The Big Ten's Top 20 headliners — Part II

2013-06-28T17:10:00Z 2014-07-24T11:57:30Z The Big Ten's Top 20 headliners — Part IIBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The countdown rolls on with the second act. Who are the biggest headliners in the Big Ten for the upcoming football season?

On Friday, we offered the bottom half of our list of 20 players. Now comes the top 10.

Linebackers loom large on this list, but there are three offensive players at the top, and they represent the three schools you’d probably expect at the top.

Buckeyes, Wolverines and Huskers, oh my.

Away we go.

10. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State cornerback: He plays with the same tenacity out there on the island as his cousin Alfonzo did at Nebraska.

Darqueze Dennard already has six career interceptions, including two against the Huskers last year. You’ll likely remember that his 96-yard return on the second pick might have buried Nebraska if not for a penalty that brought it back.

He's that kind of cornerback. He won't just cover you. He'll take from you.

The Spartans aren't light on talent in the secondary, but nobody makes more plays than Dennard.

9. Allen Robinson, Penn State wide receiver: Two years ago, this guy had just three catches all season.

But as a sophomore, he broke down the door, catching 77 passes for 1,013 yards, earning recognition as the Big Ten’s wide receiver of the year.

Bill O’Brien’s offense obviously suits him. The only question now is if Robinson can duplicate those numbers with a new quarterback. Matt McGloin is gone. Robinson will get open, but can the Nittany Lions find a dependable arm to get him the ball?

8. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State linebacker: The Big Ten has some pretty salty linebackers this year.

Shazier could be as good as any of them. A year ago, he had 115 tackles, including 19 for loss. He also had five sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. He was just a sophomore.

Ohio State’s defense had its warts last season. It ranked 34th in total defense, one slot ahead of Nebraska. It’s also a group needing to replace five starters on its front seven.

But Shazier gives the Buckeyes something to build around. It's clear he can make plays. Now, he’ll have to show he can lead, too.

7. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska running back: There’s his 26-yard run in the bowl game that comes to mind. It was in the third quarter against a Georgia defense loaded with pro prospects.

But on that play, none of them had anything on Abdullah. He exploded up the middle for 10 yards, before making a lightning-quick cut to his left. A Bulldog grasped for air. A couple of yards later, Abdullah made another sharp cut to his left. Another Bulldog tackled air.

It was an incredible run against some of the best talent in America.

Expect more such highlights from Abdullah this year. He gained 1,137 yards last fall, and that was with Rex Burkhead in the picture for some games. Along the way, he put to bed the question about whether he could run inside. He rather likes running inside.

Abdullah will need to cure the fumble bug that has occasionally hit him, of course. But the combination of his talent and his search for perfection makes him a very good candidate to be the Big Ten’s best running back if he stays healthy.

6. Max Bullough, Michigan State linebacker: He might be the most important cog in the defense many expect to be the best in the Big Ten.

Some believe he's the best linebacker in the conference. Maybe. If not, he's close.

Bullough had 111 tackles last year, with 12½ coming behind the line of scrimmage. Obviously, coaches around the league respect him plenty, voting him first-team all-conference.

5. Bradley Roby, Ohio State cornerback: Husker fans remember Mr. Roby. He’s the guy who stepped in front of a Taylor Martinez first-quarter pass and was celebrating in the end zone a few seconds later.

Finding the ball is what he does. His 17 pass breakups were third-best in the country. Good in coverage, yes, but he’s also not afraid to put his hat on people, recording 63 tackles last year.

Playing on Sundays is in his future.

4. Chris Borland, Wisconsin linebacker: A proven commodity whose battery always runs high. He's also a way better athlete than some might think. The 245-pound Borland can do a standing-still box jump of 51 inches.

In the past two years, he has 247 tackles. For his career, he has 41½ tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

He’s a magnet for ball carriers. He also shows up in the big settings. In last year’s conference championship game, Borland seemed to always be on the screen, recording 13 tackles.

You might not hear Borland talked up as much this offseason, in part, because it just seems like he's been around forever and everyone likes to talk about the new talent. But for our money, he plays linebacker as well as anybody in the conference.

3. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska quarterback: Remember, there was a split vote last year for all-conference quarterback. The media picked Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. The coaches picked Martinez.

Perhaps this year will settle it.

Last year, Martinez made the jump in completion percentage, getting to 62 percent. Now all the attention will focus on whether the senior can cut down on the interceptions and fumbles that have stood in his way.

The rest of his numbers already are impressive. Martinez threw for 2,871 yards last year. He ran for 1,019. He already owns many Husker career records. But what’s lacking on the resume is a conference championship.

Numbers and all-conference votes aside, a championship is the final note Martinez knows he has to hit.

2. Taylor Lewan, Michigan offensive tackle: Lewan almost assuredly would have been a top-15 pick in the NFL Draft had he come out early last season.

A first-team All-American and the Big Ten lineman of the year, Lewan is a 6-foot-8, 310-pounder who is said to run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds.

Whether that's accurate, Lewan has great footwork for not just his size, but any size. There's a reason he's started 35 games for the Wolverines.

He’s a good man for Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner to have watching his back.

1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State quarterback: Not exactly an original pick, is it? Coming off leading his team to a 12-0 season, nobody in the Big Ten has been the flavor of the offseason like Miller.

There's good reason. The guy gives defensive coordinators headaches, setting a school record as a sophomore by accumulating 3,310 total yards in 12 games.

Some will say he's easily the best quarterback in the league. We're not of that mind, and coaches in the league apparently aren't either.

With a 58.3 percent completion percentage, he didn't throw the ball with as much accuracy as Martinez last year, and will need to bring those numbers up. He did turn it over less, throwing six picks, compared with Martinez's 12, though Miller also threw 114 fewer times.

Miller's elusiveness makes him something special. He racked up 1,271 yards on the ground without the benefit of a conference title game or bowl game.

And given Ohio State's relatively easy schedule, it's very likely you'll hear Miller's name in Heisman Trophy discussions from now until November as long as the Buckeyes keep winning. But the battle to be the best quarterback in the conference might carry enough interest on its own.

Both Miller and Martinez are veterans now who should be near the top of their craft as college quarterbacks.

And while it's true Miller left the 2011 game against Nebraska early with an injury, the record books have the quarterbacks 1-1 against each other as starters. How would everyone feel about a Round 3 in Indy to break the tie?

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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