We go to exhaustive lengths around here to preview and forecast the Big Ten season, but one of the most fun things about actually going through the year is seeing players make the jump from either unheralded to strong contributor or from run-of-the-mill to superstar.
Adam posted the selections for the most improved players in the Leaders Division yesterday. So today we take a look at the Legends Division. Michigan and Michigan State had a bunch of players who made the leap in 2011, so they will dominate this list. Here are the choices, in alphabetical order:
Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State: As a freshman, Allen played in all 13 games but had only 18 tackles in mostly a special-teams role. As a sophomore, he exploded onto the scene as a one of the league's most fearsome defensive playmakers. Allen had 85 tackles while leading the team with 18.5 for loss and 11 sacks, from his outside linebacker spot. Who could forget his re-enactment of "The Waterboy" play when he hurdled an Ohio State blocker and sacked quarterback Braxton Miller? Really, a whole bunch of Michigan State defenders could be on this list, including Isaiah Lewis, Max Bullough, Johnny Adams, Will Gholston and Darqueze Dennard.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska: Burkhead was good as a sophomore but often took a backseat to Roy Helu Jr. as he finished the season with 951 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. If there were any questions whether he could thrive as a feature back, Burkhead emphatically answered them with a 2011 showing in which he rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He often carried the entire Huskers offense on his back.
B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State: Here's an example of a player who went from good to great. Cunningham was always a valuable piece of the Spartans' passing game, catching 41, 48 and 50 passes in his first three years, respectively. As a senior, he moved himself to the elite level by hauling in 79 catches for 1,306 yards. His 12 touchdowns catches were just one shy of his career total coming into the season, and his 16.5 yards-per-catch average was more than three yards better than his previous career high. Cunningham showed he could be a star No. 1 receiver.
Fitz Toussaint, RB, Michigan: More opportunity, better health and the right system helped Toussaint emerge as one of the breakout stars of the 2011 Big Ten season. As a freshman, he had only eight carries, though he flashed his potential by averaging more than 10 yards per touch. He became Denard Robinson's running mate in the Wolverines backfield as a sophomore, rushing for 1,041 yards on 187 carries. Michigan used him more and more as the season went along, leading us to believe even bigger things could be in store next year for Toussaint.
Ryan Van Bergen, DE, Michigan: Like many Michigan defenders, Van Bergen enjoyed performing under the new coaching staff. While his numbers saw upticks his senior year -- he led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and he added three fumble recoveries -- his overall consistency and leadership made the difference. Opposing offense had a difficult time moving the ball in short-yardage downs against the Wolverines; Van Bergen and Mike Martin were two major reasons why.