It wasn’t easy to choose the Big Ten’s 10 toughest players to replace from last season. It was even more difficult to find balance with this listing, in terms of identifying five indispensable talents from each division.
But therein lies the current reality of the Big Ten: The big, bad East division — starring Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — has quickly earned bragging rights over the West. That trend likely will continue for the 2016 season, given how every East school gets five home conference games this fall as the league converts to a nine-game scheduling model.
The West division does have a slew of top-notch returnees this fall, including quarterbacks C.J. Beathard (Iowa) and Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska); running backs Justin Jackson (Northwestern) and Corey Clement (Wisconsin); and Northwestern’s all-everything defender, Anthony Walker.
This countdown comes with one caveat: There’s a maximum of two players per school. Otherwise, it would have been flooded with Ohio State pieces at every turn.
Last month, the Buckeyes set a modern-day NFL record for most draftees from one college program in the first four rounds (12).
Here’s our top 10 guys who will be missed the most:
1. RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes might have high hopes for freshman Mike Weber this fall, but make no mistake: It would be a surreal occurrence for any Ohio State tailback to quickly replicate the two-year success of Elliott, who amassed 3,699 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns in 2014-15.
The two-year highlights include:
- Back-to-back years of 1,800-plus rushing yards.
- Twenty-one outings of 100-plus rushing yards, including 15 straight (parts of 2014 and ’15).
- Five 200-yard rushing efforts in that span.
- Twelve games of multiple touchdowns.
- A three-pack of individual Big Ten titles from the 2015 campaign — conference crowns for rushing yards (1,821), rushing touchdowns (23) and yards from scrimmage (2,027).
2. QB NATE SUDFELD, INDIANA
From just about every angle, Sudfeld left Indiana as the most prolific passer in school history:
- Career passing leader (7,879 yards)? Check.
- Single-season passing leader (3,573 yards)? Check.
- Career leader in passing touchdowns (61)? Check.
Single-season leader in passing touchdowns? Che– … actually, Kellen Lewis (28 in 2007) eclipsed Sudfeld (27 in 2015) by a single TD pass. But still, that’s not enough to justify Lewis, Antwaan Randle El, Trent Green, Ben Chappell, Babe Laufenberg or even Dave Schnell as the Hoosiers’ greatest passer in history.
As such, Richard Lagow, a transfer from Cisco College, likely will earn the monumental task of succeeding Sudfeld as Indiana’s quarterback. Short of passing for 4,000 yards out of the gate, Lagow will constantly be reminded of his predecessor’s better days.
On the plus side, it helps that Lagow has three experienced receivers (Simmie Cobbs, Mitchell Paige, Ricky Jones) and a potential 1,300-yard rusher (Devine Redding) back in the fold.
3. OT JACK CONKLIN, MICHIGAN STATE
Conklin has one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in Big Ten modern-day history.
He came to college as a walk-on, started as a redshirt freshman, developed into an all-conference performer as a sophomore, dominated national opponents as a junior and then left school early to become a top-10 pick in the NFL draft. He was drafted eighth overall by the Tennessee Titans.
In Vegas terms, the odds of this elite-level transformation taking place over a short period would have been astronomical. And yet, it’s the real-life account of Michigan State’s best O-linemen since Tony Mandarich. He will be tough to replace.
4. DE CARL NASSIB, PENN STATE
Last year, Nassib led the nation in sacks (15.5) and forced fumbles (six). He was so prolific in these major categories that it’s deflating that Nassib finished only 11th nationally in tackles for loss (19.5).
Prior to the 2015 explosion, the Penn State product had a grand total of two sacks. But everything changed for the better as a senior, with Nassib claiming All-America honors, along with collecting the Ronnie Lott Trophy (Defensive Impact Player of the Year), Ted Hendricks Award (Best Defensive End) and Vince Lombardi Award (Lineman Of The Year).
Adding to the Nittany Lions’ degree of difficulty for 2016, the coaches must also replace Austin Johnson (6.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss last season) and Anthony Zettel (4 sacks, 11 tackles for loss) from a vaunted defensive line.
The good news on campus: The next Carl Nassib can suddenly appear out of nowhere.
5. WR KJ MAYE, MINNESOTA
Maye nearly doubled the output of every Golden Gophers pass-catcher last season, rolling for 73 catches, 773 yards and five touchdowns — or six, when counting one rushing score.
In Big Ten circles, Maye also ranked third in receptions, 10th in receiving yards and 11th in receiving TDs.
During the Jerry Kill era, Minnesota’s quarterbacks cumulatively struggled to hit the 2,000-yard passing mark per season because of their run-first/run-second offense. But things may be a little different under new head coach Tracy Claeys.
On one hand, Claeys has long-time starter Mitch Leidner back for his senior campaign. On the other hand, the Gophers’ best hope for 45 catches, 500 yards and/or five touchdowns might be tight end Brandon Lingen.
6. DE JOEY BOSA, OHIO STATE
In a perfect world, Bosa would have stayed in Columbus for one more season, while flirting with the NCAA all-time sack record of 36, co-owned Bruce Miller and Hau’oli Kikaha). Boss had 26 sacks and wold have had a shot had he stuck around for the 2016 season.
However, Bosa couldn’t pass up the NFL dollars, not with everyone salivating over him as the best defensive end in the draft. The San Diego Chargers selected Bosa at No. 3 overall, ahead of every non-quarterback on the board.
During the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State has been particularly prodigious at recruiting SEC-level defensive linemen, a primary reason for the school’s 50-4 record in the last four seasons that includes a national championship). That aside, it will take some time to replicate Bosa’s elite-level consistency (double-digit tackles for loss from 2013-15) and explosive big plays (4 forced fumbles, 13.5 sacks in 2014).
7. SAFETY TANNER McEVOY, WISCONSIN
McEvoy was the back-end anchor for the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense last year, surrendering just 13.7 points per game.
For good measure, the Badgers posted top-20 rankings with total defense (2nd), rushing defense (4th), pass defense (6th), third-down-conversion defense (11th) and red-zone defense (19th).
On a personal level, McEvoy finished second in interceptions in the Big Ten last season with six, trailing only Iowa’s Desmond King. He was also Wisconsin’s quarterback in 2014 (709 yards passing, 11 total TDs), ironically tossing six picks during that campaign.
8. WR LEONTE CARROO, RUTGERS
It might be a long time before Rutgers finds a replacement to Carroo, who absurdly racked up nine-plus receiving touchdowns in each of his final three seasons (10 apiece for 2014 and ’15).
How efficient was the Scarlet Knights wideout? From 2013 through 2015, Carroo collected only 122 catches but scored 29 TDs — for an otherworldly rate of one touchdown per 4.2 receptions.
For 2015, Carroo easily led the Big Ten in yards per catch (20.7) and receiving TDs (10). It’s also worth noting that in 2013, his first on-field year with the Scarlet Knights, Carroo scored five more touchdowns than Rutgers teammate Brandon Coleman, who is now with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and had tallied double-digit TDs the previous season.
9. DE SHILIQUE CALHOUN, MICHIGAN STATE
Calhoun was a three-year superstar at Michigan State, anchoring one of the nation’s best defenses during that span. For 2013-15, the New Jersey native averaged 8.7 sacks and 14 tackles for loss per year, but his contribution far exceeded those pass-rusher measurables.
He had four career forced fumbles, five pass deflections, five fumble recoveries and one memorable pick-six as a sophomore. This doesn’t represent the typical body of work from a 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive lineman and yet, Calhoun had a dual penchant for wreaking havoc in the pocket and forcing turnovers in the proverbial ‘second level.’
Calhoun never won a Big Ten sack title on the individual front, but he remained a top-3 finisher for three consecutive seasons, something that might not be duplicated for a while within the conference, although Ohio State’s Joey Bosa certainly gave it a shot.
10. DE YANNICK NGAKOUE, MARYLAND
Let’s end this session with a mild controversy.
Yannick Ngakoue truly embodied the traits of pure pass rusher at Maryland, using his combination of quickness, power, agility and smarts to destroy all comers on his way to the quarterback.
In 2015, the junior finished just shy of the Big Ten and national sack titles (13.5 sacks), losing out to Penn State’s Carl Nassib (15.5 sacks) on both fronts. The previous year, Ngakoue was a breakout performer (6 sacks, 13 tackles for loss) in Maryland’s inaugural season with the conference.
But it’s also fair to wonder: Are the rebuilding Terps really in dire straits without Ngakoue anchoring the defense? The same unit that allowed a staggering average of 34.4 points per game last season?
The short answer is “yes,” when lamenting Maryland’s many graduation (or NFL) losses on the defensive side. Is anyone on the current defense a viable threat for double-digit sacks, let alone even six or seven?
The long-term answer may be “no” for one reason: New head coach D.J. Durkin, a maniacally prepared defensive mind who previously spent time at Michigan, Florida, Stanford and Bowling Green, is a relentless recruiter who eventually will lure a slew of Ngakoue types to Maryland in the coming years.
In fact, given the Terps’ super-tight association with apparel giant Under Armour, Maryland can certainly become the “Oregon Of The East” in a relatively short period of time.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.