Bucknotes: Ranking The Best Of The Big Ten
Troy Smith
Troy Smith
Assistant Editor
Posted Sep 18, 2006


In this edition of Bucknotes, Dave Biddle takes an in-depth look at the best skilled position players in the Big Ten. You can probably guess the top quarterback in the conference, but if you want to know one man's opinion on the 11th-best tailback, or eighth-best receiver that the league has to offer, click here for more.

With the Big Ten season upon us, here is one man’s opinion on the best offensive skilled position players in the conference.

QUARTERBACKS

1. Troy Smith, Ohio State, Sr. (Smith is the early front-runner for the Heisman and could go down as the best QB in OSU history if he keeps up this pace. He has a cannon for an arm, he’s accurate and is a fiery leader. He hasn’t rushed the ball much this year, but that will likely come later in the season. Smith leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency at 177.4. He is 56-of-81 (69.1 percent) for 769 yards and seven touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception in his last 152 passes, a streak that dates back to the Northwestern game last year.)

2. Chad Henne, Michigan, Jr. (It is tough picking the No. 2 QB in the Big Ten, but Henne gets the nod over Drew Stanton and Drew Tate. Henne has a strong arm and appears to be a more confident player this year. He doesn’t have good mobility, but he’s not a complete statue in the pocket either. I didn’t see much improvement from his freshman to sophomore year, but he looks to be an improved player this year. His favorite pass must be the deep fade. He shows good touch and accuracy on those balls.)

3. Drew Stanton, Michigan State, Sr. (Again, you could pretty much flip a coin between Stanton and Tate, but Stanton gets the edge here. He has thrown for 682 yards [68.3 completion percentage] with six touchdowns and two interceptions this year. He can also do damage on the ground and has amassed 193 rushing yards (6.4) and three touchdowns. He is the reason MSU could be the surprise team in the Big Ten this year and I think he will be a good NFL quarterback as well. Still a little surprised MSU didn’t redshirt him as a freshman.)

4. Drew Tate, Iowa, Sr. (Tate missed the Hawkeyes’ week two scare at Syracuse with a strained abdominal muscle, but returned and played well in last week’s win over Iowa State. Tate was a first-team all-conference selection as a first-year starter in 2004, and had an even better year in 2005 with 2,828 passing yards [62.2 percent] 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He is another QB that can do damage on the ground and is especially effective on broken plays. He struggled and then some against OSU last year with 146 passing yards and minus-34 rushing yards, but I’m willing to bet the Buckeyes will see his best game this year in Iowa City.)

5. Bryan Cupito, Minnesota, Sr. (Cupito is a three-year starter from Cincinnati and had the best game of his career against Ohio State last year with 396 passing yards. So far this year he is 37-of-56 (66.1) for 537 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. His 168.9 passer rating is second in the conference behind Smith.)

6. Anthony Morelli, Penn State, Jr. (The Nittany Lions made a huge mistake in not redshirting Morelli one of the last two years. He threw a total of 20 passes last year, and just 13 as a true freshman in 2004. I hope it was worth it. He was one of the top prospects in the nation in ’04 and was the No. 2 QB in the region behind fellow Pennsylvania-native Henne. Thus far in 2006, Morelli is 48-of-92 [52.2] for 549 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception. He has a strong arm and Buckeye fans will see first-hand what he can bring to the table this Saturday. He will try to become the first PSU quarterback to win in Columbus during Big Ten play. The odds are stacked against him facing a better-than-we-thought OSU defense.)

7. Curtis Painter, Purdue, Jr. (Painter currently leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 897. He also has six touchdowns and five interceptions for the 3-0 Boilermakers. Purdue has a pass-oriented offense, which will make Painter’s stats look good, but he is a big QB at 6-4, 230 with a strong arm. The Boilers have played a weak schedule thus far, but they are still a much improved team this year thanks in part to the play of Painter. Ohio State won’t see what he has to offer until next year.)

8. John Stocco, Wisconsin, Sr. (Stocco is a solid quarterback who has always benefited from having a strong running game. He is a three-year starter who has played well thus far this season [36-of-63, 436 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT]. He doesn’t have a strong arm, but as the Buckeyes found out in 2004, he can make plays in big moments in the air or on the ground.)

9. Isaiah Williams, Illinois, Fr. (Williams is a true freshman and was one of the top QB recruits in the nation last year. He has been splitting time with senior Tim Brasic, but Williams played the majority of the snaps in the Fighting Illini’s loss to Syracuse last Saturday and will likely be the full-time QB going forward. He could be a good one in time.)

10. Blake Powers, Indiana, Jr. (Powers looked very good at times as a first-year starter in 2005 with 2,305 yards and 22 touchdowns, but he also led the conference with 16 interceptions. The 6-4, 225-pounder was injured in the 2006 opener against Western Michigan and was replaced by freshman Kellen Lewis.)

11. Mike Kafka, Northwestern, Fr. (Kafka, a redshirt freshman, beat out sophomore C.J. Bacher in preseason camp. He has been decent against NU’s soft schedule thus far, hurting teams with both his arm and legs [355 passing yards, 164 rushing].)

RUNNING BACKS

1. Antonio Pittman, Ohio State, Jr. (Homer Simpson just called and wants his first name back. I know, but I also think Pit has established himself as the top tailback in the conference. If the 1,331 yards and 5.5 per carry last year didn’t prove it, how about his 340 yards and 6.7 average so far this season? Pittman has excellent vision and cutting ability. He’s quick if not especially fast. And somehow he packs a little punch in his 197-pound frame. I’m starting to wonder if he will leave early for the NFL after this season.)

2. Mike Hart, Michigan, Jr. (Hart took the Big Ten by storm as a true freshman in 2004 with 1,455 yards [5.2] and nine touchdowns. A foot injury limited him to 662 yards [4.4] and four touchdowns last year. He has struggled in both games against Ohio State, but is clearly one of the best backs in the country. This year, he has 386 yards [4.8] and has not rushed for a touchdown as the Wolverines have also incorporated bruiser Kevin Grady. Hart has outstanding vision, doesn’t fumble and breaks tackles.)

3. Tony Hunt, Penn State, Sr. (Hunt was the “other running back” in PSU’s class of 2003, but he has consistently outperformed Austin Scott. Last year, Hunt averaged a robust six yards per carry and finished the season with 1,047 rushing yards and six touchdowns. This year, he has 253 yards [5.8] and two scores. Ohio State’s defense struggled against the run the first two weeks of the season and with a first-year starting quarterback you know Penn State is going to try and establish Hunt on Saturday.)

4. Albert Young, Iowa, Jr. (Young is one of the most underrated players in the country. He edged Pittman by three yards last year with 1,334, and has 223 yards and two touchdowns this season. A native of New Jersey, Young played as a true freshman in 2004, but missed most of the season with injuries. He suffered a broken fibula early in the year, and after returning from that injury, he tore an ACL. This is the first season since Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa that both his starting tailback and starting quarterback have returned.)

5. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin, Fr. (Another year, another new productive running back in Madison. What else is new? I thought the Badgers were going to take a serious hit with Brian Calhoun’s foolish decision to leave early for the NFL, but Hill had other ideas. The 5-11, 242-pound bowling ball out of New York currently leads the Big Ten with 415 rushing yards. He is also averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has five touchdowns. We’ll see how he responds as the games get tougher, like this week at Michigan. He won’t have to dodge the Silver Bullets until next year.)

6. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern, So. (Here’s a debate you have never heard: Should the Buckeyes have taken Sutton in their 2005 recruiting class, or Maurice Wells? Just kidding. Maybe you have heard that one once or twice. Sutton, Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2004 out of Akron Hoban, exploded on the scene last year as a true freshman with 1,474 yards [5.9 per carry] and 16 touchdowns. He added 44 receptions for 396 yards and two scores. This year was expected to be rougher with a new quarterback at the helm, and so far it has been. But Sutton still has 253 rushing yards [5.6] and one touchdown to his credit.)

7. Javon Ringer, Michigan State, So. (Ring up another talented player from Ohio that is excelling in the Big Ten. Ringer, from Dayton’s Chaminade-Julienne, is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and has 356 rushing yards and one touchdown. The 5-9, 198-pound Ringer is almost a clone of the 5-9, 190-pound Sutton. Both players are quick and powerful. Ringer probably has more breakaway speed.)

8. Chris Wells, Ohio State, Fr. (Again, I think I hear Marge calling me for dinner, but you could make an argument that Wells is the sixth-best RB in this conference. The only reason people don’t know it yet is because of Pittman. Wells is an imposing force at 6-2, 230 and has surprising quickness for such a powerful player. He will see more carries as the season progresses.)

9. Kory Sheets, Purdue, So. (Here’s a guy a lot of Big Ten fans might not know much about yet. Sheets was productive last year as a redshirt freshman with 571 yards [5.5] and 10 touchdowns. This year, he leads the Big Ten with eight touchdowns and has 245 rushing yards on 5.4 per carry. He’s 6-0, 199 and is a native of Connecticut.

10. Alex Daniels, Minnesota, So. (Daniels was one of the top prospects in Ohio as a linebacker at Columbus Brookhaven. Due to the losses of Laurence Maroney to the NFL and Gary Russell to academics, the Gophers moved Daniels to running back and he has responded with 277 rushing yards [5.0] and five touchdowns thus far. He is a load at 6-3, 255. He could easily be higher on this list, but I want to see more of him at RB.)

11. Pierre Thomas, Illinois, Sr. (Here is another player that could be higher on the list, for lifetime achievement if nothing else. Pierre has played on bad teams with bad quarterbacks throughout his career, but has always been productive. His best season came in 2004 with 893 rushing yards [5.9] and eight touchdowns. This year, he has 189 yards [6.5] and two scores.)

12. Demetrius McCray, Indiana, Fr. (The redshirt freshman has 84 rushing yards [4.9] and one touchdown through three games. Looks like he has an opportunity to be a rare four-year starter at tailback.)

WIDE RECEIVERS

1. Ted Ginn Jr., Ohio State, Jr. (Is there really much to be said here? Ginn will be a first-round pick in the 2007 NFL draft and has grown into quite a good receiver at OSU. He was always an explosive player, but he seems to have mastered the nuances of being a top-flight receiver, including route-running and blocking. Ginn has 14 receptions for 253 yards [18.1] and a Big Ten best five touchdowns.)

2. Mario Manningham, Michigan, So. (Manningham has been a playmaker at UM from the moment he stepped on campus. He had several big plays last year, including the game-winner over Penn State with no time on the clock. This year, he has nine catches for 208 yards (23.1) and four touchdowns. He will need teammate Steve Breaston to step up or he will begin to see more double teams.)

3. Anthony Gonzalez, Ohio State, Jr. (Umm. Pork chops. Is there any Duff Beer left, Honey? But seriously, how can’t you put Gonzo near the top of this list? He has great hands and isn’t afraid to take a hit over the middle. He’s clutch, almost as fast as Ginn, runs great routes… basically everything you want in a receiver. And I know it’s an old cliché, but this guy would sleep in a tent if you told him it would make him a better player. So far this year he has 17 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns. If he played at Purdue he would finish the year with 200 receptions and 3,000 yards. OK, maybe not. Only if he played at Texas Tech might that happen. I’d put Gonzalez second on this list, but I think Bart wants to use the computer and I need to hurry up.)

4. Dorian Bryant, Purdue, Jr. (Bryant had 80 catches last year and a league-high 7.3 grabs per game. This year, he leads the conference with 21 receptions for 292 yards, and also has two touchdowns. He’s not big at 5-10, 180 pounds, but has good speed and reliable hands.)

5. Steve Breaston, Michigan, Sr. (Breaston is most dangerous as a return man, but he is also a solid receiver for the Wolverines. He never became the star that many projected, but he’s still among the Big Ten’s elite due to his speed and moves in the open field. He has 12 catches for 135 yards [11.3] and no touchdowns this year.)

6. James Hardy, Indiana, So. (The 6-7 Hardy had 61 catches for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. This season, he is dealing with the loss of his starting QB and has just seven receptions for 112 yards and one TD. But Hardy is still one of the conference’s best.)

7. Derrick Williams, Penn State, So. (Williams broke his arm against Michigan last year and is off to somewhat of a slow start this season. But he is still one of the most explosive players in the conference and will likely put up bigger stats as the season progresses.)

8. Logan Payne, Minnesota, Sr. (Payne has 13 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns this year. He seems to have surpassed Columbus native Ernie Wheelwright as Cupito’s top target. Payne and Wheelwright led the team with 37 receptions apiece last year.)

9. Dominique Douglas, Iowa, Fr. (The redshirt freshman has emerged as the Hawkeyes’ top wide receiver with nine catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. Iowa lost its top three WRs from last season.)

10. Matt Trannon, Michigan State, Sr. (Trannon, who also played on Michigan State’s basketball team, has 19 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns this year. He is a big target at 6-6, 230 and is either the Spartans No. 1 or No. 2 WR depending on the day.)

11. Kerry Reed, Michigan State, Sr. (Reed is the other receiver that has stepped up for Stanton and the Sparants. He has 16 catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.)

I’ll revisit these lists following the season to see how they end up. Right now, the strongest position group clearly is running back. Even the bottom-feeders of the group are quality players. I like the top four quarterbacks very much, especially Smith at the top. It will be interesting to see how the young QBs at the bottom of the list will develop. Overall it’s a pretty solid group. The league isn’t tremendously deep at wide receiver, but definitely has its share of stars at the top with Ginn, Manningham and Gonzalez.





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