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College Football 2022: Offensive and defensive spotlights for all Big Ten teams

Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs past Utah Utes cornerback Malone Mataele (15) during the second quarter of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Jan. 1, 2022. College Football Rose Bowl

Like clockwork, the Ohio State Buckeyes are expected to be in the conversation for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Unlike last year, though, it's unknown whether the Michigan Wolverines will repeat their success in 2021.

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All analysis below is credited to PFF's 2022 College Football Preview Magazine.

Editor's note: This analysis focuses on non-quarterbacks. 

Illinois Fighting Illini

Offensive Spotlight Player: RB CHASE BROWN

Brown is the Illini’s most important player, and it’s not particularly close. He ended the 2021 season as the team’s most valuable offensive player and is Illinois’ most valuable returning player overall in 2022. Brown showed some boom-or-bust tendencies in 2021, with multiple elite-graded games above 90.0 mixed in with a few poor marks below 60.0. Consistency will be key for Brown in 2022, but the offensive line also needs to do its part as blockers. Even still, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound back averaged 5.7 yards on nonperfectly blocked run plays last year — a top-five mark in the FBS.

Defensive Spotlight Player: CB DEVON WITHERSPOON

Witherspoon is eying a bigger 2022 campaign after three years of middling play with overall PFF grade in the mid-to-high 60s. His ability to get going in a hurry stands out as a key strength. He makes excellent flat-footed breaks from off-coverage, and that helped him tie for the third-most defensive stops among Big Ten cornerbacks in 2021 (19). That’s not to say there isn’t some inconsistency within Witherspoon’s game, hence his average career grades.

Indiana Hoosiers

Offensive Spotlight Player: WR D.J. MATTHEWS JR

A breakout seemed imminent for Matthews with the Hoosiers in 2021 after he transferred in from Florida State, but a torn ACL cut his season short. Against Cincinnati in Week 3, he turned in an 85.6 PFF grade after catching five of six targets for 120 yards. He is a route salesman who is deadly on double moves. Matthews’ separation rate was beyond the 90th percentile at the position in the FBS before he got hurt. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound slot receiver is also a seasoned punt returner. He took one of his four punt returns to the house last season and owns an 80.2 punt return grade for his college career. If he can get back to pre-injury form, Matthews can be a major weapon for Indiana.

Defensive Spotlight Player: CB TIAWAN MULLEN

Injury derailed Mullen’s 2021 campaign, limiting him to only four starts and 227 snaps. When healthy, he’s undoubtedly among the best at the position. The 5-foot-10, 175- pounder has inside-outside versatility and is a ferocious blitzer. Mullen is also the proud owner of the highest run-defense grade among cornerbacks since his true freshman campaign in 2019. In coverage, he consistently wins at the catch point, with a 20.6% forced incompletion rate since 2019 — the second-best among active Power Five cornerbacks.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Offensive Spotlight Player: TE SAM LAPORTA

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