2017 Football Preview: Every Big Ten Team's Most Likely Offensive and Defensive POY

By Jeremy Karll on July 27, 2017 at 11:00 am
JT Barrett, Offensive Player of the Year?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Media Days took place this week, meaning football is right around the corner. With Media Days come preseason predictions in which Iowa is picked fourth, the release of a new depth chart and news that Iowa will be wearing alternate uniforms at some point this season.

It's also when writers cast their votes for the Big Ten's Preseason Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year. Unsurprisingly, Josey Jewell finished second, but Akrum Wadley somehow received zero votes. While Wadley is one of the biggest snubs, every team feels like it should have at least one offensive and defensive player in the running. 

Iowa Hawkeyes

Offense: RB, Akrum Wadley – No one is saying Akrum Wadley is as talented as Saquon Barkley or will receive as many carries as Justin Jackson, but it’s borderline criminal that Wadley received zero votes for the Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Wadley is as elusive as any running back in the conference and will be a focal point of Iowa's offense as it tries to break in a new quarterback. James Butler will take away some carries, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wadley, who gained 1,396 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 total touchdowns in 2016, thrived next to LeShun Daniels last season. Butler will provide a reliable backup to give Wadley rest from time to time. It worked last year when both Wadley and Daniels rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 touchdowns each. After he single-handedly carried Iowa’s offense to a win over Michigan, Wadley is still being underrated. He can run, catch out of the backfield, and his elusiveness makes him capable of breaking a big run at anytime.

Defense: LB, Josey Jewell – Josey Jewell is as consistent as they come. He’s all over the field on almost every play, resulting in leading the team and finishing second in the conference in tackles for two consecutive seasons. Jewell would have led the conference in tackles last season if he didn’t get ejected in Iowa’s season-opening win over Miami (OH), considering he finished just one tackle behind Indiana’s Tegray Scales. There are also few linebackers as good as Jewell against the pass. His nine pass deflections last season led the team and equaled the likes of Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Ohio State’s first round pick Marshon Lattimore. Also, it will be extremely hard not to name him the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year if Jewell intercepts four passes again like he did in 2015.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Offense: RB, Kendrick Foster – Lovie Smith will have to establish a strong run game in 2017 to be successful. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. completed 44.4 percent of passes last season and threw more interceptions than touchdowns, which takes wide receiver Malik Turner out of this discussion, too. After beating out Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who is now at Vanderbilt, Kendrick Foster will get the bulk of the carries between he and Reggie Corbin. He only rushed for 720 yards in 2016, but he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and eclipsed 100 yards three times. In the six games he received at least 10 carries, Foster averaged 5.03 YPC and scored four of his seven touchdowns. Not being a huge factor in the pass game and Illinois possibly being the worst team in the Big Ten West severely hurts his chances, though.

Defense: DB, Stanley Green – Illinois losses key defensive players in Hardy Nickerson, Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips from a defense that ranked just 94th in the nation in scoring defense. Tre Watson is the Illini’s leading returning tackler, but I think Stanley Green makes the biggest impact. Green only appeared in eight games as a true freshman. He still recorded double-digit tackles three times, including a season-high 12 tackles against Iowa, and led all freshmen in the nation with three forced fumbles. He obviously has a lot of talent and that experience will help him this season when he gets more chances.

Indiana Hoosiers

Offense: WR, Simmie Cobbs – Simmie Cobbs has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s top receivers in 2017 if he can stay on the field. He was suspended for Indiana’s first game in 2016 before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the next game. Last week, Cobbs was arrested again at a concert after not complying with security. The last time he was on the field in 2015, he recorded 60 catches for 1,035 yards and four touchdowns. Therefore, he is obviously talented and would be a welcome target for Richard Lagow after he threw 17 interceptions last season. However, it won’t matter if he can’t stay out of trouble.

Defense: LB, Tegray Scales – This was a pretty easy choice. Tegray Scales led the conference in tackles (125), tied for ninth with seven sacks and led the nation in tackles for loss (24) and solo tackles (92). His streak of six straight games with double-digit tackles also led the nation, according to DraftWire. Seales has a very good chance of being the DPOY if he intercepts multiple passes like he did as a freshman and sophomore. He stuffs the stat sheet, cleans up Indiana’s messes and is an elite pass rusher. And he apparently wants to pursue an MMA career if the NFL doesn't work out

Maryland Terrapins

Offense: RB, Ty Johnson – Ty Johnson might have been the most underrated running back in the conference last season. He finished 2016 with 1,004 rushing yards, 206 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and his efficiency is uncanny. Johnson only had double-digit carries three times last season, but he gained 1,210 yards from scrimmage by averaging 9.1 yards per carry, 12.9 yards per reception and 10.4 yards per touch. Lorenzo Harrison, who rushed the ball 88 times last season, is still there and Johnson likely won't continue that kind of efficiency, but it won’t matter if he receives more carries.

Defense: LB, Jermaine Carter Jr. – Jermaine Carter is the heart and soul of Maryland’s defense, but Jesse Aniebonam deserves an honorable mention. Carter finished second on the team in tackles (101), tackles for loss (9), sacks (6) and passes defended (4), while leading the team with two forced fumbles. Over his 25 straight starts, Carter has been able to make plays behind the line, as he also recorded 14 tackles for loss in 2015. Also, after not recording a sack in his first 21 games, he finally got to the quarterback in 2016. The Terrapins need him to have a repeat of last season to avoid giving up too many big plays.

Michigan Wolverines

Offense: QB, Wilton Speight – Michigan has to replace its three 500-yard receivers from a year ago and a running back in De’Veon Smith that gained 846 yards and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. Luckily for Michigan, Wilton Speight returns. Speight didn’t put up gaudy numbers last season, but his efficiency was off the charts. He ranked sixth in the conference in passing yards and touchdowns, but Speight finished second in completion percentage and passing yards per attempt, third in passing efficiency rating, and threw only seven interceptions. Not being a threat on the ground, as he gained -60 rushing yards, hurts his chances of being named OPOY, though. However, Michigan needs him to be better in 2017 as it tries to replace its biggest playmakers and deals with an inexperienced offensive line. That's assuming Jim Harbaugh doesn't throw a curveball and start someone else.

Defense: DE, Rashan Gary – Just like on offense, Michigan has to replace basically all its top contributors on defense from a year ago. That leaves a ton of opportunities for Rashan Gary. He’s on the Walter Camp Award watch list and Jim Harbuagh probably wants to see him step up as a leader on a defense that returns one starter. It makes sense considering he was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2016. Gary didn’t see a ton of time on the field in 2016 as a backup. However, he flashed potential against Central Florida when he recorded season-highs of six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.

Michigan State Spartans

Offense: RB, L.J. Scott – L.J. Scott was one of the only playmakers on one of the Big Ten’s worst offenses last season. With a questionable passing game, the Spartans would be smart to give Scott more than 200 carries after he ended 2016 with 994 yards on 184 carries (5.4 yards per carry). To really be in the running, though, Scott needs to become a bigger threat in the passing game (13 receptions, 162 yards through his first two seasons) and get closer to the 11 rushing touchdowns he had in 2015. If the Spartans have a respectable offense this season, it will be due to Scott.

Defense: DE, Demetrius Cooper – Demetrius Cooper is back on the team after being suspended for most of the offseason. He will play a huge role in Michigan State's pass rush if he can stay out of trouble. Cooper sacked the quarterback a team-high 2.5 times and finished second in tackles for loss with six in 2016. Michigan State will expect a lot more from Cooper considering it only recorded 11 sacks last season. The Spartans' defense will have to greatly improve for Cooper to be a legitimate candidate, but he has shown the ability to get to the quarterback in the past with his five sacks in 2015. He will now have to handle the pressure of being a leader on the defensive line, though.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Offense: RB, Rodney Smith – This is one of the easiest choices. Minnesota has a starting quarterback with 17 career pass attempts in Conor Rhoda and Drew Wolitarsky, its only receiver with at least 25 receptions last season, graduated. That leaves the offense to Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith is by far the Gophers' top playmaker. He led the team in rushing attempts (240), rushing yards (1,158), total touchdowns (16), and is one of Minnesota's top returning receivers with 188 yards on 23 receptions. His workload and ability to find the end zone will give him a chance to put up more big numbers, but Minnesota has to be better for him to be a legitimate OPOY candidate.

Defense: DT, Steven Richardson –  Steven Richardson is the star of Minnesota's defense and one of the best defensive lineman in the conference. In fact, PFF ranks him as one of the best returning interior defenders in the nation. Through his first three seasons, Richardson has consistently made plays in the backfield. He has recorded 25 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in his career, including 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten. Richardson is Minnesota's most important player if it wants to hold runners to 3.4 yards per carry again. 

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Offense: QB, Tanner Lee – Some think Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is an NFL-caliber quarterback and could emerge as one of the conference's top quarterbacks this season. He should have receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. to throw to, but the hype around Lee is mostly based on potential. He dealt with injuries and inexperienced receivers at Tulane, which hurt his numbers. In two seasons, he threw for 3,601 yards, 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Lee isn't as mobile as Tommy Armstrong, which actually makes him a better fit for Nebraska's Pro-Style offense, but it's hard to know what he's capable of against Big Ten competition after playing in the AAC. 

Defense: DE, Freedom Akinmoladun – Nebraska's defense will change from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 with the hiring of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. That makes Freedom Akinmoladun's role on Nebraska's defensive line very important. Despite playing in four more games in 2016 than in 2015, Akinmoladun recorded three fewer tackles for loss and 1.5 fewer sacks. His three sacks last season are the most among returning players, though. He can have an even bigger year in 2017 if he becomes a better pass rusher. 

Northwestern Wildcats

Offense: RB, Justin Jackson – Clayton Thorson improved last season, but this is Justin Jackson's offense. At 5-11, 193 pounds, it's incredible that he's been able to carry the ball 855 times, including 312 and 298 carries over the past two seasons, over his three-year career. He also caught a career-high 35 passes last season and scored 15 touchdowns. His 5.1 yards per carry isn't amazing, but he clearly benefits from a huge workload. Jackson is also just 356 yards away from becoming Northwestern's all-time leading rusher and 1,134 yards from surpassing LaDainian Tomilson for 10th all-time in NCAA history. Expect Jackson to rush for around the 1,524 yards he did last season and score double-digit touchdowns for a third time. Jackson needs to have a huge year if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West.

Defense: S, Godwin Igwebuike – Godwin Igwebuike has gotten better in each of his three seasons at Northwestern, culminating in a 108-tackle season in 2016. As he prepares for his senior season, Igwebuike is one of the premier safeties of the Big Ten. He led Northwestern and finished fourth in the Big Ten in total tackles last season, including being one of two players in the conference with at least 70 solo tackles. Igwebuike also added seven pass deflections, six tackles for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble. With Anthony Walker and Ifeadi Odenigbo in the NFL, Igwebuike is Northwestern's defensive star.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Offense: QB, J.T. Barrett – Mike Weber is a great talent at running back, but Ohio State's offense runs through J.T. Barrett. Despite Barrett's emergence, decline and reemergence as Ohio State's quarterback throughout the years, this will be the second consecutive season he's the Buckeyes' unquestioned quarterback. Last season, Barrett ranked third in completion percentage (61.5 percent), fourth in passing efficiency rating (135.3), and accounted for 33 total touchdowns to just seven interceptions. That said, Barrett needs to put up similar numbers to his freshman season when Ohio State won the national championship. If he accounts for 45 touchdowns, throws for nearly 3,000 yards and rushes for almost 1,000 more yards, it will be hard not to give him the OPOY award. It would also be extremely hard to beat Ohio State.

Defense: DE, Tyquan Lewis – Ohio State's defensive line will once again wreak havoc on Big Ten offenses. Tyquan Lewis, the Big Ten DPOY media pick, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa sacked the quarterback 16.5 times in 2016. However, Lewis is the pick here because of his consistency over the past two seasons. Lewis has led the Buckeyes in sacks (8 in 2015 and 2016) for two seasons and ranked second in tackles for loss in 2015 (14) but led the team in 2016 (10.5). He also recorded 25 fewer tackles last season, but he set career-highs with three forced fumbles and two pass deflections. He's been too consistent not to vote for him, and now he has the extra motivation of playing his way into a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Offense: RB, Saquon Barkley – There's no question that Saquon Barkley is the best player in the Big Ten. Barkley running through Iowa's defense is a game all Hawkeye fans want to forget. He's a great runner and receiver and you might have seen some videos of Barkley lifting an unbelievable amount of weight this off-season. Someone who runs a 4.38 40-yard shouldn't be able to do that. He's going to be a Heisman favorite all season and will add to his five career games of at least 190 rushing yards. 

Defense: S, Marcus Allen – Marcus Allen is probably best known for blocking Ohio State's field goal in the fourth quarter which turned Penn State's season around. He's also a tackling machine. Allen led Penn State with 110 tackles, third in the Big Ten, and 57 solo tackles, ninth in the conference. He stepped up in Penn State's biggest games, too. Other than the blocked field goal, Allen recorded seven tackles and two pass deflections against Michigan, 11 tackles against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and nine tackles against USC in the Rose Bowl. There was also his 22-tackle performance against Minnesota. Allen is the leader of Penn State's defense and will have an even bigger role as a senior in 2017.

Purdue Boilermakers

Offense: QB, David Blough – The loss of Purdue's top-three receivers from a year ago is a hurdle David Blough will have to overcome. But Purdue will play from behind a lot, in turn resulting in a lot of chances for Blough. He was the only Big Ten quarterback to attempt 500 passes last season, and it came with mixed results. On one hand, Blough ranked second in passing touchdowns (25) and third in passing yards (3,352). However, he also finished eighth in completion percentage (57.1 percent), 10th in passing efficiency rating (119.4) and led the conference with 21 interceptions, which suggests he benefited from a lot of opportunities rather than stellar play. Blough will probably show improvement as a junior, but Purdue will need to win more than three games for him to have a serious chance of being named OPOY.

Defense: LB, Markus Bailey – Purdue's strength on defense is its linebacker core, and last year redshirt freshman Markus Bailey showed flashes of the player he could become over the next couple of seasons. He led the team with 97 tackles, which included his 61 solo tackles ranking fifth in the conference, and four interceptions, including two against Indiana in Purdue's season finale. Pair that with six tackles for loss and four games with double-digit tackles, and Bailey is in line for a breakout sophomore season.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Offense: WR, Janarion Grant – Janarion Grant is one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten but often gets overlooked because he plays for Rutgers. Iowa fans know this, though, after Grant caught five passes for 98 yards against Iowa last year before suffering a season-ending injury late in the second quarter. Grant is also a threat on the ground (138 yards, 3 TDs) and is one of the best returners in the nation, as he has eight career return touchdowns. It will be interesting to see the numbers he puts up playing wide receiver for a full season. 

Defense: DB, Blessuan Austin – There aren't many positives from a defenses that gave up 37.5 points per game last season. Rutgers gave up 5.7 yards per carry and teams completed 58.3 percent of passes against the Scarlet Knights' secondary. One bright spot is Blessuan Austin, though. He doesn't intercept a ton of passes, just two in two seasons, but he's one of the best at breaking up passes. Only Indiana's Rashard Fant had more pass deflections than Austin's 17 in 2016. Having another solid season for Rutgers will hopefully help them not lose 78-0 to Michigan again.

Wisconsin Badgers

Offense: WR, Jazz Peavy – Corey Clement is in the NFL, I don't think a tight end will be named OPOY, and I have a hard time buying into the Alex Hornibrook hype. That leaves a somewhat unconventional pick in Jazz Peavy. He's not great, but he's versatile and will be Wisconsin's No. 1 wide receiver for a second straight season. Peavy gained 635 yards as a receiver, 318 yards on the ground and scored six touchdowns. Despite Wisconsin's defense being its strength again, someone will have to score and gain yards for Wisconsin. Bradrick Shaw has a lot of potential, but I really like Peavy's versatility that allows him to put up big numbers.

Defense: LB, Jack Cichy – Jack Cichy led Wisconsin with 60 tackles through seven games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Despite missing the rest of the season, Cichy still finished third in tackles for loss and fourth in tackles on the team. In his final three games against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, Cichy recorded 37 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. There's no doubt Cichy is one of the most talented linebackers in the conference, but the biggest question is how he performs coming off of an injury. He has a legitimate chance of winning a wide open DPOY race if his production doesn't dip from last season.

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