Ten biggest spots to fill in Big Ten football

Who has left the biggest shoes to fill in the Big Ten? Spring football is a time for teams to begin to fill those slots with new names.

Interestingly, two names you won’t find on this list are Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead. Each was adequately replaced last season when they were out with injury. Junior Devin Gardner took over for Robinson and did a fine job, offering hope for a more balanced, deadly and conventional offense in Ann Arbor. He threw for 1,219 yards (59 percent completion percentage), 11 touchdowns and five picks and ran for 101 yards and seven scores. Junior Ameer Abdullah played most of the season with Burkhead out, rushing for 1,137 yards and eight scores.

Here’s a look at the 10 biggest shoes to fill. What do you think? Which team will miss which player the most?

1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State. Bell bolted a year early to the NFL after essentially being a one-man gang last season. No one could blame the big fella. It’s a three-man race to replace him, with diminutive junior Nick Hill leading the pack. Jeremy Langford, a junior, and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins also are in the mix. The race will double in the fall with the arrival of three backs—Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton, Delton Williams.
2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin. College football’s touchdown king has left the building. But, don’t weep too much for new Badgers coach Gary Andersen. Senior James White, who ran for 806 yards in 2012 and has 2,571 career yards rushing, and sophomore Melvin Gordon ran for 621 yards in 2012. Still, Ball was an all-time great who had an uncanny nose for the end zone.
3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State. The guy’s leadership and spirit can’t be replaced. Heck, Urban Meyer compared him to Tim Tebow, for crying out loud. And, his production also will be missed. Keep an eye on Adolphus Washington, a 6-3, 292-pound sophomore who showed flashes of big things last season. Junior Steve Miller is another possibility. He left spring ball last season as Simon’s backup.
4. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State. The Buckeyes saw their big fella bolt early for the NFL. No worries. Ohio State has lots of talent on the interior. It may take more than one player to take over for “Big Hank.” Athletic sophomore Tommy Schutt (6-2, 303) could be the guy after showing flashes of big things in 2012. And keep an eye on juniors Michael Bennett and mammoth Joel Hale. Talent teems in Columbus.
5. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State. Mike Hull is stepping in at an outside spot played by Mauti, who was the heart and soul of last year’s 8-4 team. Hull took over late in the season when Mauti went out with injury, showing he has what it takes to be a special player. Hull was sixth on the team in tackles in 2012 with 58 and was third in sacks with four. Gerald Hodges is another key linebacker to replace. Keep an eye on senior Glenn Carson to step up. He’s a veteran hand who made 85 tackles last season.
6. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue. Short was an active and physical force who had a knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The new Boilermakers staff may slide senior Ryan Isaac from end to tackle to help fill the void. The 295-pounder has the frame to battle on the interior, along with senior Bruce Gaston, junior Brandon Taylor and sophomores Michael Rouse and Ryan Watson. Purdue will have a nice set of bodies to rotate on the inside.
7. Brett Maher, K,  Nebraska. He was a standout kicker and punter for the Cornhuskers. But early returns on Mauro Bondi are good. The Floridian has a strong leg and looks poised to continue the Huskers’ tradition of strong kickers. Bondi flashed a big leg in the spring game.
8. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin. He leaves as one of the school’s better blockers in recent years, anchoring the left side. Senior Ryan Groy could be the guy. The 6-5, 318-pounder, who also can play guard, played the spot when Wagner went down with injury last season and looked good. He’s athletic and rangy. Redshirt freshmen Tyler Marz is another guy to watch. At 6-7, 314 pounds, he has the frame to fill the bill.
9. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin. He was the top center in the Big Ten. Now, he’s gone a year early. But staffers are excited about sophomore Dan Voltz, a 6-4, 301-pounder who switched to the position last season and almost played as a true freshman. Voltz could be a future star.
10. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State. Gholston bolted East Lansing a year early. That has created a nice opportunity for sophomore Shilique Calhoun to win the end slot opposite Marcus Rush. The 6-4, 255-pound Calhoun is more of a speed player than a power player, notching 2.5 sacks and six tackles last season. Regardless, he has a nice future. Denzel Drone and Jamal Lyles also could be factors off the edge, too.

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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