Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Big Ten has plenty of candidates to project for a breakout year, including Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, Purdue running back Akeem Hunt and Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence. Gardner has plenty of buzz across the nation, but the junior is entering his first full season as the Wolverines’ No. 1 passer. Hunt should see an increase in rushing attempts this year and has a similar skill set to Kent State running back Dri Archer. Spence and teammate Adolphus Washington will be in charge of keeping the Buckeyes’ defense near the top of the Big Ten, which won’t be easy with four new starters on the defensive line.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2013 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Big Ten Breakout Players for 2013
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
If the Spartans are going to win the Big Ten Legends Division, it will have to be on the strength of their defense. Michigan State’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in points scored last year, and it’s hard to envision much improvement with the departure of running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims. The Spartans led the Big Ten in total defense last year, and with six starters back, this unit will be stingy once again. Junior Marcus Rush is an established performer at one end spot, but Michigan State is leaning on Calhoun to replace William Gholston. The New Jersey native impressed in limited action last season, recording six tackles and one sack in 13 contests. One of Calhoun’s top performances came in the bowl win over TCU, as he registered two tackles for a loss. The sophomore is still developing and will have to adjust to his first extended action this year. However, he could lead the Spartans’ defense in sacks and tackles for a loss in his first season as a starter.
Darian Cooper, DT, Iowa
Considering the Hawkeyes had three new starters on their defensive line last year, it was no surprise this unit ranked seventh in the Big Ten against the run and generated just 1.1 sacks per game. The line should be improved in 2013, especially with more depth across the end and tackle positions. Cooper started two games and appeared in all 12 contests last year, recording 34 tackles and one fumble recovery. The sophomore’s play got stronger as the year went on, and he should be an even bigger factor in the trenches with another offseason to work in the weight room and under coordinator Phil Parker.
Jon Davis, TE, Illinois
After a 2-10 season and some uncertainty on the depth chart, it’s not easy to get a read on the Fighting Illini this preseason. However, there are some signs to believe the offense will be better in 2013, especially with the addition of Bill Cubit as the playcaller. Davis caught 22 passes in 2011 but watched his numbers decline to just nine in '12. Cubit was effective at using the tight ends in the passing game during his tenure at Western Michigan, which bodes well for Davis’ chances at emerging as a factor in the offense this year.
Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs, OL, Indiana
Feeney and Spriggs certainly aren’t unknown commodities to most teams in the Big Ten, but it’s time these two received some credit on the national level. Spriggs guarded the blindside for Indiana’s quarterbacks last fall, allowing just two sacks in 961 snaps. The Indiana native started all 12 games and was named to the Big Ten Network’s All-Freshman team. Feeney joined Spriggs as a key contributor as a true freshman, starting all 12 games and recording 54 knockdowns in 2012. Feeney did not allow a sack last year and is poised to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top guards in 2013. As a former offensive lineman, coach Kevin Wilson certainly knows how to develop a unit capable of ranking among the best in the Big Ten. If Feeney and Spriggs build off their success, both players could be in the mix for All-American honors going into the 2014 season.
Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan
With Devin Gardner set to assume the full-time quarterback job, the Wolverines will use more of a pro-style offense in 2013. Gardner proved he is ready to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks after a strong finish to the year, and now Michigan needs to find a few dependable receivers this fall to complement Jeremy Gallon. Funchess could emerge as the team’s No. 2 target after catching 15 passes for 234 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year. The 6-foot-5 target should be a valuable weapon over the middle and in the red zone for Gardner and could easily double his 2012 numbers.
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Considering his performance to close 2012, it’s a bit of a stretch to put Gardner on this list. Filling in for an injured Denard Robinson in the final five games, Gardner recorded 18 touchdowns during that span and threw for 314 yards in a win over Iowa. With Gardner now entrenched as the full-time starter, and Robinson playing in the NFL, the Wolverines will transition to more of a pro-style approach on offense. Michigan’s offensive line and receiving corps needs work, but Gardner will be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks by the end of 2013.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Despite losing Montee Ball, the Badgers aren’t too worried about their rushing attack. With Gordon and James White returning, it’s easy to see why running back is near the bottom of concerns for new coach Gary Andersen. After rushing for 98 yards as a freshman in 2011, Gordon gashed opposing defenses for 621 yards on 62 attempts last fall, averaging 10 yards a carry. His best performance came against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship, recording 216 yards on nine attempts. Gordon will split carries with White, but the junior should finish as the Badgers’ leading rusher this year.
Akeem Hunt, RB, Purdue
New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell developed Kent State’s offense into one of the nation's most productive rushing attacks last year, finishing 18th at 225.8 yards per game. With an unsettled quarterback situation, the Boilermakers need a big season from their ground game, which is likely to be headlined by Hunt. The 5-foot-9 back resembles Kent State standout Dri Archer, and Purdue hopes he has a similar impact in 2013. Hunt rushed for 335 yards, caught 13 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 22.2 yards on 39 kickoff returns last year. Expect Hunt to play a similar all-around role in 2013, but he also will see a significant increase in carries.
Philip Nelson, QB, Minnesota
It’s easy to pick the quarterback in the breakout players column, but it’s also hard to ignore the progress that Nelson made in limited action last year. The Minnesota native was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2012 and finished the year with 873 passing yards and eight scores, along with 184 yards on the ground. Nelson was steady in the bowl game against Texas Tech, completing 7 of 16 passes for 138 yards. His best performance came against Purdue last year, as he threw three touchdown passes on 22 attempts. Nelson isn’t likely to challenge for All-Big Ten honors, but the sophomore should continue to make progress in his first full year as the No. 1 quarterback. Minnesota fans are familiar with Nelson’s potential, but the rest of the Big Ten should get a good look at his talents with a jump in production in 2013.
Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, Northwestern
Even though Northwestern loses two starters on the defensive line, this unit could be just as effective in 2013. A big reason why the coaching staff has confidence in this group is the emergence of Odenigbo. A shoulder injury sidelined him after the third game of 2012, but the redshirt freshman is expected to be back at full strength in 2013. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Odenigbo has the size and speed to be one of the team’s top pass rushers, giving Northwestern a potent one-two end combination with the return of senior Tyler Scott on the other side.
James Ross III, LB, Michigan
With Jake Ryan recovering from a torn ACL and not expected to return until October, the Wolverines need the rest of the linebacking corps to step up this fall. And there’s plenty of help on the way from Ross, who was one of the Big Ten’s top freshmen defenders last year. In 13 contests in 2012, Ross recorded 36 tackles. The sophomore has excellent athleticism and instincts and is expected to man the weakside for coordinator Greg Mattison in 2013. There’s no question Michigan will miss Ryan’s play and leadership. However, Ross is more than capable of filling those voids until Ryan is ready to return.
David Santos, LB, Nebraska
With only one returning starter, Nebraska’s front seven is getting a facelift this fall. The coaching staff hopes the return of Zaire Anderson from injury will help ease the transition to the new starters, but there’s plenty of interest in the development of Santos. As a redshirt freshman last year, he played in a reserve role, recording 24 tackles and one forced fumble. With a full offseason to work as the starter, Santos should emerge as a leader for Nebraska’s linebacking corps.
Donovan Smith, OT, Penn State
Whether it’s Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson starting at quarterback for Penn State, the Nittany Lions will have a strong supporting cast. The offensive line developed into one of the Big Ten’s best last season, allowing just 21 sacks in 12 contests. Two starters must be replaced, but Penn State is counting on Smith to keep the line performing at a high level. The sophomore struggled with an injury early in the year but finished with nine starts. With another year to work under line coach Mac McWhorter, Smith is poised to take the next step in his development this year and has all of the tools to be a dominant left tackle for Penn State.
Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have no shortage of talent on the roster, but the defensive line is a concern with four new starters stepping into the lineup. Spence and Washington are expected to be the new leaders for the line in 2013, as both players were top-30 recruits in the 2012 signing class and impressed in limited action last year. Spence recorded 12 tackles and one sack in 11 appearances, while Washington recorded nine tackles and three sacks in 10 games. The Big Ten is thin on proven talent at defensive end, but players like Spence and Washington could turn this position into a strength by October.
Jamal Turner, WR, Nebraska
With several new faces stepping into the starting lineup on defense, Nebraska may need to win a couple of shootouts this year. And with quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell returning, there’s certainly no shortage of firepower in Lincoln. The offense could be even deadlier in 2013, as Turner is poised to take the next step in his development as a receiver. After beginning his career as a quarterback, Turner nabbed 15 receptions as a freshman and boosted his total to 32 catches for 417 yards and three scores in 2012. Don’t expect Turner to overtake Bell as the No. 1 receiver, but with another year to get acclimated to receiver, look for the junior to increase his reception totals and yardage in 2013.
Dan Vitale, TE, Northwestern
The Wildcats return 15 starters, so there’s not a ton of room for unproven players to find a major role on the team in 2013. Sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose is due to raise his profile even more this year, but we’ll pick Vitale, who is flying under the radar after a solid freshman campaign. Last season, Vitale caught 28 passes for 288 yards and two scores, with 16 of his receptions coming in two of the final three games. Northwestern needs more consistency out of its receiving corps in 2013, and help for quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian could start with Vitale’s continued development.
Dan Voltz, C, Wisconsin
Developing All-Big Ten linemen wasn’t a problem under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema, and that trend should continue under new coach Gary Andersen. After spending 2012 as a redshirt, Voltz is expected to start at center this season. Voltz has some big shoes to fill, as he replaces Travis Frederick – one of the Big Ten’s top linemen in 2012. Voltz was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals in the class of 2012 and all signs point to the Illinois native emerging as a future standout for the Badgers.
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