Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Big Ten is home to a handful of intriguing names for 2014, as Ohio State receiver/running back Dontre Wilson could emerge as one of the conference’s top playmakers, while Illinois’ quarterback Wes Lunt could be in for a huge season under coordinator Bill Cubit.
On the defensive side, Nebraska's defensive tackle duo of Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins are two names to remember. Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel has the difficult task of replacing standout Chris Borland.
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 2014 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 2014
Antonio Allen, S, Indiana
Allen was one of Indiana’s top recruits in the 2013 signing class, ranking as the No. 292 recruit in the 247Sports Composite. The Indiana native played in seven games and made one start but suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan in early November. Allen finished 2013 with 35 tackles and one fumble recovery. The sophomore is a key piece in Indiana’s rebuilding effort on defense, especially after the Hoosiers allowed 24 passing scores last year. Allen has the speed and talent to be a difference-maker on the back end of Indiana’s defense.
Vonn Bell/Tyvis Powell, S, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense finished fifth in the Big Ten in points allowed (22.6 per game) and ranked No. 7 in total yards allowed. Those numbers have to improve in 2014 if the Buckeyes want to make the playoff, and the defense will have two new assistant coaches (Larry Johnson Sr. and Chris Ash) leading the way. Top cornerback Bradley Roby left early for the NFL, leaving three new starters in the secondary. However, there’s no shortage of talent ready to emerge, as Bell and Powell are two of the Big Ten’s rising stars at safety. Bell recorded 19 stops and one interception in 14 appearances last year, while Powell recorded 48 tackles and two pass breakups.
Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin
Biegel and fellow linebackers Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert have big shoes to fill in 2014, as the Badgers face a difficult assignment in replacing standout Chris Borland. While Borland will be missed, Wisconsin isn’t in bad shape at linebacker. Trotter and Landisch are seniors, while Biegel is primed for a breakout year. The Wisconsin native redshirted due to injury in 2012 and played in 13 contests with two starts last season. He recorded 25 tackles in 2013 and finished with two sacks. Expect Biegel to become one of the top defenders on Dave Aranda’s defense in 2014.
Wes Brown, RB, Maryland
Maryland’s rushing attack finished No. 10 in the ACC and averaged just 3.3 yards per rush in conference games. The Terrapins return talented backs in Brandon Ross and Albert Reid, but keep an eye on Brown’s performance this fall. He sat out 2013 due to a suspension, but ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2012 247Sports Composite. Brown rushed for 382 yards and two scores as a true freshman and adds speed to the Terrapins’ backfield. A committee approach at running back in College Park seems likely, but Brown will be a key piece of coordinator Mike Locksley’s offense. Another name to remember for the Terrapins: True freshman lineman Damian Prince.
Freddy Canteen, WR, Michigan
New coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired to fix a Michigan offense that ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in total and rushing offense. Quarterback Devin Gardner had his share of ups and downs, but the senior also didn’t have a ton of help from the offensive line and rushing attack. Those two areas are a concern again, but Michigan’s passing attack should take a step forward. Tight end Devin Funchess will shift to the outside, and the coaching staff has to be encouraged with the development of Canteen in the spring. The Maryland native was a standout performer in the spring and could claim a starting role this year. With Jeremy Gallon departing, Michigan needs a new go-to receiver, and the combination of Funchess and Canteen should be an effective duo for Gardner.
Leontee Carroo, WR, Rutgers
The addition of Ralph Friedgen as Rutgers’ new play-caller should help an offense that averaged just 5.0 yards per play (conference-only games) and lost 30 turnovers in 2013. Friedgen’s first task is to develop Gary Nova into a consistent quarterback. If Nova plays with more consistency and eliminates the turnovers, the Scarlet Knights' offense will show improvement on the stat sheet. Carroo only caught 28 passes last season but averaged 17.1 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns. The junior should be the top option at receiver for Rutgers in 2014.
Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota
Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman will be tough to replace, but defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys returns three starters up front. Cockran quietly had a solid 2013 campaign, recording 30 tackles (10 for a loss), 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Although Cockran is known among the Minnesota fan base, another big season should give him plenty of recognition among the rest of the conference. Not having Hageman on the interior will create more attention on Cockran, but the junior is poised to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive ends.
Maliek Collins/Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line is young, but there’s no question the coaching staff has to be excited about the talent in place. End Randy Gregory is one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the combination of Collins, Valentine and Aaron Curry is a promising trio for coordinator John Papuchis. Valentine got better as the season progressed in 2013, capped by recording a sack and two tackles for a loss against Iowa. He finished 2013 with 21 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack. Collins wasn’t as active on the stat sheet last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. However, Collins and Valentine both will see a larger role in the defense in 2014. And with both players checking in over 300 pounds, opposing offenses won’t have much room to run on the interior against Nebraska.
Demetrius Cooper, DE, Michigan State
The Spartans already have one of college football’s top defensive end tandems with Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, and it appears the depth on the outside will only improve with the emergence of Cooper. The Illinois native redshirted last season, and according to the Michigan State roster, gained 31 pounds from 2013 to '14. Cooper had a strong spring and finished with two tackles (one for a loss) and one sack during the White vs. Green scrimmage. Don’t expect the redshirt freshman to post monster numbers this year, but Cooper should be a key piece of Michigan State’s defensive line rotation.
Pat Elflein, OG, Ohio State
Ohio State’s offensive line is under construction this offseason. The Buckeyes lost four starters, but junior Taylor Decker is back to anchor the left side of the line, and Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay is expected to start at center. Elflein is slated to start at right guard and impressed in limited action last year. The Ohio native played in all 14 games and started in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State. There’s a lot of turnover at guard in the Big Ten in 2014, and if Elflein continues to develop after a solid showing last year, he could be one of the top players at his position in the conference.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was the first back to top 1,000 yards under coach Urban Meyer, and his departure to the NFL is a big loss for Ohio State’s offense. Hyde’s tough running will be missed, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Elliott is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, with Dontre Wilson, Warren Ball, Curtis Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn all expected to contribute to the rotation in 2014. Elliott impressed in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 carries (8.7 ypc). He may not handle 250 carries, but Elliott will headline a deep and talented Ohio State backfield.
Darian Hicks, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans no longer have Darqueze Dennard manning the “No Fly Zone” in East Lansing. But coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t too worried about his secondary in 2014, as junior Trae Waynes is a likely All-American and Hicks is ready to step up and replace Dennard at the other cornerback spot. Hicks played in all 14 games and recorded only two tackles, but the sophomore is primed for a bigger role in Michigan State’s defense this year.
Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State
New coordinator Bob Shoop followed James Franklin from Vanderbilt to Happy Valley, and the Pennsylvania native inherits a defense that returns six starters. Shoop’s defenses at Vanderbilt were underrated, and he should mold Penn State’s defense into one of the best in the conference this year. After playing in all 12 games last season, Johnson is expected to become a full-time starter at tackle in 2014. The New Jersey native recorded 27 tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. With Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan anchoring the outside end spots, Johnson should have plenty of room to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
Alex Lewis, OT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s offensive line returns just one starter from 2013, but the Cornhuskers should be solid up front in 2014. Lewis transferred to Lincoln after starting 12 games at guard for Colorado in 2012. He also played in 12 games as a freshman in 2011 with the Buffaloes. The Arizona native solidified his place atop the depth chart in the spring and should be a key piece in Nebraska’s offensive line and rushing attack in 2014.
Geno Lewis, WR, Penn State
Allen Robinson accounted for 97 of Penn State’s 241 receptions last season, leaving little in the way of proven options for quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2014. While there’s not much in the way of proven receivers, the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent. Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman headline a deep group of tight ends, while Lewis is a rising star on the outside at receiver. After redshirting in 2012, Lewis caught 18 passes for 234 yards and three scores in his first season of action with Penn State. The Pennsylvania native closed out 2013 on a high note, grabbing three receptions for 91 yards and two scores against Wisconsin. Freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saaed Blacknall and De’Andre Thompkins are names to watch in the fall, but Lewis should be the top receiving target for Hackenberg.
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois
Even though Lunt hasn’t been guaranteed the starting job, it’s hard to envision the Oklahoma State transfer not taking the first snap for the Fighting Illini. Lunt was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and threw for 1,108 yards and six scores as a true freshman for the Cowboys. After one season in Stillwater, Lunt transferred back home to Illinois and landed with the Fighting Illini. Coordinator Bill Cubit injected immediate improvement into Illinois’ passing game last year, and Lunt should be a perfect fit in this offense.
Chikwe Obasih, DE, Wisconsin
The Badgers are breaking in several new faces on defense in 2014, as only three starters return from a unit that held opponents to 16.3 points per game last year. Obasih redshirted in his first season in Madison and was one of the spring standouts for coordinator Dave Aranda. Obasih ranked as the No. 343 player in the 247Sports Composite and recorded two tackles in the spring game. At 245 pounds, Obasih is undersized against traditional power offenses, but he has the speed and quickness off the edge to be a disruptive force in the backfield.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
We could list a couple of Michigan defenders here, but Peppers is just too talented to leave off the list. Peppers ranked as the No. 3 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is slated to push for a starting job in the fall. The New Jersey native could play a number of roles in the Michigan secondary in 2014, as he might start at cornerback or safety or play in the nickel role for coordinator Greg Mattison. Regardless of where he lines up, Peppers is too valuable for the Wolverines to keep on the sidelines. The true freshman could be a difference maker in Michigan’s secondary and also could see time on special teams this year.
Miles Shuler, WR, Northwestern
With Kain Colter expiring his eligibility, expect Northwestern to focus more on the passing game behind new (but experienced) quarterback Trevor Siemian in 2014. Siemian should have plenty of options in the receiving corps, especially with Shuler’s emergence in the spring. The Rutgers transfer is largely unproven, as he caught 11 passes in two years with the Scarlet Knights. However, Shuler has excellent speed and should help the receiving corps out of the slot. Shuler won’t need to catch 50 passes to make a huge impact, but his speed should create a few big plays.
Reggie Spearman, LB, Iowa
Iowa’s linebacking corps loses three standout performers from a unit that held opposing Big Ten offenses to just 19.6 points per game last year. Despite the departure of three starters, the Hawkeyes aren’t in bad shape at the position. Senior Quinton Alston and junior Travis Perry are experienced, while Spearman recorded 10 tackles in his first season in Iowa City. The Illinois native has a bright future and should secure a starting role on Phil Parker’s defense in 2014.
Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State
It seems Urban Meyer has been looking for the next Percy Harvin for a couple of years now, but Wilson could finally be the right fit as a hybrid receiver/running back. Wilson rushed for 250 yards and one score last season and caught 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Wilson to be more involved in the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014, as the departure of Carlos Hyde will open up more carries on the ground, while the receiving corps is searching for more playmakers.
DeAngelo Yancey, WR, Purdue
The Boilermakers finished 1-11 in coach Darrell Hazell’s debut, but there were a few bright spots on the depth chart. Yancey played in 11 games as a true freshman last year and grabbed 32 receptions for 546 yards and two scores. The Georgia native averaged 17.1 yards per catch, which ranked No. 2 among receivers in the Big Ten. Yancey should see his numbers increase in 2014 and should be one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats. Another name to watch in West Lafayette this year: Running back Raheem Mostert.