The Big Ten produces plenty of good players each season, but only a select few make the jump from good to great.
Wisconsin's J.J. Watt was one of them in 2010.
Watt turned in a solid sophomore season in 2009, recording 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his first season as a starting defensive end for the Badgers. I ranked Watt at No. 25 in my preseason player countdown, viewing him as a good player with the potential to be great.
Few could have predicted how great Watt would be that following fall. He completed a meteoric rise by earning second-team All-America honors, made more impact plays than any Big Ten defender and finished the season with 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and nine passes deflected. He then became the first Big Ten player selected in April's NFL draft.
Who will be this season's J.J. Watt?
Here are five players who could take the step from good to great in 2011.
Penn State LB Michael Mauti: Hopes have been high for Mauti since he arrived in State College, and he has shown that when healthy, he can be a special player. After missing the 2009 season while recovering from a torn ACL, Mauti was hitting his stride last fall before a late-season shoulder injury. If he can stay on the field this fall, he should do big things as a leader for Penn State's defense.
Ohio State DL John Simon: Simon's teammates billed him as a future All-American as a freshman, and he could meet those expectations in 2011. He recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two pass deflections in his first season as a starter last fall. A weight-room superstar who's among the nation's strongest players, Simon can play either line spot and could see more time as an edge rusher this season.
Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: A jack of all trades in 2010, Burkhead is in line to emerge as Nebraska's featured running back this fall. Coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck have complete faith in the junior, who has grasped the new offense and comes off of a 951-yard rushing performance in 2010. Burkhead won't appear on our preseason top 25 player countdown, but he could be among the league's top 10 players by season's end.
Michigan DT Mike Martin: Martin has gained respect around the Big Ten without putting up monster numbers. His potential as a next-level player is obvious, and he could take a big step forward this season as Michigan revamps its defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. A starting nose tackle the past two seasons, Martin will be moved around more this season and should drop back in coverage from time to time. Expect many more impact plays from No. 68.
Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt came to Iowa as a quarterback but has settled in as a receiver, where he'll enter his third season as a starter this fall. With Derrell Johnson-Koulianos gone, McNutt becomes Iowa's clear No. 1 wideout. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior is a legit NFL prospect who stretches the field and makes plays in the red zone. He could be in the mix for national honors this season, especially if new quarterback James Vandenberg blossoms.