Hickey: Building the Ultimate Big Ten All-American team
July 4th may be over, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop being all-American.
Here at Saturday Tradition, we’ve decided to extend the holiday by creating the Ultimate Big Ten All-American team.
The premise: building an all-time team comprised of first team All-Americans who played in the Big Ten.
There are a couple of guidelines that went into these selections.
First, the team was constructed in the same manner as the MLB All-Star teams — 1 player from every team in the league must be included.
In some cases, this could mean that a superior player at the position was left off the team to accommodate our roster regulations. We apologize in advance.
Secondly, every player must have played while their team was a member of the Big Ten. This is significant, because it leaves a number of great players ineligible.
Nebraska center Dave Rimington — the namesake of the trophy annually presented to the best center in college football — is not on the team. He played in the Big 8.
A bevy of Penn State greats are also excluded since the program’s heyday largely took place before entering the conference.
Maryland has produced more all-American talent than many would realize, but nearly all of those players played in the ACC days.
Call me a B1G constitutional originalist. But I demand everyone be measured by an even Big Ten-level playing field.
Otto Graham, Northwestern (1943)
We need a Wildcat, so we’ll go ahead and take the best athlete to ever wear a Northwestern uniform. Even if his helmet didn’t include a facemask.
Graham came to Northwestern on a basketball scholarship, and for good reason. He also earned all-American honors on the hardwood. Graham wasn’t on the football team until Wildcats coach Pappy Waldorf saw him throw a pass in an intramural game and offered Graham a tryout.
In his first game, Graham returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown, threw for a touchdown and ran for a touchdown. He wasn’t just a dual-threat — he was a triple-threat.
Ohio State coach Paul Brown was suitably impressed with what he saw. He made Graham his franchise building block when starting the Cleveland Browns after World War II.
At the next level, Graham averaged 9 yards per attempt and led the Browns to 7 league titles in 10 years. That feat only gets more impressive with each year the Browns exist.
Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1999)
Dayne is the last Big Ten running back to win the Heisman Trophy, and he may remain with that distinction forever. He’s also the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader when bowl stats are included, as they should be.
At the college level, Dayne was the second coming of Earl Campbell, plowing everything in his path. There has not yet been a third version.
Saquon Barkley, Penn State (2017)
Due to a technicality, this spot almost went to Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III over Barkley. Walker was a consensus all-American running back in 2021, while Barkley was a consensus all-American all-purpose player in 2017. First team running back honors went to Stanford’s Bryce Love and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny.
But who are we kidding?
This spot belongs to Barkley.
He was back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year and was also the Big Ten returner of the year in 2017. On top of that, Barkley is Penn State’s career touchdowns leader.
Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota (1929)
Any all-time team with Big Ten players worth its salt has to have a fullback. That’s just the way it is. We’ll go with the guy who legend states cracked the wall at Wrigley Field with his head while wearing just a leather helmet.
Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State (2022)
Yes, Harrison is already That Dude. And his best season may be yet to come.
Desmond Howard, Michigan (1991)
In a far more run-heavy era, Howard’s Heisman-winning season was mind-bending. His exploits as a returner put him over the top, but his work as a receiver alone was worthy of consideration.
Howard led the country with 19 touchdown receptions on 62 catches — meaning he scored nearly one-third of the time he caught the ball. He also averaged 13.8 yards per carry with 2 touchdowns on 13 rushing attempts.
Given the times, it was the best season ever recorded by a Big Ten receiver.
Charles Rogers, Michigan State (2002)
This is a modern offense, so we’re making room for a third receiver. And we need a Spartan on the team, so it’s going to be Charles Rogers.
Due to his tragic self-destruction after college, it’s become easy for many to forget that Rogers was an phenomenon at Michigan State. When the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2003 NFL Draft, it felt like a no-brainer. He was the original version of Aidan Hutchinson — the dominant local college player you draft with the No. 2 pick.
Rogers’ career average of 20.9 yards per catch remains third in Big Ten history. He won the 2002 Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver, which he absolutely was that season. And that is how we’ll choose to remember him.
Dallas Clark, Iowa (2002)
With a fullback on the roster, we have room for just a single tight end — Dallas Clark.
Clark was a unanimous all-American in 2002, when he became the first Big Ten tight end to win the John Mackey Award. Led by Clark and quarterback Brad Banks, the Hawkeyes won a share of their first Big Ten championship since 1990.
Orlando Pace, Ohio State (1995-96); Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2005-06)
The talent at tackle is deep throughout Big Ten history. And even in good company, Pace and Thomas stand alone.
Pace finished 4th in Heisman voting in 1996 as an offensive tackle. There’s never been anything like it since.
And he still might be second to Thomas, who many believe to be the top offensive tackle in NFL history. Unfortunately, Thomas’ 10-year Browns career did not coincide with Otto Graham’s — it included no playoff appearances. But that was not the fault of the first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Steve Hutchinson, Michigan (2000); Dan Feeney, Indiana (2015-16)
Hutchinson was a unanimous all-American in 2000 and the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. He didn’t allow a sack in his final 2 seasons before embarking on a Hall of Fame pro career.
Feeney is our Indiana representative on the team. He became the first Hoosier to be named first team all-America in back-to-back seasons since running back Anthony Thompson in 1988 and ’89.
Because we needed to include a Hoosier, Ohio State’s Jim Lachey is among the stars left on the bench.
Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa (2021)
We can’t take Dave Rimington, but we can take a guy who won his namesake trophy. Linderbaum is the rare center compelling enough to watch a game to see his highlights. And not just because the offense around him wasn’t very good. He’s that good.
Joey Bosa, Ohio State (2014-15); Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan (2021)
There’s something perfect about a defensive line bookended by a Buckeye and a Wolverine.
Bosa gets the nod over fellow Buckeye Chase Young thanks to having a pair of all-American seasons to Young’s 1.
Hutchinson, who made it to the Heisman stage as a defensive end and sparked Michigan’s revival, is not unlike Pace on the other side of the ball — a true unicorn at his position.
Alex Karras, Iowa (1956-57); Carl Eller, Minnesota (1963)
We went new school with the defensive ends. We’re going old school with our interior linemen, who played when men were men and all that good stuff.
You gonna tell Karras he doesn’t belong on the team?
Before he was Mongo, Karras led Iowa to its first Rose Bowl in 1956. A year later, he finished as the Heisman runner-up — a feat only since matched twice by defensive linemen. (Hutchinson and Ohio State’s John Hicks are the others. It’s a Big Ten thing.)
Eller is a Minnesota legend at both the college and professional levels.
He and fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Bobby Bell led the Gophers to their last Rose Bowl win after the 1961 season — almost certainly the best interior line tandem in Big Ten history.
Eller was a unanimous all-American in 1963, finishing second in Outland Trophy voting to Scott Appleton of national champion Texas. Eller went on to become the 1971 NFL defensive player of the year with the Vikings and remains the all-time franchise sacks leader.
Dick Butkus, Illinois (1963-64)
In this case, we can and certainly will include the namesake of the award for the top linebacker in college football. Dick Butkus virtually invented the position of middle linebacker.
Butkus was the 1963 Big Ten player of the year, leading the Illini to a Rose Bowl win. He reprised the performance by finishing third in Heisman voting in 1964, then getting drafted third overall by his hometown Chicago Bears.
Butkus was named the top middle linebacker of all-time on the NFL 100th anniversary team, because he was.
Micah Parsons, Penn State (2019)
Parsons’ final game as a Nittany Lion was a dominant recap of why he was a unanimous all-American: 14 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in a Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.
Parsons is already putting himself on a track to someday join Butkus on a future NFL anniversary team, making the All-Pro team both of his first 2 seasons with the Cowboys.
Lavonte David, Nebraska (2011)
Nebraska’s downfall can be best summed up like this: David is the only Cornhusker to be named a first team all-American since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. And that was the first year Nebraska played in the Big Ten. Which makes David the only Cornhusker eligible for our team.
That said, David is a worthy pick.
He was the 2011 Big Ten linebacker of the year. And he’s gone on to become one of the top linebackers in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history — pretty noteworthy given that’s the franchise’s strongest position historically.
Rod Woodson, Purdue (1985-86); Charles Woodson, Michigan (1996-97)
Welcome to the law offices of Woodson & Woodson, where all of your claims will be picked off.
Rod set 13 school records at Purdue, including 11 career interceptions. The Boilermakers football and track star returned 3 of those for touchdowns — something he’d go on to do a league-record 12 times in the NFL.
Charles, Rod’s unrelated teammate with the Oakland Raiders in 2002 and 2003, is the only defensive player in history to win the Heisman Trophy. Fittingly, by the end of his career he tied Rod for the NFL record for most defensive touchdowns.
The Woodsons, both Pro Football Hall of Famers, stand alone at corner.
Jack Tatum, Ohio State (1969-70); Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin (2002-03-04)
Would Tatum be ejected for targeting in every game he played in today? Quite possibly. The guy was literally nicknamed “The Assassin,” which is probably a 15-yard flag by itself.
Nevertheless, Tatum was to free safety as Butkus was to middle linebacker — a guy who changed the very way people looked at the position. And they typically looked at it in fear.
Impressively, Leonhard is the lone 3-time all-American on our list. He tied Wisconsin’s school record with 23 interceptions before a 10-year NFL career.
Jake Moody, Michigan (2021)
Moody was the 2021 Lou Groza Award winner, among other accolades. His 355 career points are the most in Michigan history, and he is 1 of 3 Wolverines with 100 points in consecutive seasons — the others being running backs Tom Harmon and Anthony Thomas.
The San Francisco 49ers think so highly of Moody that in 2023 they made him the first kicker drafted with a top-100 overall pick since 2016.
Adam Korsak, Rutgers (2022)
Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer was named to 3 all-American teams compared to Korsak’s 1 in 2022, but we need a Scarlet Knight on our team. And Korsak is our lone eligible candidate. He was the first Rutgers first team all-American since 2006.
Korsak won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter, holding opponents to a preposterous minus-11 return yards for the season.
William Likely, Maryland (2015)
Likely and kicker Brad Craddock and the only Terrapins eligible for the team, and we’re giving the nod to the return man.
Likely burst onto the scene by breaking 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick’s single-game Big Ten record with 233 punt return yards against Richmond. He was also a first team all-B1G defensive back in 2015.
Tim Dwight, Iowa (1996-97)
Dwight was a better punt returner than kickoff returner, but we’re not putting together an ultimate Big Ten all-American team without a 2-time all-American return man. Especially when that guy was as delightful as Dwight, who finished 7th in Heisman voting in 1997 primarily for his skill in that department.
Dwight’s average of 15.7 yards per punt return is tops in Big Ten history and 6th all-time in Division I history.
You’re darn right I’m bending my own rules to get him on the team.