Unlike many of college football’s other major conferences, there is no preseason All-Big Ten team.
Later this week at Big Ten Media Days, the conference will release a 10-player list of preseason honorees – five from each division – to recognize some of the best players from the Big Ten East and West, but the conference no longer compiles a media projection of who the best players will be at each position around the conference.
So as I have done annually since I began writing here at Eleven Warriors, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together my own unofficial preseason All-Big Ten team, predicting who the conference’s top performers will be in 2019.
The goal is to project which players are most likely to be on the postseason All-Big Ten team, so while preferred consideration was given to players who received All-Big Ten honors last year, the selections are intended to forecast the top performers for this upcoming season regardless of what they have done in the past.
In the first two years I’ve done this exercise, the results have been mixed: In 2017, I correctly predicted 13 of 25 postseason first-team All-Big Ten performers, but last year, only 11 of my 25 preseason picks went on to earn first-team all-conference honors.
With hopes of getting back above .500 this year, here are my preseason picks for the Big Ten’s best players, using the same positional designations that will be used to name the postseason All-Big Ten team following the regular season.
Quarterback: Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
It certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise if Justin Fields emerges as the Big Ten’s best quarterback by the end of the 2019 season, and recent history is on his side; an Ohio State quarterback has been the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year for six of the past seven years. Given that he has only been on campus since January, though, there’s reason to believe there will be some growing pains in his first year as a Buckeye.
Martinez is also in just his second year of college football, but he already has a year of starting experience at Nebraska under his belt, and he was impressive last year as a true freshman – throwing for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns with only eight interceptions and adding 629 rushing yards with eight rushing touchdowns – on a subpar Cornhuskers team. Martinez has the tools as both a passer and runner to develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and the experience he already has gives him a head start on Fields to emerging as the Big Ten’s best quarterback this year.
Running Back: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Running Back: J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
Having already earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his first two years at Wisconsin, Taylor is an easy choice for the first running back spot on the preseason All-Big Ten team. He’s been the most consistently productive running back in all of college football for the past two years, leading the Football Bowl Subdivision with 2,194 rushing yards last season, and he should be in line for another big year in the Badgers’ run-heavy offense.
The second running back spot is a tough choice between Dobbins and Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, who Ohio State fans will remember from his 298-yard game against the Buckeyes last season. McFarland appears to be on the verge of a breakout season, and his performance against Ohio State demonstrated his star potential. That said, Dobbins already has two 1,000-yard seasons at Ohio State under his belt, and with Mike Weber now in the NFL, he should see his biggest share of carries and have a chance for his biggest season – and his first first-team All-Big Ten berth – yet.
Wide Receiver: Rondale Moore, Purdue
Wide Receiver: Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
Moore’s season last year was a prime example of why these predictions can ultimately be a fool’s errand, as the 229th-ranked overall prospect in the class of 2018 exploded onto the scene and immediately became one of the most explosive players in college football. He led the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards and earned Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors as a true freshman, and is now firmly established as one of the conference’s biggest stars.
Johnson was also a first-team All-Big Ten receiver (as voted by the media) last year after ranking in the top three in the conference (along with Moore and Parris Campbell) in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and he should be in position to put up big numbers once again – potentially bigger numbers now that Minnesota quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad have a year of experience under their belts.
Ohio State slot receiver K.J. Hill is also a strong candidate to contend for All-Big Ten honors now that Campbell is in the NFL, but he’ll still have plenty of competition for catches and will still likely rotate in and out of the lineup in the Buckeyes’ loaded receiving corps, which could limit his production relative to Moore and Johnson.
Tight End: Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
Now that former Iowa stars T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are both in the NFL, the tight end spot on the All-Big Ten team is wide open. One strong candidate is Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, who earned third-team All-Big Ten honors last year after catching 34 passes for 583 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Freiermuth, though, is coming off an impressive freshman season for the Nittany Lions in which he caught 26 passes for 368 yards and led all Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown receptions. His role steadily grew as the season progressed, and as he appears primed to be a top target in the Penn State offense, he could emerge as one of the best tight ends in the country this year.
Offensive Tackle: Jon Runyan, Michigan
Offensive Tackle: Alaric Jackson, Iowa
The Big Ten offers a multitude of talented offensive tackles who look like strong candidates to contend for All-Big Ten honors this year. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater was a third-team All-Big Ten performer at right tackle last year, and now moves to right tackle. Iowa has two excellent tackles, also including right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who are potential all-conference players. Minnesota right tackle Daniel Faalele has enormous potential – literally, at 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds – and could emerge as a star this year after exceeding expectations as a true freshman. Wisconsin regularly puts offensive linemen on the All-Big Ten team, and left tackle Cole Van Lanen is one of their strongest candidates this year. Ohio State’s Thayer Munford is coming off a solid first season as the Buckeyes’ starting left tackle and should be in the mix for postseason awards, as well.
The two strongest candidates to be All-Big Ten offensive tackles, though, appear to be Runyan and Jackson. Runyan was already a first-team all-conference player last season after an excellent first year as Michigan’s starting left tackle following previous struggles at right tackle. Jackson received second-team All-Big Ten recognition last year following his second season as Iowa’s starting left tackle.
Offensive Guard: Ben Bredeson, Michigan
Offensive Guard: Wyatt Davis, Ohio State
Bredeson, a fourth-year starter at left guard for the Wolverines, is the frontrunner to take one of the All-Big Ten spots at guard this season. He’s been a second-team All-Big Ten guard for each of the past two seasons, and with both first-team guards from last year now in the NFL, the door is open for Bredeson to establish himself as the best guard in the conference.
Michigan’s other starting guard, Michael Onwenu, is also a strong All-Big Ten candidate after earning third-team all-conference honors last year. Among all guards in the conference, though, there might not be anyone with more star potential than Davis, and if he can build upon his strong finish in the Buckeyes’ final two games of last season, the five-star redshirt sophomore has the potential to emerge as one of the nation’s best in his first year as a starter.
Center: Tyler Biadasz, Wisconsin
As the reigning first-team All-Big Ten center and the anchor of the offensive line for a program that typically has one of the best offensive lines in the country, Biadasz will be tough to unseat. His strongest competition will likely come from Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, who earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in his first year as the Wolverines’ starting center last season.
Defensive Line: Kenny Willekes, Michigan State
Defensive Line: Chase Young, Ohio State
Defensive Line: A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
Defensive Line: Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
Willekes is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after leading the conference with 20.5 tackles for loss last season, so he was one of the easiest choices for this preseason All-Big Ten team. He’s both an effective pass-rusher and an excellent run defender – he also led all Big Ten defensive linemen with 78 total tackles last season – making him perhaps the most complete defensive lineman in the conference.
Young earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season after recording 15.5 tackles for loss with 10.5 sacks last season, and he’s expected to take his game to an even higher level this year, so he’s another strong frontrunner to be an all-conference player in 2019. Epenesa – who, like Young, is also projected as a potential top pick in the 2020 NFL draft – also had 10.5 sacks last year and already earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2018.
Several other defensive linemen have a strong case for the fourth spot on the preseason All-Big Ten team, including second-team 2018 All-Big Ten performers Carter Coughlin (Minnesota) and Joe Gaziano (Northwestern), but the nod goes to Gross-Matos, who earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition from the media last year after a breakout first season as a starter in which he finished second in the conference with 20 tackles for loss.
Linebacker: Joe Bachie, Michigan State
Linebacker: Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
Linebacker: Micah Parsons, Penn State
Linebacker is another position where the Big Ten is stacked with returning stars, leaving at least seven players at the position who warranted serious consideration here. Columbus native Markus Bailey is coming off a huge junior season for Purdue in which he put up big numbers and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Northwestern’s Blake Gallagher led the conference with 127 total tackles last year. Ohio State’s Malik Harrison is coming off a breakout junior year and could be in line for a big senior season in the Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme. Michigan’s Khaleke Hudson had a down year statistically in 2018 after racking up big numbers in 2017, but the Wolverines’ “Viper” is still one of the top playmaking linebackers in the conference.
That said, Bachie and Fisher enter the season as All-Big Ten frontrunners after both earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition from the conference’s coaches last season. Both seniors are the leaders of their defenses and considered to be among the best middle linebackers in the country. Parsons, meanwhile, looks poised to emerge as one of the conference’s defensive stars in 2019 after an excellent freshman year in which he led the Nittany Lions with 83 total tackles despite starting just one game.
Defensive Back: Lavert Hill, Michigan
Defensive Back: Jeff Okudah, Ohio State
Defensive Back: Jordan Fuller, Ohio State
Defensive Back: Dicaprio Bootle, Nebraska
Hill, the lone returning first-team All-Big Ten defensive back from last season, is one of the best cornerbacks in the country and enters the year as the top returning cornerback in the conference. Okudah could provide competition for that throne, though, if his exceptional performance against Washington in the Rose Bowl was any indication, and he looks like a real candidate to contend for all-conference honors this year even though he is entering his first season as a full-time starter.
Fuller bypassed the NFL for one more year with the vision of making more plays in the Buckeyes’ secondary this year, and if he can add some game-changing moments to his usual consistent play that has made him one of Ohio State’s top two tacklers for each of the past two seasons, he’ll be a strong candidate for All-Big Ten honors, as well.
Other defensive backs who warranted consideration here included Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the son of Ohio State great Antoine Winfield, who was off to an excellent start last year before a season-ending injury; Michigan State safety David Dowell, a first-team All-Big Ten performer in 2017 who earned third-team honors last year; and Michigan State cornerback Josiah Scott, who earned third-team All-Big Ten honors as a true freshman in 2017 before missing most of last season with a knee injury. The final spot in this preseason All-Big Ten team’s secondary, though, goes to Bootle, who led all returning Big Ten players last season with 15 pass breakups to establish himself as one of the conference’s top cornerbacks.
Kicker: Matt Coghlin, Michigan State
Coghlin was the media’s selection for first-team All-Big Ten kicker last season after 18 of his 22 field goal attempts on the season, including four field goals from 40-plus yards (with a long of 49), and all 25 of his extra point attempts. Other frontrunners to be the conference’s best kicker in 2019 include Indiana’s Logan Justus, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, and Maryland’s Joseph Petrino, who led the Big Ten in field goal percentage (85.7) after making 12 of his 14 field goal attempts in 2018.
Punter: Drue Chrisman, Ohio State
Michigan’s Will Hart took first-team All-Big Ten honors last season after averaging 47 yards per punt, but Chrisman led the conference with a net punting average (punt distance minus punt return) of 41.8 yards per punt and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after an excellent second season in the role for the Buckeyes. It’s likely that those two rivals will duel it out for the conference’s best punter once again, but Chrisman gets the nod here to rise to the top of the conference.
Return Specialist: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa
Rondale Moore earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a return specialist (from the conference’s coaches) in addition to his wide receiver recognition last year, and as long as he continues to return kickoffs and punts for the Boilermakers this season, he’ll be a strong candidate to repeat that feat. In the interest of recognizing another top performer from the conference, though, we’ll go in another direction here.
Smith-Marsette was the media’s selection for first-team All-Big Ten return specialist last year, and he was one of the best kickoff returners in the country, averaging 29.5 yards per kickoff return. He didn’t return punts for the Hawkeyes last year, but he’ll have a chance to repeat as Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year if he can continue to use his elite speed to break off big gains on kickoff returns.