Big Ten football players to watch

Although recent Penn State scandals and sanctions have taken the spotlight elsewhere, there are several players in the Big Ten that are taking that attention back. With training camps just around the corner, here are four Big Ten players to keep an eye on.

Wisconsin is looking to win its third consecutive Big Ten Championship and running back Montee Ball is expected to help them do that. Among other awards, Ball was the 2011 Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year and a Heisman Trophy finalist. He also led the country in rushing yards in 2011 with close to 2,000 and scored 33 touchdowns, a Big Ten single-season record. Ball said he thinks about the records he could set this upcoming season and “the stamp he could put on Wisconsin football,” but it’s not all about that.

“I really don’t have to be a superhero out there, just play my game, play in my shoes,” Ball said. “I think that will be enough for the team, just do what I can.”

Ball will enter the season with a chance to become the second player to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year two years in a row. Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema is all about his running back earning more accolades, but more specifically the Heisman Trophy. Bielema said it will be a team effort to ensure that Ball brings it home to the Badgers.

“Obviously he’s going to be up for the Heisman. I’d love to be a head coach that coaches the Heisman winner, and our offensive line would love to be an offensive line that blocks for a Heisman Trophy winner. Everybody in our program is going to try to help him win that award.”

Another player who has been mentioned in 2012 Heisman Trophy talks is Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. He said he’s been watching more film, working on his timing and focusing on becoming a great leader since last season. In the eyes of Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke, his preseason work has paid off.

“He really has become a guy you can count on when it comes to leadership and how his work ethic is and those things that he’s done,” Hoke said.

With 1,702 in 2011, Robinson holds the record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Looking forward he stressed that his teammates are his family and he will do whatever he can to get wins for them, knowing they will do the same for him. Robinson said his comfort level has greatly improved with the “family” surrounding him since last season.

“It’s like night and day, it’s sunny over here,” Robinson said. “Last year it was dark, it was night time. This year I feel comfortable with the offense and now we’re running with the offense. We’re able to make audibles and make adjustments because we know the offense and are more smooth.”

Another player to keep an eye on comes from Michigan’s in-state rival, Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell. At Big Ten Media Day, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t afraid to express his confidence in the abilities of his team. Entering the 2012 season without former quarterback Kirk Cousins may seem daunting to many, but Dantonio doesn’t seem to be phased, highlighting the teams cohesion with Maxwell in the pocket.

“We’re bigger now, faster now, more experienced. Right now our supporting cast is more developed, more experienced around Andrew,” Dantonio said. “He’s worked with the wide receivers now, it’s not like he’s throwing to new guys; it’s extremely exciting.”

Maxwell said he knows expectations are high entering the 2012 season but he is ready to take on the challenge with what he called a group that is “more than qualified” around him. He stressed the fact that he is not looking to fill Cousins shoes but will simply be himself and do his job.

“I’m just one small piece of the puzzle and if each one of us do our job exactly, the best way we know how to do it then we could be a special team,” Maxwell said.

Nebraska’s running back Rex Burkhead is also a player to watch in the Big Ten. He made a name for himself in 2011 with just under 1,400 total yards. Similar to Wisconsin’s Ball, Burkhead believes that his personal records will fall into place as his team finds success as a whole.

“The ultimate goal is to get to the Big Ten Championship, the ultimate goal during a game is to win a game,” Burkhead said. “To win those games, you do the best you can and all those individual goals, accolades and awards will take care of themselves.”

Burkhead was chosen for the Big Ten Players to Watch List, joining both Robinson and Ball. Fifth-year Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has nothing but faith in Burkhead to pull off another great season and in his offense in general.

“There’s no question Rex will always have a great season. There’s no doubt about that,” Pelini said. “I like our chances on the offensive side.”

The confidence expressed at the Big Ten Media Days will be put to the test as training camps and games begin to unfold. This has been a look at merely four players on a long list of athletes that are sure to make the upcoming Big Ten football season exciting to watch.