Playing in the formidable Big Ten warrants a litany of talented players year in and year out. Just last season, Northwestern squared off against premier draft picks in Aidan Hutchinson (No. 2 overall pick), Tyler Linderbaum (25th), George Karlaftis (30th), Dax Hill (31st), Boye Mafe (40th), Kenneth Walker III (41st), David Ojabo (45th), Cam Jurgens (51st) and Cam Taylor-Britt (60th). That doesn’t even include other newfound pros like Kerby Joseph, David Bell, Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn, Isiah Pacheco and many more.
With Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin on the docket, expect a similar echelon of stars on both sides of the ball for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad this year. While it’s hard to narrow down the list of the Wildcats’ most frightening individual opponents, below is a ranking of the premier 15 players that NU will see this fall and winter — based on experience, draft projection, raw skill and preseason honors.
No. 15: Jaelyn Duncan, OT, Maryland
Standing 6-foot-6, Duncan has terrific size as a left tackle protecting Taulia Tagovailoa. The redshirt senior ranked 10th in the conference in Pro Football Focus grade among offensive linemen to see 800 or more snaps last year. Duncan has not missed a game in the last three years, durability that has helped vault him among the best offensive linemen in next year’s draft.
No. 14: Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Porter came onto the scene with a crucial pass breakup at Wisconsin to open the 2021 campaign and never looked back. At 6-foot-2, Porter is a menacing figure for opposing offenses willing to test the NFL progeny. Porter and his secondary mate, Ji’Ayir Brown (more on him below), will be the anchor for a Manny Diaz-led Penn State defense as the Nittany Lions hope to resurface to glory.
No. 13: Brett Gabbert, QB, Miami-Ohio
Northwestern’s non-conference competition is not simply a pushover, especially Miami-Ohio. Gabbert, the younger brother of 11-year NFL veteran gunslinger Blaine Gabbert, has made a name in his own right. The RedHawks star threw for 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions, good for an All-MAC Third-Team selection. The junior QB was tabbed for PFF’s Preseason All-MAC First Team as he looks to continue ascending rankings.
No. 12: Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa
LaPorta is in line to be the best tight end in the Big Ten and is firmly in the mix to be TE1 for the upcoming draft. Playing the fifth-most snaps for any tight end in the country last year, the Highland, Ill. native tallied 53 catches for 670 yards and three touchdowns. Following in the footsteps of Hawkeye greats like George Kittle, Dallas Clark and T.J. Hockenson, expect LaPorta to figure heavily in Kirk Ferentz’s offense.
No. 11: Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State
Entering this fall, Johnson slots as the No. 2 offensive tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft, per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. Having previously served as Ohio State’s right guard, the Cincinnati native will slide to left tackle after the departure of Nicholas Petit-Frere. Fellow Buckeye tackle Dawand Jones has also drawn rave reviews and preseason honors before this year, but Johnson seems more refined at this stage.
No. 10: Chase Brown, RB, Illinois
Now in his fourth season in Champaign, Brown has established himself as one of the foremost backs in the conference. The former Western Michigan transfer ranked fourth among Big Ten RBs to have 150+ carries with a tremendous 5.9 yards per attempt and was the first Illinois rusher to eclipse 1,000 yards since Reggie Corbin in 2018. Having recently been posited 33rd on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, Brown is in position to ravage defenses again — just ask NU, against which Brown ran for 112 yards on only 14 totes in 2021.
No. 9: Mo Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota
Ibrahim was widely viewed as one of the best running backs in the midwest before kickoff last year, yet a season-ending injury against Ohio State in Week One prevented him from showcasing his talent. Ibrahim has collected 1,000 yards twice in his career: 2018 and 2020, the latter of which earned him Big Ten Running Back of the Year plaudits. Now recovered, Ibrahim should be the foundation for a Minnesota team with a high ceiling.
No. 8: Nick Herbig, EDGE, Wisconsin
In 2021, Herbig ranked top ten in the conference in sacks, pressures and hurries while collecting 14.5 tackles for loss, four pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Somehow, Herbig was not bestowed All-B1G honors last year, but that’s quite likely to change this season: the junior was named to both College Football News’ and PFF’s Preseason All-Big Ten First Team. Expect even gaudier numbers without Chenal and Sanborn as Herbig embraces a leadership role on a stout Badger defense.
No. 7: Ji’Ayir Brown, S, Penn State
Brown was all over the field for James Franklin’s defense last campaign. With six interceptions — the most by a Nittany Lion since 2006 — five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, Brown was given a spot on the coaches’ All-Big Ten Third Team. As Jaquan Brisker steadies the Chicago Bears’ secondary, Brown should take the reins of a blue-and-white no-fly zone.
No. 6: Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa
Campbell patrols the middle of the field for Iowa’s stingy defense. Last year, he led the Hawkeyes and nation in total tackles (albeit in 14 games) while amassing two interceptions, six pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a sack. Campbell should be a surefire First-Team All-Big Ten pick, if not a First-Team All-American; he’s been given such preseason honors by Sporting News and Athlon Sports.
No. 5: TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s offense is lauded for its aerial attack, but Henderson proliferated the Buckeyes’ rich history of elite running talent. As a true freshman, Henderson accumulated 1,248 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry with 19 total touchdowns. With supreme talent like Walker and Hassan Haskins transitioning to the NFL, Henderson will be one of the best overall offensive players in the Big Ten and the nation.
No. 4: Riley Moss, CB, Iowa
Besides Campbell, the other cylinder in the Iowa defensive engine is Moss. The senior collected four interceptions — two of which went for touchdowns — and five pass deflections, plus had the 14th-highest PFF grade among corners to see 690 or more snaps. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, Moss enters 2022 as the best defender in the conference; his elite measurables (42-inch vertical jump, per Feldman) and track record should render him a Day One pick this April.
No. 3: Braelon Allen, RB, Wisconsin
Like Henderson, Allen had a show-stopping freshman campaign, with 1,307 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns. What makes such stats even more impressive is that Allen was splitting carries with starter Chez Mellusi until Mellusi tore his ACL on Nov. 6. In Allen’s last four games, the Wisconsin native accrued 607 yards and six touchdowns. Having forced 45 missed tackles and mustered 31 runs of 10+ yards, Allen, only 18, could win the Doak Walker Award this year.
No. 2: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Despite playing alongside first-rounders Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Smith-Njigba stole the show, his 15-catch, 347-yard, three-score Rose Bowl showing the cherry on top of a legendary season. OSU flashes receiver talent in Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming, but none should rival Smith-Njigba for the primary share of targets. The junior is pervasively viewed as the best receiver in college football and will prevent defenders from sleeping for weeks.
No. 1: C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Among the pantheon of players Northwestern will face this year, none is better than Stroud. In his first year of starting action, Stroud threw for 4,435 yards, 44 touchdowns and only six interceptions, finishing as a Heisman finalist and the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year. Stroud is the current favorite to take home the Heisman and has little in his way to become a top-three pick in April.
Honorable Mention: Zach Harrison, DL, Ohio State; John Michael Schmitz, OC, Minnesota; Garrett Nelson, EDGE, Nebraska; Aidan O’Connell, QB, Purdue; Rakim Jarrett, WR, Maryland