Returning Talent - Legends Division

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Last updated: 01/31/2012 2:05 AM
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Football
Looking at the Big Ten's Returning Talent—The Legends Division
By Tony Gerdeman

Last week we took a look at the returning starters in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, so now it's time to give the same treatment to the Legends Division.

Like the Leaders Division, the Legends Division produced five bowl teams last season. If Minnesota cooperates in 2012, they could produce six.

But who does what in 2012 will obviously depend upon the talent returning, which is why we're taking a quick look at what that entails for the coming year.

The Legends Division

(In order of most starters returning. *Indicates returning starter at quarterback)

1. Nebraska
(Seven on offense*, seven on defense and both kicking specialists.)

The Good News
Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead return, which will be the key to Nebraska's success next season. The pair has combined for over 4,100 yards rushing in the previous two seasons. Several receivers return, including leading receiver Kenny Bell (32-461-3). The tight ends are also back as well. Only two of last year's starters return on the offensive line, but rising sophomore Tyler Moore opened the season as the starter at right tackle in the Huskers' first four games.

Four of the Huskers' top six tacklers return, including linebacker Will Compton, defensive end Cameron Meredith and safety Daimion Stafford. Defensive end Jason Ankrah and tackle Baker Steinkuhler also return. Cornerback Andrew Green is back after leading all Nebraska cornerbacks in passes broken up with seven. Cornerback Ciante Evans started five games, splitting time as a starter and a nickel back. He could step into a larger role in 2012. Of note, returning punter Brett Maher won both the Big Ten kicker of the year award and punter of the year.

The Bad News
Nebraska will have to replace three starters on the offensive line, but they have plenty of prospects who have started in the past, including reserve tackle Jeremiah Sirles, who started every game as a redshirt freshman in 2010. The will need to find a center, however. They lose fullback Tyler Legate, but there's probably four more just like him being hatched at the moment.

Even though he only played in five games last year due to injury, losing defensive tackle Jared Crick will hurt. The biggest loss, however, will be that of the Big Ten's linebacker of the year Lavonte David, who finished with 122 tackles last season. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was the best in the conference, and safety Austin Cassidy will be difficult to replace, as both were multiple-year starters.

2. Michigan
(Six on offense*, eight on defense and both kicking specialists.)

The Good News
Quarterback Denard Robinson will return for his third year as a starter, and now that he and offensive coordinator Al Borges have gotten used to each other, it should be his best. Fitzgerald Toussaint, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, returns to give the Wolverines one of the conference's best ground games. Receivers Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon return. Gallon only started one game last year, but he finished second on the team in receptions (31) and yards (453). Three-fifths of the offensive line return, including left tackle Taylor Lewan.

The Wolverines return four linebackers who started at least six games last season, including team leader in tackles (94) Kenny Demens. The entire secondary returns, save for Troy Woolfolk, who never really had a spot on this defense to call his own. Defensive end Craig Roh returns for his senior season, and should have the best year of his career in 2012.

The Bad News

Receiver Junior Hemingway is gone, which means that Denard Robinson will need to find another receiver on this team who can bail him out as consistently and spectacularly as Hemingway did. Tight end Kevin Koger is gone, and there may not be a tight end on the roster who could do what he did. Center David Molk has been a mainstay forever. There will be a dropoff here.

Michigan loses three-fourths of their defensive line in Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger. Heininger can be replaced, but Martin and Van Bergen produced more than just results. They were talented and savvy, and kept offensive lines busy. There are a number of options to fill these two vacancies, but nobody who can replace Martin.

3. Michigan State
(Five on offense, eight on defense and both kicking specialists.)

The Good News
Leading rusher Le'Veon Bell returns, as do his 948 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns from last season. He'll have four-fifths of his offensive line in front of him as well. Tony Lippett is the only receiver returning who had significant starting experience, starting five times last season. Look for him to become a go-to guy for whomever wins the quarterback battle.

The Spartans return nearly everybody from last year's defense, including defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush, who combined for 28 tackles for loss. Also back is the entire starting linebacker unit, which accounted for three of Michigan State's top four tacklers. Of that group, keep in mind that Denicos Allen had 18.5 tackles for loss and eleven sacks as a sophomore. Both starting cornerbacks return, as does playmaking safety Isaiah Lewis.

The Bad News
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is gone, as are the team's top three wide receivers and tight end Brian Linthicum. Receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin did more than just catch the ball, they were two of the Big Ten's most dangerous offensive threats.

The losses on defense aren't many, but they are significant. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy has left for the NFL, and he is a large reason for the high number of Spartan tackles for loss last season. Expect their overall number to go down this coming season. Losing safety Trenton Robinson is also big. He was a team leader and had a knack for making plays when they needed to be made.

4. Northwestern
(Six on offense, five on defense and both kicking specialists.)

The Good News
Even though veteran quarterback Dan Persa departs, his injuries allowed Kain Colter to see immense playing time last season, including starting the first three games at quarterback. Receivers Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Demetrious Fields all return, which will help Colter transition to being the full-time starter. Three linemen return to help Colter remain calm as well.

All three linebackers return from last season. Rising junior Damien Proby started the final seven games in the middle in 2011. Weakside linebacker David Nwabuisi finished third on the team in tackles with 84, and led with 8.5 tackles for loss. Rising sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell is back after leading the team in tackles as a redshirt freshman with 100 tackles.

The Bad News
Even though Persa wasn't the quarterback that everybody expected last season, he's still a loss. Colter has potential, but he still has a lot to prove. The Wildcats also lose starting running back Jacob Schmidt, but his production was so lacking that anybody should be able to exceed it. Northwestern will also have to replace Jeremy Ebert and his 2,013 yards receiving over the last two seasons. Left tackle Al Netter and right guard Ben Burkett are gone as well. They combined for 104 starts in 104 games in their respective careers.

The Wildcats had four defensive ends who started at least six games last season, and they lose two of them. Also gone are defensive tackles Niko Mafuli and Jack DiNardo. Cornerbacks Jeravin Matthews and Jordan Mabin won't be easily replaced, but Northwestern does often have a knack for finding corners. Safety Brian Peters, a three-year starter, will also be difficult to replace.

5. Iowa
(Six on offense*, five on defense and the kicker.)

The Good News
Quarterback James Vandenberg returns following his 3,022-yard passing performance last season. Keenan Davis, who finished second on the team with 50 receptions and 713 yards should be Vandenberg's top target next season. Tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Zach Derby combined for 28 catches last season and return as well. Center James Ferentz and left guard Matt Tobin are back, with Ferentz entering his third season as a starter.

Defensively, linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey return. They tied for the team lead in tackles last season with 110. Free safety Tanner Miller and cornerback Micah Hyde are the only other two full-time starters returning on defense. They tied for the team lead with three interceptions a piece. Miller finished fourth on the team in tackles with 76, and Hyde sixth with 72 stops.

The Bad News
Second-team All-Big Ten running back Marcus Coker is gone, as are his 1,384 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. The Big Ten receiver of the year Marvin McNutt is gone as well, leaving a 1,315-yard receiving gap that will need to be filled by somebody. Left tackle Riley Reiff left early for the NFL and the right side of the offensive line left with him.

Iowa's pass rushers Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns have moved on. Daniels will be impossible to replace, but don't we always say that about Iowa defensive tackles? Linebacker Tyler Nielsen is gone, as are cornerback Shaun Prater and safety Jordan Bernstine. Prater leaves with 35 career starts under his belt.

6. Minnesota

(Five on offense*, five on defense and both kicking specialists.)

The Good News
Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns following a 2011 that saw him rush for 966 yards and throw for 1,495 yards in eleven games. With that first year under his belt, expect him to rush for over 1,000 yards this season and throw for over 2,000. Left tackle Ed Olson returns, as does right tackle Jimmy Gjere. Gjere missed the final seven games of the season last year. A handful of receivers with a few starts a piece also return.

Defensive ends Ben Perry and D.L. Wilhite return. They combined for four sacks last season. Linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper are back as well. They finished third and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively. Cornerback Brock Vereen returns after leading the team in passes defended (8) last season.

The Bad News
Starting tailback Duane Bennett and leading receiver Da'Jon McKnight are both gone. There are a number of running backs who can step in, however. McKnight should be able to be replaced simply by Gray becoming a more accurate quarterback. A pair of veteran offensive linemen will need to be replaced, but let's not pretend they were All-Americans.

The middle of Minnesota's defense has been gutted, and it's probably not a good thing. Tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey are gone. Middle linebacker Gary Tinsley is done, as is safety Kim Royston, who led the Gophers in tackles with 123. Safeties Christyn Lewis and Shady Salamon leave as well, and they split nine starts between them. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire finally graduates as well, after playing at Minnesota for the better part of a decade.

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