Illinois' offense could be even more productive this fall if running back Mike Epstein picks up where he left off last season
Throughout the course of any college football season, every team will have certain players they will rely on to get the job done. This is certainly the case in the Big Ten. But if a team is truly going to make something special happen, it will be the not-so-predictable players that will rise to the occasion in a time of need. Consider these the wild card players.
Whether it's a young player stepping into a key starting job, one returning from injury, a new transfer, or simply one well-known player with an up-and-down track record on the field, here is a look at some of the players around the Big Ten who will be a wild card for each team this season.
Big Ten East
Offense: Whop Philyor, Wide Receiver
As a freshman last season, Philyor (above, right) caught 33 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns. Expect him to be a bigger part of the offense this fall.
Defense: Juwan Burgess, Defensive Back
A freshman, Bridges may not get a chance to start right away, but it may not take long for this talented young safety to get himself on the field to prove what he can do.
Offense: Rayshad Lewis, Wide Receiver
The son of Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis, Rayshad could jump right into a key role in the passing game. The younger Lewis transferred to Maryland from Utah State.
Defense: Ayinde Eley, Linebacker
Though he may be backing up Illinois transfer Tre Watson to start the year, Eley is a freshman to watch on Maryland’s defense.
Offense: Shea Patterson, Quarterback
This feels a little too obvious, but Patterson really is the new X-factor for Michigan’s hopes. If he is capable of lifting Michigan’s offense the way some expect, he could lead the Wolverines to a very entertaining season.
Defense: Casey Hughes, Safety
Michigan was great against the pass last season but there were some concerns at the safety position that could be addressed. Hughes, a graduate transfer from Utah, could make a push to provide some more stability in the defensive backfield.
Michigan State Spartans
Offense: Connor Heyward, Running Back
The Spartans will be just fine with LJ Scott carrying the ball most of the time, but look to see if Heyward can emerge in his sophomore season as a reliable alternative to lighten the work load for the senior work horse.
Defense: Justice Alexander, Defensive End
After an encouraging spring, Alexander could work himself into a key role for a Spartans defensive line that should be pretty strong.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Offense: Tate Martell, Quarterback
Dwayne Haskins will be Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season, but Martell, a highly regarded freshman, could be next in line in the event things don't go well for Haskins. If needed, could Martell save Ohio State?
Defense: Baron Browning, Linebacker
Ohio State has a tremendous lineage of linebackers, but the position is more of a question mark going into 2018. Browning may be one candidate that helps provide some consistency at the position this fall.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Offense: KJ Hamler, Wide Receiver
The Nittany Lions have a few young wide receivers that could have an impact this season, including Hamler. Look for him to get involved early on this season.
Defense: Shaka Toney, Defensive End
With so many holes to plug on defense, Toney will make a push for decent playing time up front. Toney had four sacks last season and can be a handful for opposing offensive linemen.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Offense: Jonathan Hilliman, Running Back
The former Boston College Eagles running back will hope to finish his career on a high note in his native New Jersey. Hilliman brings good experience to the Rutgers offense, if the offensive line can provide room to run.
Defense: Tyshon Fogg, Linebacker
Rutgers is looking to beef up on defense this season. Fogg, a sophomore, continues to grow and could prove to be a valuable asset for a maturing defense.
Big Ten West
Illinois Fighting Illini
Offense: Mike Epstein, Running Back
Maybe listing last season’s leading rusher is misleading here, but Epstein looks to build off a freshman season that was cut short due to injury. If he stays healthy, Illinois could have a nice reliable option on the ground.
Defense: Tony Adams, Defensive Back
Adams played in just five games last season due to injury, but should be ready to provide some stability to the secondary this season.
Offense: Ivory Kelly-Martin, Running Back
There is simply no easy way to replace Akrum Wadley, but Kelly-Martin has a chance to break some big plays the way Wadley did on hand-offs, and maybe catch a few passes.
Defense: Amani Hooker, Safety
The Hawkeyes may look to Hooker to spark some big defensive plays this season after some key losses. Hooker is known for making some big plays, as he did against Ohio State last season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Offense: Rashod Bateman, Wide Receiver
Without much depth to rely on across the offense, the four-star wide receiver could step into a key role for the Gophers right away this season.
Defense: Esezi Otomewo, Defensive End
Minnesota has a lot of holes to fill up front, and the redshirt freshman could provide some energy on the outside.
Offense: Adrian Martinez, Quarterback
One of the first key recruits for Scott Frost at Nebraska was Martinez. He may not have to wait long to get his chance to lead the offense.
Defense: Will Honas, Linebacker
A junior college transfer, Honas may be able to provide some stability and depth at the linebacker position in Lincoln. He could even prove to be a reliable starting option for the Huskers.
Offense: Jeremy Larkin, Running Back
Needing to replace Justin Jackson, Northwestern will hope the running game continues to be a strength with Larkin leading the charge on the ground.
Defense: Travis Whillock, Safety
Northwestern saw a strong spring performance from Whillock, who will fight for starting consideration this fall.
Offense: Rondale Moore, Wide Receiver
Purdue may need someone to provide a spark at the receiver position, so why not count on the four-star receiver recruit, one of the top recruits signed by Purdue in recent years?
Defense: Giovanni Revierre, Defensive End
Revierre is still a bit of a work in progress, but the young defensive lineman brings good size and skill to a position group that should continue to develop this season.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook, Quarterback
One of the few questions about the Badgers' offense that needs to be answered is whether or not Hornibrook can cut down on the turnovers. With some difficult games on the schedule, Hornibrook has the ability to make or break Wisconsin’s season with his ball control.
Defense: Scott Nelson, Safety
The redshirt freshman could slide right into a starting job this fall after a breakout spring.
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.