With spring practice underway across college football, most of interest will focus on quarterback battles or incoming freshmen that enrolled early to get a jumpstart on making an impact for 2013.
However, there’s always a handful of players – outside of the quarterback position – that fly under the radar that need to have a big spring practice for their team. Whether it’s a running back replacing a 1,000-yard rusher or a lineman stepping into a starting role for an all-conference player, there’s plenty of names that will be under the spotlight this spring.
Athlon continues its spring practice previews with a look at five under-the-radar players to watch in each conference during spring practice.
5 Players to Watch in Big Ten Spring Practice
Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State
A new quarterback and a revamped receiving corps prevented Michigan State’s passing attack from getting off the ground last season. Despite the struggles at quarterback, Burbridge turned in an impressive freshman campaign with 29 receptions for 364 yards and two touchdown catches. His best performance came in a 31-27 win over Indiana, grabbing eight receptions for 134 yards. With another offseason to work under Michigan State’s coaching staff and develop in the weight room, Burbridge is due for an even better sophomore campaign. And if Michigan State can solve its quarterback issues, the Michigan native could push for all-conference honors.
Related Content: 2013 Michigan State Spring Preview
Darius Hillary, CB, Wisconsin
New coach Gary Andersen is inheriting a top-25 team, but the Badgers have some major work to do in the secondary. Three starters are gone from last season, including second-team All-Big Ten cornerback Devin Smith. Junior college transfer Donnell Vercher will arrive in the summer to compete, but Hillary and Peniel Jean are the frontrunners to claim the starting cornerback spots. Hillary played in 14 games last season and recorded 23 tackles and two pass breakups. As expected with any freshman, Hillary had his ups and downs in 2012 but should be better with another spring practice under his belt. The Badgers need to find two starting cornerbacks this spring, but some of the coaching staffs concerns about the secondary would be eased if Hillary solidifies a starting job.
Related Content: 2013 Wisconsin Spring Preview
Akeem Hunt, RB, Purdue
Hunt has been mostly a role player in his first two years in West Lafayette. As a freshman in 2011, he rushed for 287 yards and two touchdowns and improved those numbers slightly in 2012, recording 335 yards and two scores on 42 attempts. In addition to his workload on offense, Hunt has contributed on special teams, averaging 22.6 yards per kickoff return. With Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden expiring their eligibility, Hunt is expected to be Purdue’s No. 1 back. At 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, the Georgia native doesn’t have ideal size for a feature back. However, new coach Darrell Hazell used a player (Dri Archer) with similar measurables at Kent State, and Archer finished 2012 with 1,429 rushing yards and 16 scores. Is Hunt going to play a similar all-around role to Archer? Or is Hunt expected to just be the feature back in 2013? Spring practice should give the Boilermakers an idea of what they can expect from Hunt this season.
David Santos, LB, Nebraska
As if the late-season struggles weren’t enough to overcome, Nebraska’s defense was gutted by departures. The front seven loses ends Eric Martin and Cameron Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebackers Will Compton and Sean Fisher. Santos is one of the few proven players returning at linebacker after recording 24 tackles – including 10 against Michigan – in 13 contests last season. The Texas native is expected to have a more prominent role in the defense this year and will need to be a leader for a unit that has very little experience returning. Santos is expected to start at middle linebacker in 2013 for Nebraska.
Related Content: 2013 Nebraska Spring Preview
Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State
With the departure of all four starters on the defensive line, Ohio State is essentially starting from scratch in the trenches. While the losses on the line will be tough to replace, the Buckeyes have recruited well, and there’s no shortage of talent stepping into the starting lineup. Spence is expected to win one of the starting defensive ends spots this spring and could be the leader for the line in 2013. He recorded 12 tackles and one sack in 11 contests last season. Spence was regarded as one of the top defensive linemen in the 2012 recruiting class and displayed his potential in limited action last year. If the Buckeyes are going to play for a national championship, Spence needs to live up to his recruiting hype and dominate opposing offensive lines in 2013.
Related Content: 2013 Ohio State Spring Preview
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