Wisconsin needs linebacker T.J. Watt to follow in the footsteps of his famous older brother
You know the big names to take the field in the Big Ten this season, like Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett or Michigan hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers. We can go on for days about those players. If you want to dig a little deeper, however, you can uncover some players with the potential to be true wild cards for their teams and in the Big Ten championship hunt.
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Whether they are incoming freshmen or players coming off a redshirt season, players looking to fill big shoes by a player that has moved on or simply just look like a player that could benefit form a change of scenery and coaching staff, the Big Ten has a number of players to keep an eye on this fall.
Big Ten East
Offense: Mitchell Paige, Wide Receiver
Indiana’s offense will look to spread the ball around through the air and Paige returns to help lead the receiving unit. Paige led the Hoosiers with six touchdown receptions in 2015 and should remain a dependable target this fall.
Defense: Jayme Thompson, Husky
Indiana’s pass defense left a lot to be desired last season but should improve as a young core continues to grow. Stepping into a key role will be Thompson in the new Husky position. If all goes well, Thompson could have an impact at the position.
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Offense: Avery Edwards, Tight End
Edwards was Maryland’s top tight end last season with 14 receptions for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman. With a year of experience under his belt now, Edwards could be ready to take on a more dependable role in the offense.
Defense: Adam McLean, Defensive Tackle
The true freshman re-enrolled at Maryland and may have to work to land a starting job on Mike London’s defensive line, but the four-star talent could cause problems for offensive linemen once he does get in the mix.
Offense: Tyrone Wheatley Jr., Tight End
Michigan’s offense is already in terrific shape at the tight end position with Jake Butt returning to the Wolverines this season rather than opt for the NFL Draft, but having a complementary tight end like Wheatley Jr. (son of former Wolverine running back Tyrone Wheatley) could help make Michigan’s offense just a bit more dangerous for opposing defenses if they need to worry about two tight ends.
Defense: Lavert Hill, Defensive Back
The Detroit native may not get a chance to shine right away, but the super talented and highly rated defensive back recruit should find his way on the field this season. Hill was one of many key recruits for Michigan’s Class of 2016. Despite some seniors sitting on top the depth chart, Jim Harbaugh would be wise to try and get Hill involved where he can this season and see what happens.
Offense: Donnie Corley, Wide Receiver
An early enrollee, Corley got a jumpstart on fitting in with the Michigan State offense and has quickly proven to be worthy of some early playing time. He also appears to be a player that could do some damage on special teams at times, making him a versatile option for the Spartans.
Defense: Demetrius Cooper, Defensive End
Though he backed up Shilique Calhoun last fall, Cooper managed to cause some problems for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks when he got a chance to line up on the line. Cooper put together five sacks last season and figures to step right in to a starting role alongside Malik McDowell.
Offense: Mike Weber, Running Back
Ezekiel Elliott is gone and will be difficult to replace, but Weber appears ready to make his case for being Ohio State’s next top running back. It may not happen immediately, but look for the redshirt freshman to shine when given opportunities to carry the football, which should eventually lead to him being a key ingredient in the same backfield as J.T. Barrett.
Defense: Dante Booker, Linebacker
Ohio State has a strong history of linebackers and this year should be no exception. Booker was a star recruit in the state of Ohio and will now have a chance to take his game to the next level and, perhaps, be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten when all is said and done this fall.
Offense: Jake Zembiec, Quarterback
By most accounts, it appears as though Trace McSorley has the leg up on the quest to succeed Christian Hackenberg under center. McSorley has limited playing experience over Zembiec, an early enrollee this past January, but if McSorley struggles at any point then it could be Zembiec who steps in to give it a shot. If he does, he may not give it up.
Defense: Jake Cooper, Linebacker
Penn State’s linebackers may not be quite up to par with past units in the storied history, but one name to keep an eye on might be Cooper. The sophomore can play inside and outside to bring some flexibility to the defense in the event someone needs to step in.
Offense: Hayden Rettig, Quarterback
Rutgers is in dire need of a quarterback stepping up and proving to be a reliable asset in the offense. Rettig, a former transfer from Kansas, could be the guy by the end of the season despite not being much of a running threat. Rutgers can get by with a pocket passer if the line is solid enough, and that could lead to Rettig being the best option.
Defense: Ross Taylor-Douglas, Defensive Back
Rutgers has reason to be optimistic about its secondary this season after going through some significant growing pains in 2015. One new addition that could help be a reliable leader could be Taylor-Douglas, a graduate transfer from Michigan. His impact may end up being felt more on the sideline than on the field, but there is value to that.
Big Ten West
Offense: Tre Nations, Running Back
The Illini’s running show will be led by Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but Nation will be the likely next man up in a shallow backfield. The three-star recruit out of Alabama will do his best to fill a void left by the injured Dre Brown and could see a good number of carries as a result. He also has an awesome name.
Defense: Tre Watson, Linebacker
The Illini have a good number of upperclassmen across the defensive side of the field, but Watson is the lone exception. Look for the sophomore to fit right in on the outside and develop into a defensive leader this fall.
Offense: James Daniels, Offensive Guard
Iowa’s offensive line will undergo some turnover this season from last season’s Big Ten West championship roster. Daniels is expected to lock down a starting job at right guard, where he will have the responsibility to help open running lanes for his older brother, LeShun Daniels.
Defense: Matt Nelson, Defensive End
With not too many holes to plug on defense, Iowa is putting the biggest plug they have at defensive end. Nelson (6-8, 275) has the size and should fit in nicely on the end of the defensive line. He lacks experience but there is enough of a veteran presence around him to help make up for that concern, which should benefit him and the Hawkeyes in the long run.
Offense: Rashad Still, Wide Receiver
Minnesota has a couple of upperclassmen to look to make strides in the receiving game, but one younger name to watch will be Still. He appeared in 12 games last fall and caught 18 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He could see his role increase this season as the Gophers look to replace KJ Maye.
Defense: KiAnte Hardin, Defensive Back
There are some big shoes to fill in the defensive backfield, which means Hardin, a sophomore, may be looked to mature quickly as he fills a starting job. Hardin did appear in all 13 games Minnesota played last season, with an average of one tackle per game to show for it. His role will be much more definitive in 2016.
Offense: Derrion Grim, Wide Receiver
Grimm enrolled early and has already started to impress with his abilities. Because his work ethic and skill have been so admirable, Nebraska expects to throw Grim into the mix right away after a solid spring showing.
Defense: Khalil Davis, Defensive Tackle
After sitting out the 2015 season with a redshirt, Davis has been putting in the work in the weight room and building himself to being a potential stopgap on the defensive line. After earing offseason workout recognition from the program, Davis is one giant step closer to sitting in the middle of the line. His twin brother, Carlos Davis, may be a slight step ahead of him, but it may not be long until Khalil leaves an impact as well.
Offense: Garrett Dickerson, Tight End
Northwestern is losing a talented tight end in Dan Vitale, which means the Wildcats have to hope someone can step up and take on the leading role at the position. Dickerson may be best suited for the task as a junior. Formerly a running back, he appeared in 12 games in 2015 recording 12 catches for 124 yards.
Defense: Xavier Washington, Defensive End
Washington enters his third season with the program and could be ready to redeem himself a bit after a disappointing 2015. Washington will join an upperclassmen-filled line and look to draw form his prior playing experience to take his game to the next level to become more of a disruptive force.
Offense: Elijah Sindelar, Quarterback
It goes without saying Purdue does not have Drew Brees to count on any more, as the Boilermakers embark on another season with a huge question mark at quarterback. David Blough may be the guy for now, but do not be surprised if head coach Darrell Hazell makes a switch to Sindelar, a freshman. Hazell’s job security may even depend on it.
Defense: Evyn Cooper, Defensive Back
The redshirt freshman may have to win the job away from somebody, but Cooper has already benefitted from a solid spring and has generated some momentum to a possible starting job sooner rather than later. Purdue could use all the help it can get in the secondary too, so Cooper may have a chance to make some plays early on.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook, Quarterback
The Badgers could be in store for a rough start to the season, which may fuel the fire for a possible QB switch if Bart Houston is the starter at the beginning of the fall. If Houston gets yanked, in will step Hornibrook, a freshman. Whether or not he will be ready for the spotlight remains to be seen, but he should have a chance to finish the season on a high note, which could be good for his development.
Defense: T.J. Watt, Linebacker
The younger brother of former Badger and NFL star J.J. Watt, T.J. looks to step in to a key role of his own this season in Madison. After being converted form the tight end position, has an opportunity to lock down a key role on the defensive side of the football at a position that has been reliable for Wisconsin over the years. And if he is half as good as his older brother, Wisconsin should be in good shape.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.