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Spot checks: The Big Ten's most crucial position battles for 2016

Will fifth-year senior Bri'onte Dunn be Ohio State's next starting running back? AP Photo/Bradley Leeb

This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands now. Order online today!

Michigan is looking for a quarterback after saying goodbye to Jake Rudock while Michigan State needs someone to fill Connor Cook's shoes. Ohio State needs to replace Ezekiel Elliott. Who will emerge this fall in some of the Big Ten's most interesting position battles?

East Division

Michigan Wolverines: Quarterback

Houston transfer John O'Korn is the leader in the clubhouse to succeed a surprisingly solid Jake Rudock under center (81.3 QBR in 2015, No. 10 in the FBS), but he's a bit of a wild card. After throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns in his AAC rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2013, he was benched five games -- and eight interceptions -- into 2014. Junior Shane Morris (who redshirted last year), junior Wilton Speight and true freshman Brandon Peters (the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016) will push O'Korn throughout the summer.

Ohio State Buckeyes: Running back

Ezekiel Elliott left large cleats to fill, and not just because he ran for 3,699 yards, 41 TDs and 12 multiple-TD games in his past two seasons. He was also valued as a blocker. And while he was the only RB show in town for two years, the Buckeyes look primed to employ a tailback-by-committee approach this fall. Fifth-year senior Bri'onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Mike Weber will battle for the starting gig, but early enrollee Antonio Williams and hybrids Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson will merit attention too.

Penn State Nittany Lions: Quarterback

Three-year starter Christian Hackenberg departed early for the NFL after two frustrating seasons behind an understocked line in Franklin's system. Hackenberg was durable, attempting all but 75 of PSU's 1,310 passes since '13, making his absence a gaping hole under center. Sophomore Trace McSorley led an inspired comeback attempt (two fourth-quarter TD passes) in last year's bowl loss vs. Georgia after Hackenberg got hurt, so he has a slight edge for the job despite just 13 regular-season attempts. Redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens and early enrollee Jake Zembiec are also fits in Moorhead's new system.

Michigan State Spartans: Quarterback

Mainstay Connor Cook (39 starts in three years) is gone, so coach Mark Dantonio will decide between senior Tyler O'Connor and junior Damion Terry (80 combined career pass attempts). They are both more mobile than their predecessor (116 yards rushing combined in '15, compared with Cook's 56), but O'Connor, with a pro style that Dantonio favors, might hold the edge.

Indiana Hoosiers: Defensive line

Moving from a three to a four-man front will be challenging, especially after the loss of four of the top five D-linemen. With three starts in 2015, senior Ralph Green III has the most experience and might be penciled in as one DT. Junior Robert McCray III will also compete for time inside with Nate Hoff, who had only four tackles as a sophomore after making 29 as a freshman.

Maryland Terrapins: Quarterback

The Terps' pass game was so bad (37.6 QBR, No. 106 in the FBS) that Maryland all but abandoned it. So those aforementioned 29 picks? Even more mind-boggling considering this wasn't a high-volume passing team (387 attempts, No. 82). Seniors Perry Hills (eight starts) and Caleb Rowe (four) must improve to ward off redshirt freshman Gage Shaffer and incoming freshman Tyrrell Pigrome. Otherwise, this spot breaks wide open.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Quarterback

Junior Chris Laviano beat out LSU transfer Hayden Rettig last year but was unspectacular: 16 TDs to 12 INTs. A new staff brings fresh competition. While Rettig boasts the bigger arm, Rutgers' offensive shift from pro-style to power spread (think Ohio State) might favor the slightly more mobile Laviano.

West Division

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Defensive tackle

The heart of the D-line, which helped the Huskers hold opponents to 109.8 rush ypg in 2015 (No. 9 in the FBS), sustained major blows: Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine declared early for the draft, and senior Greg McMullen, a regular on the edge last year (nine starts at DE, four at DT), ended his career to focus on grad school. Senior Kevin Maurice has experience, but the Huskers could go young with twin redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil Davis.

Wisconsin Badgers: Quarterback

Senior Bart Houston emerged in Week 8 when he replaced Joel Stave against Illinois and threw for 232 yards and two TDs. His experience may make him better suited to see the Badgers through a tough slate (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the East), but redshirt frosh Alex Hornibrook looks to be the long-term answer. A Pitt decommit and early enrollee in '15, he has a rocket arm and a strong bond with Chryst, who had recruited him since his junior year at Malvern (Pa.) Prep.

Iowa Hawkeyes: Outside linebacker

The Hawkeyes' stout linebackers helped bottle up big runs last year (only 11 rushes of 20-plus yards allowed, T8 in the Power 5). Iowa's second-leading tackler, weakside LB Cole Fisher, departs, but juniors Ben Niemann and Bo Bower return to duke it out at strongside. Niemann started all 14 games last year, but Bower contributed (15 tackles) and also brings starting experience (13 games in '14).

Northwestern Wildcats: Cornerback

Northwestern loses four-year starter Nick VanHoose, but the Cats are so flush with potential subs that they moved two corners elsewhere -- junior Marcus McShepard to receiver and sophomore Parrker Westphal to safety. Veteran CB Matthew Harris (a senior with 27 career starts) will man one side, and Keith Watkins II and Montre Hartage will vie to line up opposite him. Opposing QBs will avoid Harris (4 INTs, 13 passes broken up in '15), so the Watkins-Hartage competition is pivotal.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: Linebacker

Cody Poock and Jack Lynn return as entrenched veterans (18 combined starts in '15), but the Gophers must fill the outside spot vacated by third-leading tackler De'Vondre Campbell. They have ample options-linebacker is one of Minnesota's deepest units-with the top candidates being junior Jonathan Celestin and senior Nick Rallis, who combined for 61 tackles and 7 TFLs last year.

Purdue Boilermakers: Offensive line

Purdue's goal for the trenches in 2016: Field a lineup. Woes up front last year-lack of size, minimal push-resulted in 30 sacks (T84 in the FBS) and 131.3 rush ypg (No. 108). The Boilermakers lost their two best blockers from '15, and though senior OGs Jordan Roos and Jason King return, and Martesse Patterson and Cameron Cermin look likely for tackle, the hole at center looks more like an abyss.

Illinois Fighting Illini: Defensive end

Before the coaching shuffle, Illinois added Auburn graduate transfer Gimel President to the roster. President started nine games for the Tigers in 2014 before getting demoted to a reserve role last season, so look for the transplant to compete with senior D-linemen Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips to provide a pass-rush boost. Smoot rang up eight sacks last year, but the rest of the Illini combined for only 11.