Saquon Barkley, CJ Beathard earn PFF's first-team All-Big Ten honors
With the college football season just days away now, we’re spending the week naming the top talent at every position across every conference in the country.
Today brings us to the Big Ten, which is loaded with big returning names for the 2016 season. Let’s take a look at our first- and second-team selections:
Quarterback: C.J. Beathard, Iowa
This is a largely underwhelming group, and based on last year’s grades Beathard is the clear top QB in the league. He threw 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 2015, not only lead all returning Big Ten QBs in overall and passing grades, but accuracy percentage (completion percentage adjusted for drops, throw aways, spikes, batted passes and hit-as-throwns) as well. The cherry on top, and must underrated part of his game, is his running ability. He gained 418 yards on 88 carries last year, forcing 15 missed tackles and scoring six times.
Second-team: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Running back: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley had a monster freshman season in 2015, as he was not just the top RB in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the entire country. He forced a whopping 67 missed tackles on 202 total touches (182 carries and 20 receptions), resulting in him easily leading the entire country in PFF’s elusive rating. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry last year, and with Penn State installing a new QB, it’s easy to increase his volume and production increasing in 2016.
Second-team: LeShun Daniels, Iowa
With no returning fullbacks this year recording more than 50 snaps in 2015, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to include the position with the preseason all-conference list. The position was hit hard by graduation in the Big Ten, as the likes of Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, Nebraska’s Andy Janovich, and Michigan’s Sione Houma have all departed. Only half of the Big Ten schools had at least 200 snaps at the fullback position in 2015.
Wide receivers: Jehu Chesson, Michigan and Chris Godwin, Penn State
Chesson finished the 2015 season monster games in three of Michigan’s last four contests (Indiana, Ohio State and Florida), racking up 23 catches for 437 yards and six scores in those games. His explosive speed was frequently on display, not just at the end of the season when his chemistry with QB Jake Rudock became apparent, but also on reverses, which saw him saw him average 19.4 yards per carry and add two scores, including a 66 yard touchdown against Maryland.
Despite erratic play at QB, Godwin had an outstanding 2015 campaign, highlighted by his 11-catch, two touchdown performance against Michigan State to end the regular season. For the year, he racked up 69 catches and 1101 yards, and depending on QB play he could actually improve upon those numbers in 2016.
Second-team: Matt VandeBerg, Iowa and Simmie Cobb Jr, Indiana
Slot receiver: Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Finally out of the shadow of the likes of Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller, Jalen Marshall and Devin Smith, Samuel is expected to be the focal point of the Buckeye passing game. While he appears set to receive snaps at running back as well (he averaged 6.9 yards per carry on 75 rushes the past two seasons), he is by far the most experienced skill player on Ohio State’s offense, and is expected to make plays from a wide variety of alignments, not just at RB or the lost.
Second-team: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
Tight end: George Kittle, Iowa
This was one of the more tightly contested matchups, but in the end it was Kittle’s all-around game that put him over the top. He is overall our top-graded tight end among returning Power Five players at his position, with the fifth-best run blocking and the sixth-best receiving grades in the country despite only 383 snaps in 2015. He is the perfect fit for Iowa’s run game and play-action passing game, and should continue to excel in 2016.
Second-team: Jake Butt, Michigan
Offensive tackle: Nick Gates, Nebraska and Cole Croston, Iowa
This is by all accounts, a woefully underperforming group. In fact, Gates is the only returning tackle in the conference this year with a positive grade from 2015. Gates missed a number of games with injuries last year but otherwise clearly was the top tackle in the Big Ten. His run blocking grade was seventh-best in the country among returning tackles, and yielded one hit and no sacks for the entire season.
Croston would have graded at about average for the 2015 season, his first season as a starter, if not for a dismal performance against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Prior to that matchup, he had not posted a below-average overall grade since week six.
Second-team: Jacob Maxwell, Wisconsin and Erik Magnuson, Michigan
Offensive guard: Dan Feeney, Indiana and Jacob Bailey, Indiana
As week as the conference’s play is on the outside, the interior line play has several clear standouts. Feeney is the one of the top 2017 draft prospects at guard, in large part to his dominance in pass protection. He has given up just one sack and two hits over the past two seasons at Indiana. His counterpart Bailey actually had a higher run grade, despite not playing until week seven. Bailey also gave up no sacks and just one hit on 2010 pass block snaps in 2015.
Second-team: Sean Welsh, Iowa and Michael Dunn, Maryland
Offensive center: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
Elflein is changing to center this season, which is a reflection on his veteran leadership. His run blocking grade last year was eighth among guards returning this season, and he improved significantly in pass protection, allowing just one sack and two hits in 2015 compared to four sacks and one hit as a sophomore in 2014.
Second-team: Mason Cole, Michigan
EDGE: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin and Dawuane Smoot, Illinois
Biegel and Smoot are the third and fourth-highest graded EDGE players in the country returning for 2016. Biegel was fifth in the country in defensive stops last season and tallied 48 total pressures, while the explosive Smoot had the fifth-highest pass rush grade, racking up 60 total pressures, second-most in FBS.
Second-team: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State and Taco Charlton, Michigan
Defensive interior: Malik McDowell, Michigan State and Maurice Hurst, Michigan
This is easily the conference’s deepest group, as the three highest-graded returning interior players from 2015 are out of the Big Ten, with six in the top 24 calling the conference his home. McDowell’s size and athletic ability is reminiscent of DeForest Buckner, who was selected seventh overall this past April by the San Francisco 49ers. McDowell harassed opposing QBs a total of 37 times in 2015, and looks poised to significantly upgrade his production this season. Wormley was a dominant force against both the run and pass last season, chalking up 30 total pressures and 21 stops with no missed tackles.
Second-team: Jake Replogle, Purdue and Chris Wormley, Michigan
Linebacker: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State and Jermaine Carter Jr., Maryland
Peppers played most of his 2015 snaps from the slot, but is expected to play almost exclusively at linebacker this season, in order to get him permanently close to the line of scrimmage. His explosiveness and instincts when attacking forward was evident throughout his play last season, and he will be in position to make even more impact plays on defense (not to mention offense and special teams) this year. McMillan is one of the top pure linebackers in all of college football, as he notched 63 defensive stops and 92 solo tackles in 2015. In no other game was his talent better on display than the Buckeyes’ matchup against Indiana in week five. While the Hoosiers toasted the Michigan LB corps later in the season, McMillan excelled, notching 11 stops, 15 solo tackles and no missed tackles. Carter Jr. was fifth in the country with 60 defensive stops, and receivers averaged just 5.8 yards per reception against him.
Second-team: Marcus Newby, Nebraska, Josey Jewell, Iowa and TJ Edwards, Wisconsin
Cornerback: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan and Desmond King, Iowa
Lewis and King are the two best and highest-graded CBs in the country this season. Lewis gave up just 33 receptions last year on 90 targets, and opposing QBs managed a rating of just 46.3 when throwing his way. King’s eight interceptions and 12 pass breakups combined for the most total passes defended in the country last season.
Second-team: Jalen Myrick, Minnesota and Matthew Harris, Northwestern
Slot Cornerback: Leroy Clark, Purdue
Clark split his snaps on the field last year between slot CB (349 snaps) and free safety (339 snaps), and performed well from both positions. Opposing QBs had a rating of 70.0 on targets sent his way, and he racked up two interceptions and seven breakups while yielding just one interception.
Second-team: Ben Niemann, Iowa
Safety: Nate Gerry, Nebraska and Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
Gerry was outstanding in coverage last season, as he intercepted four passes and broke up three others. He gave up just 20 receptions on 43 targets, and opposing QBs had a rating of just 39.2 when throwing his way, just below the mark of 39.6 which is given to a basic incomplete pass. Igwebuike wasn’t as solid against the run, but was very comparable to Gerry in coverage, as he gave up 18 receptions on 38 targets with four interceptions, four break ups and a QB rating against of 38.8.
Second-team: Delano Hill, Michigan and Taylor Barton, Illinois
Kicker: Griffin Oakes, Indiana
Oakes was Indiana’s primary kickoff specialist last season, kicking touchbacks on 52 of 90 kicks with an average distance of 65.6 yards per kick, second-best in the conference. His 82.8 percent conversion rate on field goals (24 of 29 total) is the best among returning Big Ten kickers with at least 10 attempts last season.
Second-team: Kenny Allen, Michigan
Punter: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
I’d be remiss if I did not mention Nebraska’s Sam Foltz, who was likely to be one of the top punters in the nation this year but was tragically killed in a car accident on July 23, along with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Johnston’s 43.6 yard average from last season is tops among returning Big Ten punters, and only 12 of his 59 punts were returned for a total of just 67 yards (26 were downed inside the 20), also giving him the highest net average of 40.1.
Second-team: Jake Hartbarger, Michigan State
Kick Returner: Janarion Grant, Rutgers
Grant finished 2015 tied with Tennessee’s Evan Berry for the highest kick return grade in the country. He averaged 24.6 yards per return on 40 returns, and also finished tied with Berry (and two others) for the most touchdown returns (3).
Second-team: William Likely, Maryland
Punt Returner: William Likely, Maryland
Likely is tied with Tennessee’s Cam Sutton as the third-highest graded punt returner from last season. He averaged 18.6 yards per return, and took two back for scores.
Second-team: Janarion Grant, Rutgers
Special teams: Darnell Davis Jr., Rutgers
Davis was our highest-graded Big Ten special teams player last year that wasn’t a kick or punt returner. He racked up eight solo tackles and four assists, while missing only one.
Second-team: Nathan Echard, Illinois