Ranking the Top 25 B1G players heading into 2022
Culling a league with as much talent as the Big Ten down to its 25 best players is a difficult task. So difficult that I’m compelled to annoyingly point out how hard it is.
It isn’t made any easier by the league office, which does not name or hold a vote for a preseason all-conference team. Instead, the B1G weirdly designates 5 players from each division as “preseason honorees.”
But no matter. Perhaps the lack of an actual preseason all-B1G team is conducive to creating an unbiased top 25. Or maybe in this case, a shaky top 25.
Only you can be the judge.
25. Chase Brown, RB, Illinois
Last year, Brown joined Rashard Mendenhall and Howard Griffith as the only backs in Illini history with 2 games over 200 yards rushing in a season. He was 3rd in the Big Ten in rushing average with 100.5 yards per game. And pretty much everybody knew he was getting the ball in an undynamic offense.
If Illinois improves its passing game and opens up some running lanes, Brown may prove his place on this list is too low.
24. Mitchell Tinsley, WR, Penn State
This is a bet that the skill Tinsley showed at Western Kentucky translates to the Big Ten, which is how he snuck into the top 25 over potential candidates like Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman and Maryland receiver Rakim Jarrett. (And now you know the top 27.)
Tinsley was 5th nationally with 14 touchdown receptions and 8th with 1,402 receiving yards as a Hilltopper in 2021. He has a shot at being the highest-impact Big Ten transfer this season.
23. John Michael Schmitz, C, Minnesota
How does one properly assess a center against other positions? Good question. And I’m deflecting the answer.
What I do know is Schmitz was the 2nd-best center in the Big Ten last year behind Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum. And Linderbaum was the best center in college football before being drafted 25th overall by the Baltimore Ravens. So this feels like a fair placement for the fulcrum of Minnesota’s offensive line.
22. Cal Haladay, LB, Michigan State
Haladay proved himself among the Big Ten’s most versatile linebackers as a mere freshman, finishing with 96 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 QB hurries, 2 pass breakups and 2 interceptions that he returned for touchdowns.
Plus, he’s entering this season on the best possible vibe:
We are Cal Haladay days away from kickoff pic.twitter.com/pHEh9DXCYx
— Barstool Spartans (@BarstoolMSU) August 6, 2022
21. Paris Johnson, OT, Ohio State
Spoiler alert: This isn’t the last time you’ll see a Buckeye on this list.
It’s also an example of projection being weighed more than past production. Not that the past production was shabby. Johnson was a 2nd team all-Big Ten offensive lineman last season as a right guard, but Ryan Day is moving him out to left tackle this season.
You’ve got to be pretty darn good if a coach trusts you to switch both positions and sides on the offensive line. So even without tape of Johnson at tackle, I will take this leap of faith.
20. Tiawan Mullen, CB, Indiana
Frankly, this is probably too low a placement for Mullen, who proved his worth as a 1st team all-American in 2020.
He proved his worth last year, too. After injuring his ankle against Western Kentucky, Mullen only played in 2 more games the rest of the season. Indiana was 2-2 when Mullen got hurt, then never won another game thereafter.
Since we’re not yet sure of what a post-injury Mullen will look like, we’re erring on the side of caution and putting him 2oth. But with 8 career takeaways in a career that has been shortened by both injuries and COVID, this ballhawk could break out again in 2022.
Can’t wait to get a healthy Tiawan Mullen back on D for #iufb
Seven weeks til kickoff pic.twitter.com/MML7BRgeLK
— Hoosier Huddle (@Hoosier_Huddle) July 15, 2022
19. Aidan O’Connell, QB, Purdue
You might be surprised to find the Big Ten’s No. 2 quarterback in this region of the list, but that’s the state of the position in the conference right now.
That’s not a knock on O’Connell, who is poised to prove himself as Purdue’s best passer since Kyle Orton. Last year he took over the starting job in October and finished the season with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while throwing for 3,711 yards. The Boilers have a shot at reaching their first Big Ten title game because of him.
#CountdownToKickoff: 8⃣1⃣ days
Here are two of the biggest connections 👇 pic.twitter.com/5XmfXo1Y6z
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) June 7, 2022
18. Xavier Henderson, S, Michigan State
The infamous porousness of Michigan State’s secondary last season might lead some to overlook the fact Henderson is really good. That would be a mistake.
He is as good a safety as there is anywhere against the run and effective getting home on the blitz. Last season he finished with 94 tackles, 7 TFL and 3 sacks.
Henderson is back for his senior season after receiving feedback from NFL scouts last offseason, and here’s betting he’ll show them the improvements he needs to incorporate into his game.
17. PJ Mustipher, DT, Penn State
Mustipher is the heart and soul of Penn State’s defense, which was lost following his season-ending knee injury at Iowa last season.
With Mustipher in the lineup, the Nittany Lions allowed 3.05 yards per carry. And it wasn’t all chopped-liver opponents — that includes games against run-heavy Wisconsin and Auburn. Without Mustipher, opponents gained 4.35 ypc against Penn State. Illinois and Arkansas both gained more than 350 on the ground.
Mustipher is the definition of high-impact.
16. Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa
LaPorta is the latest great tight end to roll off Iowa’s assembly line, joining predecessors like George Kittle, Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson.
Last season LaPorta produced 26.5% of Iowa’s receiving yardage and 23.8% of its total receptions. If the Hawkeyes can get better production from their quarterback(s), LaPorta will deliver a top-10 season in program history in terms of receptions and potentially yardage.
Sam LaPorta led Big 10 TEs last season in…
🥇 Catches (53)
🥇 Yards (670)
🥇 Yards after catch (299)
🥇 Yards after contact (206)
🥇 Catches of 15+ yards (18)pic.twitter.com/wanw3qzxBE
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 12, 2022
15. Dontay Demus Jr., WR, Maryland
Demus carries on with our theme of “things fell apart after this guy was injured for the season.” And very literally in this case.
Maryland trailed Iowa 10-7 when Demus tore up his knee getting tackled on a kick return. The Hawkeyes would roll on to a 51-14 win as the Terrapins looked shell-shocked without him. And with good reason. Despite playing only 4 full games, Demus still finished 2nd on the team with 507 receiving yards.
He’s the best Maryland wideout since Stefon Diggs.
What a response from Maryland.
Taulia Tagovailoa launches a deep ball to Dontay Demus Jr. for a 66-yard touchdown.
The Terps take back the lead and are now up 10-7. pic.twitter.com/xgUJ6NjY67
— Testudo Times (@testudotimes) September 4, 2021
14. Keeanu Benton, DT, Wisconsin
Wisconsin was No. 1 in the nation against the run last season, allowing just 61 yards per game. There are multiple reasons that was the case, but in a literal sense none was bigger than the 6-4, 316-pound Benton. He’s a classic clogger who allows Wisconsin’s stacked linebacking corps to swoop in and make tackles.
Other times, he’ll just make the play before they have time to get there.
Keeanu Benton BLEW this play UP😤💥 pic.twitter.com/cYBp6P9GHJ
— IKE Badgers Podcast (@IKE_Badgers) September 29, 2021
13. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
“Junior” can be both a blessing and a burden, depending on how much fame Senior put on the name. But Joey Porter Jr. is making a name for himself in the same state where his dad starred for the Steelers by playing an entirely different position.
Much of that is potential. Porter was 3rd team all-B1G last season with 51 tackles, 4 PBU, an interception and a forced fumble. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a NFL draft board where Porter isn’t listed among the top 5 prospects at cornerback. His ceiling is way up there.
12. Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota
Mo Ibrahim shouldn’t be on this list, because he belongs in the NFL.
Last year we caught a glimpse of what might have been. Ibrahim was brilliant in the season opener against Ohio State, gaining 163 yards before rupturing his Achilles tendon on the final play of the 3rd quarter.
Ibrahim’s average of 153.7 yards per game in 2020 is a program record. If he’s healthy, he might set another.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) July 25, 2022
11. Blake Corum, RB, Michigan
Last season, Corum served as the lightning to Hassan Haskins’ thunder, rushing for 952 yards despite missing a couple games to injury. He was named 3rd team all-B1G even as his own team’s No. 2 running back.
This year, Corum will be the Wolverines’ primary back with Donovan Edwards serving as his alternate. Among Big Ten running backs with at least 100 carries last season, Corum was 3rd with 6.6 yards per carry. You’ll be reading about the other 2 shortly.
1. BLAKE CORUM’S SPEED
2. J.J. MCCARTHY’S BLOCKING
3. TOUCHDOWN MICHIGAN 〽️pic.twitter.com/F2xUkT6eIK
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 5, 2021
10. Riley Moss, CB, Iowa
The reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year is back for another go-round.
Moss had 4 interceptions last season, 2 of which he returned for touchdowns in the season opener against Indiana. His 239 career interception return yards rank 2nd in Iowa history.
Moss is paired alongside Alabama’s Eli Ricks as a first team selection on Phil Steele’s preseason all-America team.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) September 5, 2021
9. Garrett Nelson, OLB, Nebraska
Whether you classify him as an outside linebacker or a defensive end, Nelson is poised to be a destructive force in 2022. He strikes me as the Big Ten player most likely to make the leap Aidan Hutchinson did in 2021. Probably not all the way to No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but certainly to an unquestioned place among the Big Ten’s elite.
Nelson had 57 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 sacks and 4 QB hurries in 2022. I anticipate he’ll be able to double those pass rush stats this year thanks to being paired with TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis at defensive end.
8. Jayden Reed, WR/KR/PR, Michigan State
Reed is the most electrifying return man in the country. And potentially the most fun, period. Reed has 25 career touchdowns — 21 receiving, 3 on punt returns, 1 rushing.
His special teams skills guarantee a shot at an NFL future, but he’s out to prove his receiving skills will translate to the next level. After finishing 2nd in the Big Ten with 17.4 yards per catch last season, that should make for a heck of an encore.
Jayden Reed climbed the ladder AND rocked the baby 👶 pic.twitter.com/s2vETumzPL
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 31, 2021
7. Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern
Skoronski was a freshman all-American and second team all-B1G selection in 2020. Despite Northwestern’s abysmal 2021, he stood out enough to earn a first team all-conference selection.
Pro Football Focus grades Skoronski as the top tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft class, and Phil Steele lists him as a first team preseason all-American.
Skoronski may not have a highlight reel, but he’s absolutely among the Big Ten’s top players.
6. Braelon Allen, RB, Wisconsin
Only Kenneth Walker III’s otherworldly 2021 season kept Allen from claiming the Big Ten rushing title as a freshman. Well, that and the fact he wasn’t the starter for the first month of the season. And you can hardly blame Paul Chryst for that, because who starts a 17-year-old freshman coming out of training camp?
There may not be any hurdles keeping Allen from topping his 1,268 yards of production this season. This is Wisconsin, where great running backs are as common as cheese.
Whether it’s this year or next — or potentially both — Allen may end up becoming the 4th Badgers running back to gain 2,000 yards in a season.
Braelon Allen stepped on the gas 💨 pic.twitter.com/jgHjzwneuA
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 13, 2021
5. Nick Herbig, OLB, Wisconsin
Herbig leads the way among returning Big Ten players with 14.5 TFL and 9 sacks last season. He brings to mind — in terms of on-field impact, anyway — fellow Hawaiian linebacker Manti Teo, who became a Heisman candidate playing linebacker in the Midwest.
This year, he’s out to show there’s more to his game than raising Cain in opposing backfields.
“I’ve worked on playing in space. I think I was lacking at that,” Herbig told Saturday Tradition at B1G Media Days. “Also, my pass rush was decent. But I wasn’t really happy with it.”
That news will not be greeted enthusiastically by opposing quarterbacks.
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) December 31, 2021
4. Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa
Campbell was voted the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year, and it’s easy to see why. The guy is everywhere, bringing his B1G-leading 143 tackles back for another season. It was the most productive year for an Iowa linebacker since Pat Angerer recorded 145 tackles in 2009.
Campbell has an uncanny nose for the ball. In a 3-week stretch last season, he recovered a fumble and returned it for a 6-yard score against Iowa State, forced a fumble at the goal line to prevent a Kent State touchdown, then recovered a fumble at the Colorado State 6 to set up Iowa’s go-ahead score.
“It shows how important the mental side of the game is, and preparation is just invaluable,” Campbell said at Media Days. “Sometimes, though, my instincts do just kick in.”
#CFB returns in 31 days
LB Jack Campbell – Iowa pic.twitter.com/wFT8zuOSNW
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) July 27, 2022
3. TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
Pete Johnson’s single-season school record of 25 rushing touchdowns has stood at Ohio State since 1975. We’ll see if it’s still there this time next year.
Henderson had quite the nose for the end zone as a freshman, rushing for 15 touchdowns while adding 4 touchdown receptions.
Indeed, it’s the threat he provides as a pass catcher out of the backfield that is most likely to keep Johnson’s ground record secure. Henderson averaged 11.5 yards per catch on his 27 receptions, nicely complementing his 6.8 yards per carry. (Henderson and Braelon Allen both averaged exactly 6.82 ypc last season.)
With receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave now in the NFL, expect to see the ball in Henderson’s hands a lot more this season — regardless of how it’s delivered.
TreVeyon Henderson is the fastest man alive
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 13, 2021
2. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Stroud passed for the 2nd-most yards (4,435) and touchdowns (44) in Ohio State history as a redshirt freshman. If he’s able to pull off anything like that as a sophomore, he’ll very likely be near the front of the line when it comes to being the top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Which makes it fair to wonder how the potential No. 1 overall pick isn’t even the No. 1 player on this list.
The reason: We’re going to learn a lot about Stroud this year. Last season he was able to work with one of the best receiving corps in college football history on his way to becoming a Heisman finalist. The aforementioned Wilson and Olave are gone now, so now it’s Stroud’s time to show what he’s made of.
Based on his Rose Bowl-record 573 yards without either of them in the lineup, the outlook is pretty good.
C.J. Stroud dropped a dime to Marvin Harrison Jr. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/j6uxSJljfU
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 1, 2022
1. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Last year, Smith-Njigba broke David Boston’s 25-year-old record for single-game receptions by an Ohio State receiver. Twice.
The new mark is 15, set by Smith-Njigba against Nebraska and then tied against Utah in the Rose Bowl. I’d anticipate he’ll tie it again at some point this season, or perhaps leave it in the dust altogether.
Despite being surrounded by a pair of top-11 draft picks at receiver, Smith-Njigba stood alone with single-season program records for receptions (95) and yards (1,606). After this season, expect to hear Smith-Njigba’s name spoken with the same reverence as Biletnikoff, Moss and Fitzgerald.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba makes Ohio State history with the most receptions in a single game!
🏈 15 Rec
🏈 240 Rec Yds
🏈 1 Rec TD pic.twitter.com/0tegy5kpgZ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 6, 2021
Jaxon Smith-Njigba hit the BURNERS to score 🔥 pic.twitter.com/TatHql3xZ6
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 1, 2022
JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA FOR THE LEAD!!
THIS MAN CAN'T BE STOPPED pic.twitter.com/AgDWhFSas6
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2022