 536 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. And Hughes’ numbers could be even bigger in 2012, as Indiana coach Kevin Wilson has said he wants to pass the ball more. Hughes isn’t a speed demon, but he has a knack for getting open and runs good routes. He also needs to be a leader for a unit that also will include Cody Latimer and Duwyce Wilson.
9. Demetrius Fields, 6-0, 210, Northwestern, Sr. New Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter will want to look his way early and often. Fields has made 31 starts, so he knows the offense. And this student-of-the-game pays attention to the detail and minutiae, while possessing size and sticky hands for a corps that also includes rising talent Christian Jones. Last year, Fields grabbed 32 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. It was the third season in succession that Fields caught at least 24 passes.
10. Tony Lippett, 6-2, 189, So., Michigan State. One of the most versatile players in the nation, Lippett started five games at cornerback last year, caught four passes and ran the ball. But now, Lippett is a full-time receiver. And the Spartans need his speed and athletic ability to bolster a corps that lost B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol. Someone else—Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, DeAnthony Arnett–could emerge ahead of Lippett as Michigan State’s top option. But for now, he looks like the guy who may be new quarterback Andrew Maxwell’s fav target.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.