Most of the headlines surrounding the list of student-athletes attending this year’s Big Ten Football Media Days haven’t focused on who will be there, but who won’t be.
None of the conference’s three most high-profile quarterbacks – Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Michigan’s Wilson Speight – will be in Chicago.
Neither will Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, arguably the best running back in all of college football, nor Ohio State’s Mike Weber and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley, two of the Big Ten’s other top runners.
Those players are among the Big Ten’s biggest stars. All of them have the potential to make a huge impact on the conference this season, and all would have helped the Big Ten achieve the name of the game at media days: generating media attention.
There will still be plenty of talented players in Chicago who deserve that attention.
While the Big Ten’s premier offensive skill-position players won’t be in Chicago, the 42-man list of attendees includes many players with the potential to make a big impact on the conference this season.
All the players attending the event will be there because they are expected to play key roles for their teams this season, but the following players stand out the most.
Indiana’s Rashard Fant, the NCAA’s active leader in passes defended (48), could be the Big Ten’s best cornerback this year.
Minnesota’s Rodney Smith, who had 1,158 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns (16 rushing, one kickoff return) last season, is one of the conference’s most dynamic skill-position players. His teammate and fellow media days attendee Steven Richardson had 41 quarterback pressures last season, the most among returning Big Ten defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli is one of the most complete tight ends in college football. He had 580 receiving yards and two touchdowns on a team-leading 47 receptions last season, while he also plays a key role in the Badgers offense as a run blocker.
10A/10B. Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State / Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
While Penn State’s two potential Heisman candidates won’t be in Chicago, the Nittany Lions will still have star power on display.
Gesicki led all Big Ten tight ends last season with 48 receptions, 679 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. A great athlete for his size at 6-foot-6 and 252 pounds, Gesicki creates coverage mismatches and has a demonstrated ability to make tough catches in jump-ball situations.
Allen led all Big Ten defensive backs and all Nittany Lions players last season with 110 total tackles. A great physical specimen in his own right at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Allen can be both an enforcer in the box and a rangy playmaker on the back end of the defense.
9. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
As a rotational player off the bench last season, Hurst recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and had the best pass-rushing productivity per snap among all returning defensive tackles in college football, according to Pro Football Focus. As a full-time starter in 2017, Hurst should be one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen.
While his teammate and former No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary gets most of the hype among Michigan defensive linemen, Hurst is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He’s an undersized defensive tackle at only 6-foot-2 and 282 pounds, but has a combination of explosiveness and ability to penetrate reminiscent to Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald.
8. Godwin Igwebuike, S, Northwestern
A three-star recruit out of Pickerington North High School in central Ohio, Igwebuike has blossomed into one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backs over the past three years.
Igwebuike led Northwestern with 108 total tackles last season. For his career with the Wildcats, Igwebuike has recorded 246 tackles, five interceptions, 15 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Igwebuike has a combination of athleticism and football smarts that he utilizes to make plays on all areas of the field.
7. JACK CICHY, LB, WISCONSIN
Cichy emerged as a star on Wisconsin’s defense during the first half of last season, recording 60 total tackles and seven tackles for loss in just seven games before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season prematurely. Had Cichy been able to play in all 14 of Wisconsin’s games and continued to perform at that level, he would have finished the season as one of college football’s most productive linebackers.
Cichy was especially great in last year’s game against Ohio State, when he recorded 15 total tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss. He began his career at Wisconsin as a walk-on, but you wouldn’t guess that from watching him play. Combining an explosive burst and quick feet with an aptitude to diagnose plays quickly, Cichy has the ability to make plays all over the field.
6. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Although Barkley is the headliner among Big Ten running backs, the conference’s leader in rushing yards last season was actually Jackson, who ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns on 298 carries in 2016.
Jackson has rushed for more than 4,000 yards in three seasons at Northwestern, so he should continue to be among the Big Ten’s top runners this year. He’s not as big or explosive as Barkley, but he has quick feet, excellent vision and a combination of toughness and balance that enable him to keep runs going through contact.
5. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
The only one of five finalists for the 2016 Butkus Award who is still playing college football, Jewell is well within the conversation for being the nation’s best linebacker.
Jewell had a team-leading 124 total tackles, six tackles for loss and nine pass breakups for Iowa last season. That followed up an even more productive 2015 season in which Jewell had 126 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 10 passes defended, including four interceptions.
Jewell isn’t the most physically gifted player, but he’s an instinctive linebacker who consistently gets himself in position to make plays on the ball. He’s sound in coverage, holds his own against bigger blockers at the line of scrimmage and as evidenced by his statistics, an effective tackler.
4. Billy Price, C, Ohio State
A first-team All-Big Ten performer at guard last season, Price is expected to be the conference’s best center this season.
As written about in greater details here at Eleven Warriors last week, Price has the potential to follow directly in the footsteps of last year’s Ohio State center, Pat Elflein, who also made the move from guard to center before his senior season and went on to win the Rimington Award as college football’s best center.
Entering his fourth year as a starter on the Buckeyes’ offensive line, Price is on pace to break Luke Fickell’s record for games started by an Ohio State player. Combining that experience with an exceptional combination of strength, size and agility should make Price one of college football’s best offensive linemen in 2017.
3. Mason Cole, LT, Michigan
The team up north’s answer to Price is Mason Cole. Like Price at Ohio State, Cole has started every game of his first three seasons at Michigan. Also like Price, Cole is changing positions between his junior and senior seasons. The second-team All-Big Ten center last year, Cole will play left tackle for the Wolverines in 2017.
Unlike Price, Cole isn’t new to his new position, as he previously played left tackle in his first two seasons at Michigan. A fluid athlete for an offensive lineman, Cole is an excellent run blocker who should also be an upgrade over last season for the Wolverines in blind-side pass protection.
If Cole can play as well at left tackle this year as he did at center last year, he’ll be the favorite to win the Big Ten’s Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award.
2. Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Scales might not be one of college football’s marquee names, but he should be. The Indiana linebacker led the entire Football Bowl Subdivision in 2016 with 93 solo tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss.
In the process, Scales earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated, making him the first Hoosiers linebacker to earn All-American honors since 1987.
Scales is an explosive athlete who can chase down ballcarriers all over the field. He’s a strong tackler once he gets to the ball. He lines up everywhere from the middle of the defense to the edge and is able to create disruption from all alignments.
1. Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
As the conference’s reigning Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year, Lewis stands out as the most accomplished and talented player attending this year’s Big Ten Media Days.
He faces competition from Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard just to be the best defensive end on his own team, but he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive ends in the nation. Selected as a first-team Preseason All-American by Phil Steele, Lewis is ranked by NFLDraftScout.com as the 14th-best overall prospect for the 2018 NFL draft, second only to Barkley among Big Ten players.
Lewis is both powerful and skilled as a pass-rusher and a strong edge-setting run defender. He led the Buckeyes with 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, five quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles last season.
To see which other players will be meeting with the media in Chicago next Monday and Tuesday, check out the full list of student-athletes scheduled to attend.