Michigan Wolverines: B1G position rank 12

Our position-by-position preseason rankings roll on as we get to the linebackers. This is one of the strongest overall position groups in the league, full of returning stars and pro prospects.

Here are the top 10 individual linebackers leading into 2012, based heavily on last year's performance with some consideration given to potential.

1. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, senior: A first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Hodges is a leading contender for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors this season. A big hitter with speed, he had 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in a breakthrough junior campaign. New coordinator Ted Roof could set Hodges loose on more blitzes this season.

2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, junior: Borland switched to middle linebacker last year, and Bret Bielema said he could be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. Borland isn't very tall (at a listed 5-foot-11) but makes up for it with all-around athleticism and instincts. He finished with 143 tackles last season.

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireA new coordinator could help Penn State's Gerald Hodges put up even bigger numbers as a senior.
3. Jonathan Brown, Illinois, junior: Brown made a name for himself last year as sophomore, erupting for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He gets to quarterbacks in a major hurry, and they are not happy to see him.

4. Max Bullough, Michigan State, junior: The captain of the Spartans' outstanding defense from his middle linebacker spot, Bullough has a keen understanding of the game that comes from growing up in a football family. He's also an impressive athlete at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds. His tackle numbers last year (89) weren't huge, but he's got a ton of talent around him.

5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State, junior: Allen is one of those talented guys around Bullough. The Spartans love to use his speed on linebacker blitzes, and for good reason. He had 11 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss last season while flying in from the edge.

6. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, senior: It shows you how good and deep the Big Ten linebacker corps is that Taylor ranks only sixth after racking up a whopping 150 tackles last year. He's always around the ball and has strong tackling skills. It's hard to find a more reliable combo than him and Borland.

7. James Morris, Iowa, junior: He led Iowa with 110 tackles a year ago, though there's a strong feeling that he and the Hawkeyes should have made more plays on defense last season. Morris has started since midway through his freshman season and should continue to improve. Iowa will need its linebackers to make plays behind a young defensive line.

8. Michael Mauti, Penn State, senior: We love Mauti's playmaking ability and sense for the game, and we love the leadership he's shown through the Nittany Lions' crisis. We just hate the fact that he hasn't been able to stay healthy during his career. Here's hoping for some luck in that department in his final go-round, and if so, he has a chance to be among the very best linebackers in the conference.

9. Kenny Demens, Michigan, senior: Demens was named the Wolverines' top linebacker last season after recording 94 tackles and three sacks. He should be a leader of a veteran group that might provide the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012.

10. Will Compton, Nebraska, senior: Last week at Big Ten media days, Bo Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers' defense. He'll also look to become the team's top playmaking linebacker in the absence of Lavonte David. He had 82 tackles a year ago, including excellent performances in key victories over Michigan State and Penn State.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position rankings with a look at the offensive line units.

On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.

Away we go:

1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US Presswire With top tackle Taylor Lewan returning, Michigan fields one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines might have the top tackle in the league with junior Taylor Lewan, and guard Patrick Omameh is a three-year starter. Senior Ricky Barnum is taking over for David Molk at center. Michael Schofield should be solid at right tackle, though the left guard spot remains a competition. It should be a strong starting group, though depth here is a major concern.

3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.

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On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
Denard RobinsonRick Osentoski/US PresswireLast season, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson passed for 20 touchdowns and rushed for 16.
Last week, Adam kicked off the preseason position rankings by looking at running back, the league's most star-studded position in 2012.

Today, we're going to take a look at the position that puts every player under the spotlight: quarterback. We're ranking the top 10 individual players at each spot and then offering team rankings a little later on. These rankings are based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point.

Quarterback is an intriguing group heading into '12. Here's our Top 10:

1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, senior: Say what you will about Robinson's faults -- and we've said plenty about his sometimes erratic throws and Big Ten worst 15 interceptions in 2011. Robinson remains one of the best playmakers in the country and a three-year starter who's got plenty of heroic moments under his belt. He showed improved passing mechanics this spring and should benefit from his second year under Al Borges. And we all know what he can do with his feet. With the league's top precision passers from 2011 all having moved on, Robinson inherits the top spot.

2. James Vandenberg, Iowa, senior: Only 17 returning players in the FBS threw for more yards in 2011 than Vandenberg, who had 3,022, plus 25 touchdowns. His completion percentage needs to improve, as does his road performance, and he won't have Marvin McNutt around anymore. But he's easily the most polished pocket passer in the league heading into the season.

3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, sophomore: Miller still has a lot to learn and he'll be doing so in an entirely new offensive system. Yet he showed flashes of brilliance last year, such as his performance against Michigan or his game-winning play versus Wisconsin. He's got the athleticism to be a tremendous dual threat quarterback. Matched with Urban Meyer's creativity, Miller has enormous potential.

4. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, junior: Martinez put in a lot of time this offseason working on his throwing motion. His dedication to self-correction is very encouraging, and a better understanding of Tim Beck's offense plus more experienced receivers could lead to a higher completion percentage than last year's 56.3. If Martinez can become a reliable passer to go along with his explosive running skills, look out.

5. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, senior: Gray had a rocky beginning to the season as he adjusted back to the quarterback position and a new coaching staff. But in his last five games, he averaged 255 yards of total offense. Of returning Big Ten players, only Robinson, Vandenberg and Martinez were responsible for more total yardage than Gray last season. Like many on this list, Gray has worked on improving his mechanics and accuracy. There isn't a more impressive physical specimen at quarterback than this 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP PhotoCan QB Nathan Scheelhaase lead the Illini to a better end-of-season performance this year?
6. Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin, junior: O'Brien has yet to play a down of Big Ten football but is the presumed starter for Wisconsin. The Badgers hope the Maryland transfer is more like the player of 2010 (2,438 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) than 2011 (1,648 passing yards, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Wisconsin's offensive line and running game should create plenty of open passing lanes, and if O'Brien takes advantage of that he could quickly and easily climb this list.

7. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, junior: After a promising freshman campaign and solid start to 2011, Scheelhaase struggled along with the entire Illini offense. He bounced back with a good bowl game performance against UCLA and now must master the new spread attack under Tim Beckman. There are always going to be questions about Scheelhaase's size and arm strength but not about his intelligence and toughness. Does he have enough skill position complements this year?

8. Kain Colter, Northwestern, junior: Is Colter simply an athlete playing quarterback? Or can he become much more than that? Those are big questions heading into the year for a guy who filled in quite nicely for Dan Persa last year. Colter has elite athleticism but only attempted 22 passes in Northwestern's final 10 games. He could be helped by perhaps the league's deepest receiving corps.

9. Caleb TerBush, Purdue: Though he's being pushed by veterans Robert Marve and Rob Henry, TerBush got the vote of confidence as the starter from Danny Hope after spring ball. Thrust into a starter's role because of injuries to start last season, he improved as the year went on. He'll need to continue working on his decision-making, because the Boilermakers won't hesitate to go to one of their other options.

10. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Maxwell has attempted only 51 career passes in mostly mop-up duty. But he has spent four years in the Spartans' system, being groomed under Kirk Cousins. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he's got the physical and mental makeup needed to be a standout Big Ten quarterback. He just needs more experience.

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