Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. After all, each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
The balance of power in the Big Ten clearly resides in the East Division this season. Ohio State is the favorite to repeat, and Michigan State should be a top-10 team once again in 2015. While both programs return plenty of talent and experience, there’s no shortage of breakout candidates for either team. And for the seven teams in the West Division, the emergence of a few stars is critical with each team entering 2015 with significant personnel issues.
Who will be the new stars in the Big Ten this year? Here's a handful of names to watch:
Big Ten Breakout Players for 2015
C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Beathard was handed the keys to Iowa’s offense after the loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and the coaching staff hopes the junior sparks an attack that averaged only 28.2 points per game last season. Beathard has a stronger arm than former starter Jake Rudock and isn’t afraid to take chances. Additionally, Beathard can extend plays with his mobility. After completing 52 of 92 passes for 645 yards and five scores last season, all eyes are on Beathard to deliver in his first full year as Iowa’s starter.
Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
Indiana’s passing attack ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten last season, but the Hoosiers are due for a quick turnaround with a healthy Nate Sudfeld at quarterback in 2015. Finding capable targets in the passing game is a must for coach Kevin Wilson. Cobbs played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season and caught seven passes for 114 yards. Expect Cobbs to easily exceed those totals as one of Sudfeld’s top weapons in 2015.
Mason Cole, OT, Michigan
Michigan’s offensive line has struggled over the last two seasons, but there’s optimism going into 2015. Jim Harbaugh’s arrival should help the entire offense improve, and line coach Tim Drevno was a key hire to bolster the play in the trenches. Cole started all 12 games for the Wolverines as a true freshman last season and is expected to anchor the line from the left tackle spot.
Michael Dieter, OL, Wisconsin
It’s safe to assume Wisconsin will field a strong offensive line once again in 2015. However, the Badgers are dealing with a few injuries and overall uncertainty about the position battles in the trenches this fall. There’s work to be done up front, but the coaching staff should feel secure in three positions (left tackle Tyler Marz, center Dan Voltz and Dieter at right guard). After a redshirt season in 2014, Dieter is poised to be a key cog in Wisconsin’s revamped line.
T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
Two spots in Wisconsin’s linebacker unit are set with the return of Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Finding two other starters has been a key challenge this fall for coordinator Dave Aranda, but all signs point to Edwards claiming a starting job at the end of practice. The redshirt freshman had a strong spring and is expected to anchor the interior of the linebacking corps.
Hank Ekpe, DE, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers may not have a household name up front this season, but this unit is quietly in the top half of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines. Ekpe has played in 23 career games and registered three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks last season. Contributing to the low stat totals was trouble with a severe sinus infection, but all signs point to a big year from Ekpe in 2015. With an All-Big Ten candidate on the other side (Theiren Cockran), Ekpe should see plenty of one-on-one opportunities to get to the quarterback.
Mike Gesicki/Adam Breneman, TE, Penn State
Pencil in a tight end in the breakout category for Penn State. Gesicki showed promise by catching 11 passes for 114 yards in 12 appearances last season, and the 6-foot-6 target is due for an even bigger role in 2015. Breneman redshirted last year due to injury, but the touted recruit is ready for a bounce back campaign.
Derwin Gray/Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
Gray and Prince are two reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Maryland’s offensive line in 2015. This duo was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for the Terrapins in 2014 and redshirted in their first season on campus. Gray suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, but he should return in September. This redshirt freshman duo should anchor the Maryland offensive line for the next few seasons.
Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
Penn State’s secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten this season. Coordinator Bob Shoop is making a couple of tweaks to this unit, as Jordan Lucas shifts from corner to safety, opening the door for Haley to start. He played in 13 games for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman last season, recording 18 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
Kiy Hester, SS/Blessuan Austin, CB, Rutgers
Rutgers’ secondary remains unsettled into fall camp, but two freshmen could see extended snaps or win a starting job. Hester – a transfer from Miami – and Austin are being counted on by coordinator Joe Rossi this season, as the Scarlet Knights return only one starter in the secondary, and the status of Nadir Barnwell is uncertain.
Josh Hicks/Robert Martin, RB, Rutgers
Rutgers’ backfield is quietly one of the deepest in the Big Ten. Paul James was off to a hot start last season but an ACL injury sidelined him for the rest of 2014. In James’ absence, Desmon Peoples, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin effectively carried the ground attack. While James is the lead back, he’s never played a full season of snaps. The duo of Hicks and Martin is a dynamic option for coach Kyle Flood, as both players averaged at least five yards per carry in 2014.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
Godwin Igwebuike, S, Northwestern
Northwestern’s defense returns 10 starters from a unit that ranked seventh in the Big Ten in points allowed last season. With plenty of proven options, as well as talented youngsters like Igwebuike, improvement is expected in 2015. Igwebuike played in 11 games as a freshman last season, recording 51 tackles, three pass breakups and three interceptions. He should thrive in his first full year as a starter.
Jeff Jones, WR, Minnesota
Jones was a touted recruit at running back, but the redshirt freshman shifted to receiver this offseason. There’s an immediate need for playmakers at receiver, which should allow Jones to make an instant impact in 2015. There will be some ups and downs as Jones learns the nuances of the position, but he’s too talented to sit on the bench for a team that needs playmakers.
Markell Jones, RB, Purdue
Purdue must replace its top two rushers from an offense that averaged 162.4 yards per game on the ground in Big Ten play. Jones enrolled early after earning Mr. Football honors in Indiana and is projected to push for carries in a backfield featuring intriguing options in D.J. Knox, Keyante Green and Tario Fuller.
Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
Marshall is suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech, but a one-game hiatus shouldn’t stop the sophomore from becoming an even bigger part of Ohio State’s offense this season. In 15 games last year, Marshall caught 38 passes for 499 yards and six scores. Additionally, he rushed for 145 yards and one touchdown and averaged 11.8 yards per punt return. Marshall could finish 2015 as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
The Spartans’ defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and this unit will only get better with McDowell’s emergence in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McDowell chipped in 15 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. The Detroit native was a big-time catch for coach Mark Dantonio on the recruiting trail and is poised to claim a starting spot at tackle this fall.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already have two of the nation’s top linebackers in Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Add in McMillan’s potential as a sophomore and it’s easy to see why this trio is among the nation’s best linebacker units. McMillan recorded 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a reserve last season and could push for All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter.
Terrell Newby, RB, Nebraska
Newby doesn’t quite have the starting job locked down, but he’s the frontrunner for carries with less than two weeks to go before the opener against BYU. In 13 games last season, Newby recorded 297 yards and five scores and caught eight passes for 45 yards. The junior has big shoes to fill with the departure of Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska will throw more under new coach Mike Riley, but there should be plenty of opportunities for Newby (or another Husker running back) to impress early in 2015.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Maryland
Ngakoue is just one of four returning starters for Maryland’s defense this season, and the junior is also a key cog in the transition to a 4-3 scheme. Ngakoue thrived at linebacker last year, recording 13.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and 37 tackles. He’s charged with leading Maryland’s pass rush from the edge in 2015.
Montae Nicholson, S, Michigan State
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” has a few holes to fill this offseason. The Spartans lost standouts in safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes, and Pat Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pittsburgh. Nicholson should be one of the new stars for Michigan State’s secondary after recording 31 tackles in 13 appearances as a redshirt freshman. The sophomore should push for All-Big Ten honors.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was poised for a significant role in Michigan’s defense last year, but a season-ending leg injury ended his 2014 campaign after the third game. In limited snaps in 2014, Peppers recorded eight tackles and returned one punt for six yards. Peppers was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and should be an impact defender for new coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Improving the defense is coach Kevin Wilson’s top priority this offseason. The Hoosiers allowed 36 points per game in Big Ten action last year and ranked last in the conference against the pass. Scales is the type of player Wilson needs to generate improvement on this side of the ball, as the sophomore is an impact defender and a potential difference maker. In 12 games last season, Scales recorded 46 tackles (4.5 for a loss), two sacks and three interceptions.
Miles Taylor, S, Iowa
Iowa’s secondary is relatively set with the return of cornerbacks Greg Mabin and Desmond King, along with senior Jordan Lomax at safety. One spot is up for grabs this offseason, with Taylor expected to fill the strong safety job. In 13 appearances last year, Taylor recorded eight tackles. The sophomore is known for his big hits, but he has to prove he can handle more of a workload at safety this fall.
Malik Turner/Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois
With Mike Dudek sidelined indefinitely with a torn ACL, Turner and Geronimo Allison are the top targets at receiver for quarterback Wes Lunt. Both players are poised for a jump in production with Dudek out, with Allison the favorite to lead the team in catches after grabbing 41 receptions for 598 yards last year. But Turner also showed promise, catching 25 passes for 256 yards, including 10 receptions over the final three games.
Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker quietly led all Northwestern defenders with nine tackles for a loss last season. Expect bigger and even better things from the sophomore in 2015, as he looks to build off a strong freshman season that resulted in 51 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois
Ward flashed potential last season and should build off a promising debut for the Fighting Illini in 2015. Of course, there’s one problem for the senior, as he is expected to miss two games due to a knee injury. In 13 contests last season, Ward recorded three sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. Assuming he returns at full strength, the senior will be a difference maker for the Illinois’ defensive front.
Dedrick Young, LB, Nebraska
Don’t be surprised if Nebraska turns to a true freshman to start at linebacker this season. Young enrolled in time to compete in the spring and is pushing for a starting spot alongside upper classmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey. Young ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2015 signing class by 247Sports. Even if he doesn’t win the starting job, Young will be a major contributor in the linebacking corps.