Take a moment to open your Big Ten football history books and think back to some of the top position units that have defined the conference’s excellence. Think back to when Penn State first adopted the name “Linebacker U.” Or Purdue’s “Den of Defensive Ends.”
This got me thinking about the upcoming season and what current position units have the chance to make a name for themselves.
Without further ado, here is a breakdown of my top 10 position units in the Big Ten.
1. Ohio State Defensive Line
After having to replace all four starters on the defensive line last season, Ohio State may have the top defensive line in the country. The Buckeyes return a pair of dominant defensive ends, in Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, who combined for 15.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss last season. On the interior, Ohio State has Michael Bennett, who was outstanding in 2013 and should be an All-Big Ten performers. Add in Adolphus Washington, one of the top up-and-coming defensive lineman in the conference, and you have the Big Ten’s top position unit – and maybe the best in the nation. Yes, this group is that good.
2. Nebraska Running Backs
You won’t find many backfields throughout college football as talented as the Huskers’ running back group. This group is led by Preseason All-American Ameer Abdullah, who led the conference in rushing last season. The talented senior tailback rushed for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while averaging 130 yards per game. Junior Imani Cross, the thunder to Abdullah’s lightning, is Nebraska’s goal-line back; in fact, Cross’ 10 rushing touchdowns ranked No. 10 in the Big Ten last season, and he scored on every 8.5 carries, which led the Big Ten. The Huskers also have Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor in the fold.
3. Michigan State Defensive Line
Just like Ohio State, the Spartans have a pretty special group of defensive linemen, which starts with Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. A preseason All-American candidate, Calhoun led the conference with four fumble recoveries in 2013, two of which were returned for touchdowns. His 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss also ranked among the Big Ten leaders. Opposite Calhoun is three-year starter Marcus Rush, who is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. Also in the defensive end mix is Demetrius Cooper, who was one of the Big Ten stars this spring. On the interior, look for Joel Heath and Damon Knox to have big seasons. That group is loaded with talent and depth and should be looked at as the strength of what was the nation’s top defense in 2013.
4. Wisconsin Running Backs
If James White was still around, this would potentially be the top running back unit in the nation this season. However, even with White off to the NFL, this group is stacked with talent, led by All-Big Ten running back Melvin Gordon. A likely Heisman Trophy candidate heading into this season, Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards last year, while averaging 7.8 yards per tote. He will share backfield duties with sophomore Corey Clement, who looked outstanding in a backup role en route to racking up 547 yards and seven touchdowns as the third option. These two combined for more than 2,200 yards last year. That’s impressive.
5. Penn State Tight Ends
Seeing a group of tight ends this high up on the list may surprise a few people, but then again, it’s not every day you see a trio of tight ends as dominant as what Penn State has right now. The Nittany Lions’ trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman combined to haul in 58 catches for 741 yards and nine touchdowns. Now, with Allen Robinson off to the NFL, there will be more passes to go around for this talented group. Don’t be surprised if this trio tops the 75 catch, 1,000 yard, 10 touchdown mark in 2014. They certainly have the talent to do it.
6. Maryland Wide Receivers
Maryland enters its first season in the Big Ten with a bevy of talented wide receivers. Leading the way is junior-to-be Stefon Diggs, who should be one of, if not, the top wideout in the conference this season. He is joined by the likes of Levern Jacobs, Amba Etta-Tawo, Deon Long and Nigel King. So, we ask, just how good is this group? Well, all five of these Maryland wideouts caught more than 30 passes, and all five recorded 450-or-more receiving yards in 2013. Now, that’s what we call “quality depth.”
7. Wisconsin Offensive Line
This group is consistently one of the best in the Big Ten on a yearly basis, so it’s no surprise to see them in this spot. All five projected starters on Wisconsin’s offensive line have plenty of playing experience, led by offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media in 2013. This group should pave the way for one of the explosive rushing attack featured at No. 4.
8. Michigan Cornerbacks
The Wolverines haven’t had a dominant defensive backfield in some time now, but that could change in 2014. Michigan returns both starting cornerbacks in Blake Countess and Ramon Taylor. Countess was a first-team All-Big Ten member last season, teaming up with Taylor for 10 interceptions. Joining that group will be sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who was beyond impressive this spring, as well as mega-recruit Jabrill Peppers, who is the No. 2-ranked prospect in the nation. This group is simply loaded with talent, from top to bottom.
9. Iowa Offensive Line
This is another group that seems to be among the top position groups every year, and this year shouldn’t be any different. The Hawkeyes’ offensive line is led by Brandon Scherff, who was an All-Big Ten selection last season. Also returning is Andrew Donnal, who will likely make the move from guard to right tackle, and center Austin Blythe. This group helped pave the way for three 400-plus yard rushers last season, all of who return in 2014.
10. Indiana Quarterbacks
Yes, it is a bit rare to see a group of quarterbacks on a list like this, but when talking about talent and depth, you won’t find a better 1-2 QB punch in the Big Ten than Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. These guys split time at quarterback for the Hoosiers last season, and it worked to perfection. Sudfeld is more of a pocket passer, throwing for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, while Roberson is a dual-threat option, adding 423 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, to go along with his 1,128 yards and 15 touchdown strikes. This duo is interchangeable and gives Indiana coach Kevin Wilson options in his fast-paced, explosive offense.
|About Sean Merriman||BTN.com web editor Sean Merriman covers football and men’s basketball and provides original content for BTN.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BTNSean.|