Nathan McCarter

Top Returning Seniors In The Big Ten West

Created on Feb. 27, 2014 5:47 AM EST

The Big Ten has a wealth of returning talent for the 2014 season. Some of the talent will be publicized as the face of a team, others will be lauded as potential top draft choices, and some will go under the radar in spite of their importance.

Skill position players will almost always get the glory, but often the talent doesn't match the publicity, while the grit and grime of the trenches takes away the shine from some of the best players in football.

Let's take a look at one of the top returning seniors for each Big Ten West school for 2014.

Purdue TE Gabe Holmes

Purdue will have another rough season in 2014. Simply put, they aren't that good.

One positive they have going for them is the return of tight end Gabe Holmes.

Holmes was expected to have a good year for the Boilermakers in 2013, but he was injured early in the season. The senior was granted his medical redshirt, and he will try to make 2014 his breakout season.

With not many quality options, Holmes should get plenty of looks this season. He will need to produce, and if he does he will improve on his stock heading into next season's NFL draft. Expect Holmes to challenge for the team lead in receiving for Purdue in 2014.

Illinois OLB Houston Bates

Houston Bates was an all-Big Ten honorable mention selection by the media. The 6-foot-2 linebacker will have to be one of the leaders on the Fighting Illini for 2014.

Bates had 12 tackles for a loss in 2013, and came up with 3.5 sacks.

Illinois went 4-8 in 2013, and if they want to improve on that Bates and the defense need to step up big. The Fighting Illini held opponents under 30 points only four times last season. That will put pressure on Bates as they try to turn it around.

Illinois has a cornucopia of problems, but hopefully Bates can be part of the solution.

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

The Hawkeyes impressed on offense in 2013, and tackle Brandon Scherff was a big part of that success. Iowa got excellent news when Scherff decided to return for his senior season.

Scherff is one of the top draft prospects at his position. Big Ten coaches selected him first-team all-Big Ten. That speaks highly of the respect he gets from opposing defenses.

Defenses pressured young quarterback Jake Rudock in 2013, and those efforts will only continue in 2014. Scherff will need to keep Rudock upright as he tries to make the Hawkeyes offense more formidable than ever. If he can do so, the Hawkeyes will have a strong chance to make it to the Big Ten championship game.

Scherff's return to Iowa was big news. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle will shoulder the majority of the responsibility this season. He is the leader.

Minnesota RB David Cobb

The Golden Gophers surprised many around the nation by having an eight-win season, and David Cobb at tailback was a key piece of the winning strategy.

Cobb had six 100-yard rushing games, and tallied more than 1,200 yards. Four of his 100-yard games came in an important four-game win streak against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Cobb then closed out the regular season by rushing for 101 yards against the vaunted Michigan State defense.

Defenses will place an emphasis on stopping the run this season.

Cobb will be playing for more than wins at Minnesota. His 2013 campaign raised his profile, and the 2014 season will play a big factor in to where he gets drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

When you're a consensus all-Big Ten player, you're one of the best in the nation. Scouts will watch Randy Gregory all season long as one of college football's premier defensive players.

Gregory had 10.5 sacks on the season, but the JUCO transfer brought more than his pass rush. He is a talented player who can play linebacker as well in defensive sets that call for it. He gives the Cornhuskers defense options.

With offenses focused on shifting protection to Gregory, his impact may be taking on blockers and opening opportunities for the rest of the defensive front.

Gregory will be one of the most valuable assets on the Cornhuskers team as they try to get back to another Big Ten championship game.

Northwestern C Brandon Vitabile

Consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention selectee Brandon Vitabile will try and help lead the Wildcats back to a bowl game.

Everything started off rosy for Northwestern in 2013, but following a tight loss to The Ohio State University the wheels flew off. They dropped their next six games, and missed bowl eligibility. It was a step backwards for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Vitabile, 2013 team co-captain, will need to pull together the offensive line, and help give the offense a boost in 2014.

He entered 2013 on the Remington watch list for being the nation's top center, and will undoubtedly do so for 2014 as well. If the Wildcats rebound he could be invited to the awards ceremony and collect hardware prior to moving to Sundays.

Wisconsin C Dallas Lewallen

Long-time offensive cogs James White, Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen all have exited the University of Wisconsin football program. New skill players will have to step up, but the good news for the Badgers is that they will return a good offensive front.

Center Dallas Lewallen is one of the leaders of that front.

Lewallen won't enter the season with as many eyes as Vitabile, but he isn't far behind. If he can rally top talent like Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz up front, Lewallen's draft stock will rise.

The Badgers' key to success starts with the offensive line. They will open up rushing lanes for a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon and provide time for the passing game.

Lewallen is the communicator as the center. Success starts with him.

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