The best (and worst) of the season. Today: The year's most pleasant surprises, individual edition.
5. DT Star Lotulelei, Utah.
Native Tongan started just three games in 2010, his first season out of junior college, and was nowhere to be found on preseason award lists in the Pac-12. (Lotulelei's official bio at Utah was willing to go as far as describing him as "one of the best tackles on the team.") As a junior, though, he emerged as the anchor of the best run defense in the league, with a first-team all-conference nod and serious interest from the NFL to show for it. But don't take their word for it: Lotulelei was also voted the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 by the offensive linemen who were asked to block him.
4. RB Henry Josey, Missouri.
It took Josey about three weeks to make the leap from anonymous third-stringer to best tailback in the Big 12, and he spent the next two months solidifying the title: In the Tigers' first six conference games, he went for 145 yards against Oklahoma, 205 against Iowa State, 176 against Oklahoma State, 205 against Texas A&M and 143 against Baylor, on at least six yards per carry in every game. Josey was easily on pace to lead the league in rushing when he went down with a season-ending knee injury against Texas, and still came in for first-team All-Big 12 honors despite missing most of that game and all of Mizzou's last two.
In a conference overflowing with prolific passers, Klein didn't have much of a profile before the season and never challenged the likes of Robert Griffin, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones on paper. Among full-time starters, in fact, he finished with the lowest completion percentage, fewest touchdowns and most sacks in the league, at the wheel of one of its least productive offenses.
As the season wore on, though, Klein was increasingly the engine of K-State's return to the Big 12 aristocracy, largely because of his legs: Excluding sacks, he went over 100 yards rushing in nine different games, including wins over Miami, Baylor and Texas A&M, and managed to turn in a pair of (relatively) big passing days in back-to-back, down-to-the-wire finishes against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in November. Klein ultimately accounted for 69 percent of the Wildcats' total yards, en route to their best season since at least 2003.
2. RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin.
Ball was hardly an unknown commodity after flirting with a 1,000-yard season in 2010, but he was still seen as mainly a cog in the unstoppable Badger machine: Two other Badger backs went over 1,000 yards in 2010, one of whom — freshman James White — was back to lead the charge in 2011. For most of the season, the headlines and Heisman hype belonged to quarterback Russell Wilson.
By the end, though, Ball's relentless production was too much to deny: He ended the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing yards and touchdowns, No. 2 in all-purpose yards and No. 4 in Heisman voting as the star of the Big Ten's best offense — barely a year after being stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart.
1. DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois.
In August, Mercilus was a relatively obscure, former three-star recruit with two career starts to his name in three years. In December, he's a unanimous All-American with more sacks (14.5) than any other player in the nation and more forced fumbles (9) than any player in Big Ten history for a defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed. Come April, he may be on his way to the first round of the draft.
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