The Dirty Dozen -- Version 1.0

CHAMPAIGN - IlliniPlaybook's player power rankings heading into the season-opener versus Western Michigan.

This feature, which will be updated each week throughout the season, will track the top players playing for the Illini this fall. The list will be comprised from what is seen, heard and said from those in and around the program and is subject to change for a host of reasons, all of which are at my discretion and could include potential monetary gain (I wish)… Let's get to it…

12. Justin Green – Yeah, the guy opposite Terry Hawthorne finds himself leading off our initial power rankings. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Green is said to be the fastest defensive player on the team and will also get a look returning kicks. He's not Hawthorne, which is both a gift and curse. He doesn't get the headlines Hawthorne does, but that under-the-radar status should provide Green with plenty of opportunities to make plays against quarterbacks that may try to challenge him in order to stay away from the other side of the field.

11. Hugh Thornton – Put simply, Thornton is a senior and playing left tackle. Those two factors alone landed him one of these coveted spots. Briefly sidelined this preseason with a minor injury, Thornton's absence helped shed light on his importance. When he's in the lineup, the rest of the line just looks better.

10. Spencer Harris – OK, let's shake this up. We've got to have a wide receiver on the list – it's in the rulebook somewhere. My mind is telling me to go with Darius Millines, who by all accounts is a good bet to have a breakout year. But my gut is saying Harris. He had more catches than Millines last year and he's a white receiver – which must mean he runs great routes and makes tough possession-style catches over the middle. Terrible stereotypes aside, the offense needs one of Harris, Millines or Ryan Lankford to step up as a go-to target early this season. Actually, all three must prove dependable, as the depth at receiver is fairly shallow at this point.

9. Ashante Williams – I admit from the jump – I'm sleeping on Williams. He should be higher up, I know, I know. It's just that it's hard for me to wrap my head around the "star" position. I love Williams for his versatility. I love hybrid players who can help against the run like a linebacker and defend the pass like a safety. But for players that don't fit in a box, it's hard to place them on lists such as this. For that, I apologize.

8. Jon Davis – What was I saying about hybrids? Davis is the offensive Ashante Williams, except with about 40 more pounds of muscle and a plainer sounding first name. Davis will help out at tight end, slot receiver and at running back. It doesn't really matter where he is pre-snap – the goal is get him the football by any means necessary. Quick story… I'm in the market for a new recliner. The other day I had a salesman show me one with at least 327 different reclining and foot extension positions. The goal is comfort and that recliner has so many ways to get the job done. That's a touchdown. Somehow that had something to do with Jon Davis. I think. Let's move on…

7. Donovonn Young/Josh Ferguson – Hey, I have a hard enough time deciding where I want to eat lunch. Don't think for one second my non-committing-all-options-sound-good-to-me-no-seriously-you-pick mentality is going to lead to an outcome in this debate. And for those of you behind this duo on the list, quit complaining. I know there are two of them. Seriously though, I don't care what offense you're working with – spread, pro, misdemeanor or felony – you better be able to run the football. I like what both Young and Ferguson bring to the backfield and could see the coaching staff riding the hot hand from game to game. Or drive to drive, for that matter.

6. Terry Hawthorne – My dad always use to tell me that sometimes it's best to think with your head instead of your heart. I know Hawthorne's career has been plagued by injuries. But he's so damn athletic. I know he's already spent time on the mend this season. But he can play corner, receiver, kick returner… If he stays healthy, six is probably too low. But I'm trying to balance my heart and head here – so I put him right in the middle. We'll hope for the best and adjust accordingly.

5. Michael Buchanan – This is an interesting one for me… He played all last year with offenses scurrying around just to hang on and slow down Whitney Mercilus. That had to help Buchanan, who finished with 7.5 sacks and 64 total tackles. Now Buchanan is the man offenses will be scheming for off the edge. Let's see how he handles the complete spotlight.

4. Akeem Spence – I've got Spence ahead of others because I love his frame, experience and attitude. He's not going to get double digit sacks this season. He may not be as flashy a player as Buchanan or Hawthorne or Brown. He's not supposed to be. He's going to be doing the dirty work, occupying blockers, disrupting the run, freeing up the linebackers behind him, etc. Spence most likely won't jump off the stat sheet on a regular basis. But for those who do, they'll know whom to thank.

3. Nathan Scheelhaase – Entering his third season as the starter. 26 career starts. Has felt the buzz of a six-game winning streak and the sting of a six-game losing skid. Learned some tough lessons in both of those instances. Won two bowl games. Still has two years to start? Yeah I'll take that.

2. Graham Pocic – How awesome is it that Pocic didn't even know he was listed as the starter at center Monday? OK, I know the less-than-concrete nature of the line makes some of you nervous. But Pocic doesn't care where he's listed – apparently he doesn't even keep up with it. He can play all five spots on the line, which is pretty high up on the ‘That is pretty awesome' list. At this point, he's just waiting to get in the huddle before that first play Saturday so people will stop trying to figure out where he'll be.

1. Jonathan Brown – Let's set the over-under for tackles for loss by Brown at 20… He had 19.5 last year. What say you? Being that I'm afraid of commitment, can I push? Anyway, Brown had 108 tackles last year as a sophomore. He plays with the emotion and passion (read that as… he plays pissed off) that linebackers need. He's had issues controlling those emotions in the past, but says he's maturing and learning how to harness the hate. He didn't use hate – I put that in there. But you get the point. Brown is the player all the rest is chasing heading into Western Michigan.

So that's the Dirty Dozen, version 1.0. Check back each Wednesday as I update the rankings as the season moves along.

Just for fun…

On the cusp: Millines, Glenn Foster (big, motivated and all around nice guy), Earnest Thomas (for now a starter, good hair).

Where were they: Supo Sanni, Steve Hull… Injuries scared me off.

Not eligible: Justin Staples, Simon Cvijanovic… If you can't play on Saturday, you can't be listed on Wednesday…

Top freshman…

OK, so I'm not going to name a top freshman just yet. Who knew I would have trouble deciding on something? We (the media) can't speak to the freshmen until Big Ten games start, and I need to see what these newcomers bring on Saturdays. Here's my running list of players who could claim this honor next week…

Linebackers Mike Svetina, Mason Monheim, cornerback V'Angelo Bentley and tailback Dami Ayoola.

None of these players will start, but most have positioned themselves to be one snap away from being on the field. Ayoola, especially, will get reps in the backfield, but the trio of defensive mentions earned some (I'm placing emphasis on the word some) trust from the coaches in the preseason.

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