Which Big Ten players are poised for a breakout year?
Breakout players and the emergence of new faces are one of college football’s annual traditions. Players can go from a backup position into a starting role to earn all-conference honors or produce a big season. Incoming or redshirt freshmen can also make an impact in their first season on campus. Regardless of how players arrive on campus, it’s no secret a new wave of standouts will emerge next season.
With spring practice underway across the nation, this is the first opportunity for coaching staffs to get a look at how their team stacks up for 2016. Additionally, this is also the first chance for players to step up into the spotlight and emerge as a breakout candidate.
Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the Big Ten? Here are 15 names to watch this spring:
15 Big Ten Players on the Rise for 2016
Brian Allen, OL, Michigan State
Allen has been a key cog in the trenches in his first two years on campus, but with the departures of Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C), the Spartans need more of their versatile junior. The Illinois played in 12 games as a true freshman and became a full-time player in 2015 by recording 12 starts. Allen has played both guard spots and received snaps at center, and his flexibility is key for a revamped offensive line. Allen is listed as the starting center on Michigan State’s first depth chart, but he could end up at guard by the fall.
Shannon Brooks, RB, Minnesota
New coach Tracy Claeys is hoping a new play-caller and direction helps Minnesota take a step forward on offense after finishing 13th in the Big Ten in scoring (22.5 ppg) in 2015. Jay Johnson takes over the offense after five seasons at UL Lafayette and inherits a few talented pieces to work with, including two promising running backs in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. While both players are going to see carries, the guess here is Brooks emerges as the team’s No. 1 back. In 12 games as a true freshman last season, Brooks recorded 709 yards and seven scores. He averaged a healthy 5.96 yards per attempt and grabbed 17 receptions for 167 yards.
Jonathan Crawford, S, Indiana
Defense has been Indiana’s Achilles heel in recent years. The Hoosiers have ranked 10th or worse in the Big Ten in scoring defense in each of the last eight years. But there is reason for optimism in Bloomington. The addition of Tom Allen as the unit’s play-caller is a step in the right direction, and there is talent returning in the back seven. Crawford is one of the promising players in place for Allen, as the Florida native finished second on the team with 76 stops as a true freshman last season. Additionally, Crawford intercepted four passes, forced one fumble and broke up one pass in 2015.
Michael Deiter, OL, Wisconsin
Producing standout offensive linemen is an annual tradition at Wisconsin. However, the Badgers experienced some growing pains up front last year. While last year wasn’t up to the usual standard, coach Paul Chryst returns a group with a lot of promise for 2016. Deiter started all 13 games as a redshirt freshmen last season, including the final five at center after Dan Voltz was lost for the year due to injury. Deiter should be one of the anchors on the line for Chryst in 2016.
Nick Gates, OT, Nebraska
Nebraska loses four key members of last season’s offensive line, but two full-time starters return to anchor this group in 2016. Gates started 10 games as a redshirt freshman at right tackle last year and is expected to anchor the left side of the line in 2016. With another offseason to work in the weight room and under coach Mike Riley, expect Gates to thrive as the anchor of Nebraska’s offensive line next season.
Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
A couple of Penn State defensive backs could fit in this space, as Haley, John Reid and Marcus Allen are all promising players for new coordinator Brent Pry. Haley started all 11 games he played in last season and finished with 42 tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions and seven pass breakups. His emergence last year was a key reason why Penn State allowed only nine touchdown passes in Big Ten action. Additionally, Haley earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2015. He should take another step forward this spring.
Parker Hesse, DE, Iowa
With the uncertainty surrounding Drew Ott’s status for 2016, the emergence of Hesse last season is an even bigger development for Iowa as it heads into spring practice. The Iowa native shifted from linebacker to defensive end during his redshirt year (2014) and was pressed into a starting role last year after Ott was lost for the season. Hesse played in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes and recorded two sacks, three tackles for a loss (44 overall stops) and one forced fumble. With another offseason to work at defensive end, Hesse should become an even bigger presence off the edge for Iowa.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense is under construction this spring. New co-coordinator Greg Schiano inherits only three returning starters, and each level of the defense was hit hard by departures. Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt leave big shoes to fill in the trenches, but Ohio State isn’t short on talent. Tyquan Lewis returns at one end spot after recording eight sacks last year, and the coaching staff is counting on Hubbard to increase his production as a full-time player. As a redshirt freshman last season, Hubbard recorded 6.5 sacks, eight tackles for a loss and forced one fumble.
Markell Jones, RB, Purdue
Purdue’s offense is in desperate need of a spark after averaging only 4.8 yards per play last season. Coach Darrell Hazell has a few promising players to build around in 2016, including running back Markell Jones and quarterback David Blough. After earning Mr. Football honors in Indiana as a high school senior, Jones made an instant impact as a true freshman. In 12 appearances, Jones recorded 875 yards and 10 scores and caught 34 passes for 239 yards and one touchdown. He should build on those totals in 2016.
Tyler Lancaster, DT, Northwestern
Lancaster didn’t make a huge contribution on the stat sheet for coach Pat Fitzgerald in 2015, but his impact on the defense goes beyond the box score. In 13 games last year, Lancaster recorded 33 tackles (5.5 for a loss), 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Illinois native was a big reason why Northwestern ranked third in the Big Ten (conference-only games) against the run. Additionally, opposing rushers in conference play averaged only 3.2 yards per rush. Expect Lancaster to push for All-Big Ten honors next year.
Robert Martin/Josh Hicks, RB, Rutgers
New coach Chris Ash inherits an offense with question marks at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line, but the Scarlet Knights have a solid group of running backs in place. Hicks and Martin led the way for the offense last season and combined for 1,437 yards and six touchdowns. This duo has showed plenty of promise over the last two seasons and should provide a solid foundation for new coordinator Drew Mehringer to build the offense around next fall.
D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
Maryland’s offense had its share of ups and downs last season, and new coordinator Walt Bell inherits a unit that averaged only 22.3 points in Big Ten games. Despite the uneven quarterback play, there were signs of promise at receiver in 2015. Levern Jacobs and Taivon Jacobs combined to catch 56 passes, while Moore – as a true freshman – grabbed 25 for 357 yards and three scores. Assuming the Terrapins can generate more consistent play out of their quarterbacks, Moore should be able to increase his totals from 2015 and become an even bigger part of the offense. Talented sophomore linemen Derwin Gray and Damian Prince are two other names to watch this spring.
Grant Newsome, OL, Michigan
Newsome has only played in four career games for the Wolverines, but the sophomore is a player to watch next season. With center Graham Glasgow departing, coach Jim Harbaugh and line coach Tim Drevno are shuffling the five starters up front. Mason Cole – last year’s starter at left tackle – is slated to move to center. With Cole moving to center, Newsome is slated to take over at left tackle. Newsome was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and has the necessary size (6-foot-7, 300 pounds) to anchor the blindside for the starting quarterback.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Illinois
Vaughn quietly impressed as a true freshman last season and is poised to take on a bigger role in the ground attack under new coach Lovie Smith. The Tennessee native led the team with 723 rushing yards and six scores and recorded 16 receptions for 119 yards. Vaughn recorded just one game of more than 100 yards (Purdue), but he also recorded only one contest of more than 20 carries. With more opportunities expected in 2016, Vaughn should increase his production as a sophomore.
Dedrick Young, LB, Nebraska
Young wasted no time making an impact in his first season in Lincoln. The Arizona native started 11 contests as a true freshman and ranked fourth on the team with 61 tackles. Additionally, Young recorded five of those tackles for a loss and broke up three passes. Young is only going to get better with more experience, and coordinator Mark Banker should expect another step forward from Young next season.