Even with an abundance of talent, some guys just can't be replaced.
We're less than a month away from the kickoff of the 2019 college football season. In the Big Ten, things get underway on Thursday, Aug. 29 when Minnesota hosts South Dakota State. A few days later, the Buckeyes are set to welcome Lane Kiffin to town.
With August now right around the corner, several of the conference's top programs head into the season with high expectations, and many of them are legitimate contenders for a shot at a Big Ten championship. Northwestern surprised a whole lot of folks in 2018 after Wisconsin was everyone's favorite in the West, and this year the division appears to be even more wide open. Meanwhile, the East is expected to come down to the usual Midwest foes.
The 2019 season is fast approaching and several of the Big Ten's top contenders have players that they just can't afford to lose if they want to earn a spot in Indianapolis.
Ohio State • Justin Fields • Quarterback • Sophomore
I don't think any reasonable person is going to tell you that Justin Fields is the best player on Ohio State's roster. That honor goes to future first-round pick Chase Young. However, Ryan Day's quarterback depth is still a concern following the departures of both Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin.
Even in his first season in a new system, Fields may very well be the most important player heading into the season. The athleticism isn't even a question, but we're all waiting to see just how Fields has developed as a passer in his seven months under Day's tutelage. Gunnar Hoak's transfer from Kentucky was big news and I realize a starter hasn't even been named, but Fields is likely the team's most important and irreplaceable player for 2019.
Michigan • Lavert Hill • Cornerback • Senior
I suppose Shea Patterson is the obvious choice, but Michigan actually has one of the deepest quarterback rooms in the country. While not quite on Patterson's level, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton are both serviceable backups at the position. The most interesting part will be seeing how they do under Josh Gattis and more of a spread attack.
Cornerback depth is where things get dicey for Jim Harbaugh. David Long is now suiting up for the Los Angeles Rams and the UM secondary is short on bodies. Senior Lavert Hill started all 13 games a season ago and is expected to be the leader in the secondary. Fellow expected starter Ambry Thomas is dealing with an undisclosed health condition and is already expected to miss some time.
Harbaugh says Ambry Thomas is working through something right now, but that hes hopeful Thomas can play.— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) July 19, 2019
Michigan gets Middle Tennessee State and Army's triple-option offense to open the season. We'll have to see how things progress with Thomas, but a week-three bye before the trip to Madison could come at just the right time.
Penn State • Micah Parsons • Linebacker • Sophomore
Micah Parsons arrived at Penn State as one of the country's most heralded prospects. Following a high school career that saw him play a number of different positions (including running back), he's found a home at linebacker in Happy Valley.
Parsons had his ups and downs as a true freshman but ended up leading the Nittany Lions with 83 tackles. He's expected to be one of the leaders of the defense in his first season as a starter and was recently named to the Butkus Award watch list. He has the potential to be one of the very best defenders in the conference; if not the country.
Wisconsin • Jonathan Taylor • Running Back • Junior
This one is very fairly easy as the Badgers have one of the best tailbacks in America and will face inexperience at quarterback. Whether it's Jack Coan or true freshman Graham Mertz under center, Paul Chryst will again rely heavily on the ground game.
It was a disappointing 2018 for Wisconsin and now it seems to be a bit of an afterthought in the West. If you're one of those people who doesn't think running backs are as valuable as other positions, then an argument could certainly be made for left tackle Cole Van Lanen. Now a junior, he graded out as one of the top-rated linemen in the country in 2018.
Nebraska • Adrian Martinez • Quarterback • Sophomore
Scott Frost had a rough start in Lincoln but got things on track in the latter part of the season. Now in year two, some folks have the Huskers as the favorite in the West. Adrian Martinez was the first player Frost offered after taking over, and the California native proceeded to win the starting job as a true freshman. He threw for over 2,600 yards with 17 touchdowns and 8 picks while adding another 600 and 8 scores with his legs.
Things aren't looking too great behind Martinez, however. Tristan Gebbia transferred to Oregon State after getting beat out a season ago. Now it's sophomore Noah Vedral and junior Andrew Bunch serving as the backup options. Martinez could be a darkhorse Heisman candidate during his sophomore campaign.
Northwestern • Hunter Johnson/Paddy Fisher • QB/LB • Sophomore/Junior
Much like the situation in Columbus, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson has yet to be named as the starting quarterback. Still, the expectation is for the forme five-star to take over for Pat Fitzgerald's offense. After being beaten out by Trevor Lawrence, the Indiana native found a new landing spot in Evanston.
Expected backup T.J. Green has seen some playing time, so the depth situation could be worse for Northwestern. While we don't know what to expect out of Johnson, junior linebacker Paddy Fisher is on track to be one of the top linebackers in America. While he's not going to wow you at the NFL combine, he's a tackling machine who's also forced eight fumbles in his career. Fisher was a third-team AP All-American in 2018 and some pundits have him projected as a first-round Draft pick.
Rutgers • Raheem Blackshear • All-Purpose • Junior
Raheem Blackshear is Chris Ash's best player and he's capable of doing a little bit of everything. Last year he tallied close to 1,000 combined yards rushing and receiving and scored five touchdowns for the Scarlet Knights. The junior also plays special teams and averaged about 100 all-purpose yards per contest last season.
He's been named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list which honors the most versatile player in college football. Losing Blackshear could result in 12 losses as opposed to 10 or 11.