Michigan needs running back Chris Evans to carry more of the load on offense this fall
The Big Ten is not a conference lacking in potential star power this season with a handful of Heisman Trophy contenders and potential All-Americans on both sides of the football, but every team needs a wild card (or two) to rely on at some point. Wild card players can come out of nowhere to play a key role in a team's season, either as a change-of-pace option to get out of a rut in one area or to fill in for an injured player.
Whether they are an incoming freshman, a transfer, someone coming back from injury or switching positions, here is a glimpse at some of the wild card players each Big Ten team has on its roster this season.
Big Ten East
Offense: Simmie Cobbs, Wide Receiver
Cobbs returns to the lineup after missing out on the bulk of the 2016 season due to an early ankle injury. If Indiana keeps trying to spread the field, Cobbs will be a key player.
Defense: Chris Covington, Linebacker
After starting his college career as a quarterback, Covington has a chance to contribute on the defensive side of the ball this season. He will compete for a starting job and should be a regular face on the field this fall.
Offense: Lorenzo Harrison, Running Back
The Big Ten has some true stars at running back this fall, but don’t be shocked if Maryland’s Harrison starts to leave his mark. After showing some good glimpses in 2016, he should continue carrying the load for the Terps in 2017.
Defense: Breyon Gaddy, Defensive Tackle
Maryland’s defense is pretty stacked with returning experience, but incoming freshman Breyon Gaddy should have a chance to work his way into a comfortable position up front as the season plays out.
Offense: Chris Evans, Running Back
Evans brings a good balance of speed and vision to the running game, which should have some room to work behind Michigan’s offensive line as the season goes on. Evans should be durable enough to carry the ball the bulk of the time this fall for the Wolverines.
Defense: Mike Wroblewski, Linebacker
Wroblewski may be as close to a Rudy story as Michigan will dare come. He has worked his way from being a walk-on to receiving a scholarship and has overcome injury issues on his way to a potential starting job on scholarship this fall.
Offense: Brian Lewerke, Quarterback
After a rough 2016 season, the Spartans need some consistency on offense. Lewerke got some starting experience last season and should hit the ground running as the starter this fall.
Defense: Raequan Williams, Defensive Tackle
Michigan State’s defensive line needs to regroup this season, and Williams plugging a giant hole in the middle is a good start. His great size (6-4, 304) will make it difficult for anyone to get by him.
Offense: Binjimen Victor, Wide Receiver
Watch out for the speedy Victor this season, as he could be the explosive weapon in the passing game the Buckeyes could use to their advantage against Big Ten defensive backs.
Defense: Damon Arnette, Cornerback
Ohio State’s secondary is loaded, but keep an eye on Arnette. If he gets a chance to get on the field, he should be able to prove he belongs on it as he bounces back from a few setbacks in 2016. Arnette reportedly turned in an encouraging spring.
Offense: Irvin Charles, Wide Receiver
Penn State appears to have some good receiver depth, and Charles is a sophomore with the potential to become more and more an asset as the season progresses. The loss of Chris Godwin opens up opportunities for players like Charles.
Defense: Shane Simmons, Defensive End
After being redshirted in 2016, Simmons is expected to be a key part of the defensive line rotation and could quickly leave an impact up front.
Offense: Giovanni Rescigno, Quarterback
The hope is that experience last season will help bring Rescigno along in 2017 with Jerry Kill as the offensive coordinator. There were some signs of improvement in the spring, but that was in the spring.
Defense: Kemoko Turay, Defensive End
The Scarlet Knights generated only 21 sacks last year and ranked last in the Big Ten against the run. Last season's top pass rusher Julian Pinnix-Odrick expired his eligibility, and coach Chris Ash needs a big year from Turay to fill the void up front. He's flashed potential (7.5 sacks in 2014) but has only four sacks over the last two seasons.
Big Ten West
Offense: Chayce Crouch, Quarterback
After putting in a solid spring, Illinois’ offense will likely be led by Crouch. The junior will look to orchestrate a steady passing attack while occasionally making plays with his legs.
Defense: James Crawford, Defensive End
Crawford is making a position change in his fifth season with the program, moving from linebacker to defensive end. Switching to a position of need could lead to Crawford being a much-needed disruptive force for the Illini’s defense.
Offense: Nick Easley, Wide Receiver
The former JUCO standout put on quite the show for the Hawkeyes in the spring, and could be a regular starter in the fall as a result.
Defense: Brady Reiff, Defensive Tackle
Iowa is in need of some help on the defensive line, and Reiff should be able to deliver when called upon. Reiff will be a part of the mix, and could prove to be a reliable asset up front.
Offense: Rashad Still, Wide Receiver
Still was Minnesota’s second-leading receiver in 2016, albeit on just 18 receptions in 10 games. He looks to be the most likely candidate to be the team’s leading target this fall.
Defense: Carter Coughlin, Defensive End
Originally on the roster as a linebacker, Coughlin is switching positions this season to help add a little more talent up front. Though a tad smaller than your traditional Big Ten defensive end, his speed and agility could help him work his way into the backfield to cause problems this fall.
Offense: Stanley Morgan, Wide Receiver
The Cornhuskers need a guy to step up and fill a void in the passing game, and Morgan appears to be the top candidate for the job. The possibility of a 1,000-yard season is not out of the question.
Defense: Marcus Newby, Linebacker
Newby will bring a good balance of athleticism and mobility to a position that demands flexibility for Nebraska. Look for Newby to be all over the field covering in pass protection, stopping the run or even bringing pressure in the backfield.
Offense: Flynn Nagel, Wide Receiver
With Austin Carr no longer in the fold, somebody has to be Northwestern’s No. 1 target. That likely falls on Nagel, who had a good season in 2016 overshadowed by Carr and running back Justin Jackson.
Defense: Joe Gaziano, Defensive End
The Wildcats saw how effective Gaziano could be off the end at times last season, but his role should increase in 2017 with a starting role. A push toward a 10-sack season is in sight.
Offense: Corey Holmes, Wide Receiver
New head coach Jeff Brohm should help open the playbook at Purdue, and Holmes, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, could slide right into a key role in the new-look offense.
Defense: T.J. McCollum, Linebacker
Western Kentucky transfer McCollum could give a boost to the stability of the Purdue linebacking corps. He brings some experience with him and could end up being one of the most reliable defensive assets the Boilermakers have.
Offense: Bradrick Shaw, Running Back
Wisconsin always seems to have a running back ready to step in and take the lead role. This fall that could be Shaw, who is slated to replace Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.
Defense: Garret Dooley, Linebacker
Wisconsin has developed a nice string of linebackers over the years, and Dooley should shine in a larger role this fall after filling in as a starter for an injured Vince Biegel last season.
— 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 contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.