Ranking top 10 returning players in Big Ten

The Ohio State Buckeyes dominate Steve Palazzolo's ranking of the 10 best returning players in the Big Ten for 2015.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Ranking top 10 returning players in Big Ten

From early-season laughing stock to national championship winner, the Big Ten made quite the turnaround in 2015. Perhaps they’re top-heavy with Ohio State carrying their banner, but they took a big step toward re-establishing themselves as one of the best conferences in the country while standing up to the SEC along the way.

There’s still plenty of talent returning, even beyond just the Buckeyes. Let’s have a look at the top 10 returning players for 2015:

  1. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State

Perhaps the best player in the entire nation, Bosa lived up to the hype last year with his 90.5 rating that made him the top-graded edge rusher in the FBS. He was a force as a pass-rusher, picking up 13 sacks, 16 hits, and 46 hurries to lead all edge rushers with 75 total pressures. He was also among the best in the run game as his 87.4 rating attests, while proving himself as a consistently dominant force by ranking fourth among edge rushers with 942 snaps. Bosa is already being hyped as a top-5 NFL draft pick next April, and his 2014 tape certainly backs it up.

  1. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

Ohio State features the best offensive player in the conference as well in Ezekial Elliott, last year’s first-team CFF All-American running back. He posted the nation’s best run grade at 91.6 as he ran for the third-most yards with 1,883, including 989 after contact (3.6 per carry). He didn’t slow down in the playoffs as he picked up the PFF Game Ball in the national title game on the strength of a dominant 36-carry, 246-yard effort that featured four touchdowns and a season-high eight missed tackles forced. Elliott is primed to repeat as the nation’s best running back for the second year in a row.

  1. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

While Bosa was dominant, Calhoun ranked right behind him as the clear No. 2 edge rusher in the conference. He finished at 88.1 overall, including a 91 pass-rush grade and an 84.5 grade against the run. He picked up eight sacks, 20 hits (national high among edge rushers), and 38 hurries on his 438 pass rushes. A slew of pass-rushers heard their names called near the top of the NFL draft last April and Calhoun is primed to join Bosa at the top of the next class.

  1. Joshua Perry, OLB, Ohio State

Think Ohio State has a chance to repeat? Their third player out of the top four on this list, Perry’s strong all-around game paced all Big Ten linebackers a year ago. He led the way with a 91.2 coverage grade, as he did a nice job of keeping the ball in front of him when surrending catches (5.9 yards per reception, third-lowest in Big Ten). Perry’s 82.9 grade against the run ranked seventh, and he ranked third in stops with 53. When you add four sacks, four hits, and 11 hurries on his 80 rushes (81.2 pass-rush grade), you get a complete effort from yet another Buckeyes All-American candidate.

  1. Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State

Conklin turned heads early last season and finished third among all offensive tackles in the FBS with an 87.9 grade. He was a dominant run-blocker at 91.3 (second in nation), while his 87.0 pass-block grade ranked ninth. Conklin didn’t post a negatively graded game all season, and it’s that consistency that earned him CFF first-team All-American honors and put him on the radar for NFL teams.

  1. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The best returning interior defensive lineman in the conference, Zettel’s 89.5 pass-rush grade trailed only Jaguars draft pick Michael Bennett last season, while his 84.5 grade against the run paced the Big Ten.  Zettel tied for third in the nation among interior defensive linemen with 10 sacks, while adding two hits and 20 hurries on his 328 pass rushes. His performances against Rutgers and Illinois were among the best in the conference last season, and he’ll be one of the hardest players to block again in 2015.

  1. Nate Gerry, FS, Nebraska

One of the nation’s best coverage safeties, Gerry always seems to be in the right place in the Nebraska defense. His 91.7 grade in coverage ranked second in the country, and while safety coverage stats aren’t always a great indicator of performance, his eight surrendered catches on 22 targets tell the proper story. He also picked off five passes and got his hands on two more. Gerry is not the greatest run defender, as his 12 missed tackles and 74.3 run grade suggest, but always being in the right spot and avoiding big plays goes a long way for one of the Big Ten’s best safeties.

  1. Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers

Rutgers’s front seven struggled mightily last season, but Hamilton managed to rise above the rest to establish himself as one of the Big Ten’s best interior defensive linemen. He ranked right behind Zettel both as a pass-rusher (87.9) and against the run (82.3), all while playing next to teammates who were performing well below average. Hamilton picked up eight sacks, five hits and 33 hurries on his 427 pass rushes, while his run-stop percentage of 7.4 percent ranked second in the conference. Whether the talent around him performs better or not, Hamilton is poised to make a national name for himself in 2015.

  1. Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers

Another Rutgers player makes the list, this time one of the conference’s most explosive playmakers in Carroo. His ranked second in the Big Ten in both receiving grade (85.1) and receiving yards (1,086) and he didn’t drop one of his 55 catchable targets all season. Carroo was a big-play threat for the Scarlet Knights, averaging 19.7 yards per reception and 7.4 yards after the catch per reception). He’ll show more straight-line speed than he does wiggle, but when he gets going, he’s hard to catch. Carroo should make life easier for whichever quarterback wins the starting job at Rutgers.

  1. Jack Allen, C, Michigan State

The Big Ten was quietly filled with good pivot men a year ago, with Allen being the best of the bunch. His 86.5 overall grade led the charge, and he also paced the way with an 87.2 pass-block grade and an 86.4 mark as a run-blocker. He didn’t allow a sack all season and he surrendered only four pressures (one hit, three hurries) on his 364 pass-block attempts. Allen’s pass-block efficiency of 99.1 ranked ninth in the nation. With Conklin and Allen returning, the Michigan State offensive line is in good hands as the Spartans look to unseat Ohio State at the top of the conference.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • BWilson

    DE Turay is the best player on Rutgers and should be top 3 on this list. He’s better than the DE from Michigan State Calhoun. He’s a pass rushing force. When it comes to draft day, Turay will be drafted very high because of his rare athletic ability and size.

    • Alex

      I think Turay will get drafted before Calhoun, but only because he is an athletic freak. If we’re talking about the best returning player that will have an impact at the college level, then Calhoun tops him easily. Turay is very raw and hasn’t put it all together yet, but will be a stud if he continues to develop.

      • Chris Alexander

        Turay will also be the more productive player. He’s only entering year 2. Hes already a much tougher matchup for any OL. Going forward from this point, I have no doubt he will be a better player than Calhoun (who simply doesn’t impress me very much).

        We’ll see very soon.