Welcome back from the holiday weekend. Today, we're going to begin taking a look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove in the 2013 season. We'll break this up by division, with the Leaders getting the first close-up.
Here are five Leaders players with much to prove this fall:
1. Curtis Grant, LB, Ohio State: Grant was one of the top-rated recruits in the Class of 2011, as ESPN.com ranked him No. 3 in the country at his position and 46th overall, while Rivals had him as the No. 2 overall prospect. He's now a junior with only 10 career tackles, and he was beaten out last year by a converted fullback. But Grant looked good this spring and is once again slated to start at middle linebacker; he and others believe this is the year he finally starts to live up to his prodigious talent and hype. "He's learned to calm down, stop over thinking everything and just play the game," outside linebacker Ryan Shazier told ESPN.com this spring. Ohio State will need Grant to emerge as a solid contributor with only one returning starter in its defensive front seven.
2. Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois: Few Big Ten quarterbacks have as much experience under their belts as Scheelhaase, who has played in 36 games and has been the team's starter since his redshirt freshman year in 2010. But injuries, a poor supporting cast and a coaching change all took its toll on Scheelhaase last year, as he threw for just 1,361 yards and a career-low four touchdowns, with eight interceptions. Scheelhaase should be back at the controls this year in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's spread offense, which will depend heavily on good decision-making by the quarterback. If Scheelhaase can't bounce back from his 2012 performance, Reilly O'Toole and freshman Aaron Bailey will be nipping at his heels.
3. Ryan Groy, OL, Wisconsin: The Badgers' run of All-Americans and major award winners on the offensive line ended last year, though center Travis Frederick still parlayed a strong junior season into a new job with the Dallas Cowboys. Even with a coaching change, Wisconsin will look to continue its tradition of standout linemen, and Groy could be the next star. The senior filled in at left tackle last year when Ricky Wagner was hurt and could start the year protecting the blind side, although he also could play guard. Head coach Gary Andersen is concerned about the depth on the line and will need Groy to serve as an anchor for the group.
4. Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue: Russell has been talked about as a future star since he debuted as a starter two years ago when he was a redshirt freshman. Bothered by some injuries last year, he recorded four sacks last year on a defensive line that did not meet lofty expectations. With Kawann Short off to the NFL, the Boilermakers need Russell to step up and become the next member of their defensive end "Den" tradition. He's got the talent to be one of the top pass-rushers in the league, and if he can play at an elite level, Purdue could surprise some people this fall.
5. Bill Belton, RB, Penn State: When Silas Redd transferred to USC last summer, Belton seemed like the obvious successor at tailback. But after being slowed by an ankle injury early in the season, Belton all but disappeared from the Penn State offense, compiling just 263 rushing yards and receiving only one carry in the final three games as Zach Zwinak put a firm grip on the running back job. Belton remains one of the fastest and shiftiest players the Nittany Lions have, and he reportedly turned in a good spring. Whether he can beat out Zwinak or hold off freshman Akeel Lynch remains to be seen, but he's too talented to remain merely an afterthought. If he can become the player most thought he would develop into, that would give Bill O'Brien another important weapon on offense.