If there's a big kid on the block in the Big Ten Conference football race, it's Wisconsin running back Montee Ball.
CHAMPAIGN -- If there's a big kid on the block in the Big Ten Conference football race, it's Wisconsin running back Montee Ball.
Roughly three months after deciding against turning pro, Ball is the top returning vote-getter from last year's Heisman Trophy balloting, and he will attempt to lead Wisconsin to its third straight Big Ten title.
"I believe right now we are the targeted team in the Big Ten because of what we've done the past two years,'' Ball told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Ball was the guy that got the most done for the Badgers. Last season, he rushed for 1,923 yards and scored 39 touchdowns. Projected as a third-round NFL pick last spring, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder was nearly unstoppable in the Badgers' spring drills.
The prohibitive favorite to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship game -- Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible because of NCAA sanctions -- Wisconsin has plenty of playmakers, but none with Ball's track record.
"I'm making sure I am taking every play and approaching it like it is my last,'' he said. "Because what I told myself when I decided to come back was this: 'If I don't get the job done how I can expect these young players to?' Because there are going to be times when they're looking at me to make plays. That is what I think of every day.''
Ball is one of players to watch in the Big Ten. Here are other names to keep in mind.
- Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. While massive Buckeyes defensive end John Simon has become a favorite of first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Hankins is a 6-4, 317-pounder who has caught the eye of NFL scouts and appeared on preseason All-America lists. He had 67 tackles and three sacks last season as a sophomore.
- Wisconsin left tackle Ricky Wagner. The Badgers have been known for their smash-mouth football, and Wagner is the latest in a long line of stars. He's a likely first-rounder in the NFL draft next spring.
- Purdue defense tackle Kawann Short. If there's a player who can have a breakout like Illinois' Whitney Mercilus last season, it's Short. He recorded 12 1/2 sacks over the previous two seasons and could become the fourth first-rounder in the last seven seasons from Purdue.
- Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown. The junior moved to inside linebacker is a budding star who wants to be known for his play rather than getting kicked out of a game for an embarrassing personal foul against Northwestern last season. Brown had six sacks last season in his first year as a starter.
- Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. He's the player who could change the Big Ten's balance of power. After finishing with 3,349 total yards and 36 touchdowns last fall to lead the Big Ten's second-ranked offense, Robinson and the Wolverines want to end a four-year losing streak to rival Michigan State and reach the conference championship game.
- Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead. What's new? The Huskers aren't expected to pass the ball much without a clear No. 1 target. So expect Nebraska to rely upon Burkhead, who was third in the league with 1,357 yards a year ago.
- Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams. Here's a good idea. Throw it in the other direction than Adams who already grabbed eight interceptions in the last two seasons and serves as the star in a loaded secondary.
- Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan. The 6-8, 302-pounder is considered the top draft prospect at his position by NFL Network. Lewan's growth potential and nastiness push him up the ladder.
- Iowa wide receiver Keenan Davis. The No. 2 returning receiver in the Big Ten, Davis gives Iowa some speed on the edge after catching 50 passes for 713 yards and four TDs last season. He plays for first-year Iowa coordinator Greg Davis, a former Texas assistant.
NOTE: These players were on Supinie's ballot to the Big Ten in voting for the league's top 10 heading into the season. The Big Ten will release results of the voting Thursday. Big Ten kickoff media days are Thursday and Friday in Chicago.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.