Michigan's Ben Mason could have a critical role in the Wolverines' new-look offense
The Big Ten race could be as open as it has ever been this upcoming college football season. With some unique turnover within the defending champion Ohio State and a Big Ten West that is up for grabs for just about any school in the division, the Big Ten certainly has plenty of questions going into the new season. And with so much uncertainty, there is a chance a player on a team will rise up to make the biggest difference this season.
Who are the wild card players in the Big Ten that could make or break each team's season? From new faces via transfers or recruiting, to players being asked to step in and take on an increased role in their system, here is a look at some of the players that could make the difference this season.
Big Ten East
Offense: Peyton Hendershot, TE
With Peyton Ramsey back at QB and two go-to receivers in Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale, watch for the sophomore tight end to find some opportunities underneath to keep some drives moving. Hendershot appeared in 11 games last year and caught 15 passes, including two touchdowns.
Defense: James Miller, LB
A redshirt freshman, Miller should get a chance to start for the Hoosiers this fall after a solid showing in the spring practice season. With two returning starters filling the other linebacker spots, Miller will have a veteran presence to rely on as he grows into the kind of player Indiana is hoping to see.
Offense: Josh Jackson, QB
After a transfer from Virginia Tech, Jackson is looking to get his college career back on track with the Terrapins. After a solid freshman season with the Hokies, Jackson was out for the bulk of the 2018 season after breaking his leg in the third game. He should be a solid option for the Terps running the offense with some good potential at key positions around him.
Defense: Nick Cross, DB
A true freshman, Cross will get some playing time early on in the season, if he isn’t already grabbing a starting job out of the gates. One of the top in-state recruits will bring plenty of buzz to the Maryland defense in a backfield that is need of some skill.
Offense: Ben Mason, FB
Michigan’s offense is expecting to open things up under new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, but don’t be shocked if Jim Harbaugh chooses to keep Mason as a vital part of the offense once the Wolverines get close to the goal line. Mason had seven rushing touchdowns last season on 33 touches for 80 yards. Michigan’s offense may have a new look, but sometimes going with Mr. Reliable in short-yardage situations is still the best move.
Defense: Kwity Paye, DE
With a handful of top starters leaving the defensive line, it will be to players like Paye to make up for the losses. Fortunately for Michigan, Paye already has shown signs of what he can do as a backup and he should fit in nicely in a starting role this fall.
Offense: Brian Lewerke, QB
The senior quarterback got roughed up a bit last year and ended the season throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, but Mark Danotnio knows Lewerke is better than that. With an experienced offensive line in the middle and some key returners on offense around him, expect Lewerke to turn in a better effort this fall.
Defense: Jacub Panasiuk, DE
Playing on the same line as Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams could take some of the pressure off Panasiuk, who is also an experienced starter for the Spartans. As those two players get the focus from opposing offenses, Panasiuk could find himself in position to make a few key plays of his own on the opposite side of Willekes.
Offense: Justin Fields, QB
After being given immediate eligibility from the NCAA after his transfer from Georgia, Fields is looking to live up to the hype he had coming out of high school. He will do so in an offense that doesn’t return much starting experience but is still loaded with talent and skill. Fields should be a big-time player that keeps Ohio State in the playoff conversation.
Defense: Jeffrey Okudah, CB
The Buckeyes return a good number of starters on defense, but Okudah steps into one of the few vacancies to fill on the first team. The Texas product played in 13 games for Ohio State last season and broke up eight passes in his reserve role.
Offense: C.J. Holmes, RB
Ricky Slade is expected to be the featured running back for the Nittany Lions, but Holmes could have an impact on the running game as well this fall in Happy Valley. After sitting out a redshirt season in 2018 following his transfer from Notre Dame, Holmes hopes to get things back on track this fall and he should have some opportunities to do that in the Penn State offense.
Defense: Micah Parsons, LB
The five-star prospect is set to take on a starting role for Penn State and hopes to uphold the tradition of “Linebacker U” in the process. Parsons already recorded 83 tackles for Penn State last season and that production shouldn’t be slowing down as a starter.
Offense: Isaih Pacheco, RB
The versatile Pacheco should be used in a variety of ways by Rutgers this season. The offense can use as many sparks as it can get, and Pacheco is capable of making some plays happen on the ground or as a special teams returner.
Defense: Malik Dixon, S
The versatile Dixon is capable of playing linebacker and safety, but head coach Chris Ash is hoping to maximize his potential in the defensive secondary. Rutgers needs to continue to plug holes in the backfield and should benefit from having another solid coverage defender disrupting the passing game of opponents.
Big Ten West
Offense: Isaiah Williams, QB
Following the transfer of M.J. Rivers and the sudden about-face of Matt Fink, Illinois could benefit by giving Williams a chance to get some experience early on. Maybe the freshman won’t start the season at the top of the depth chart, but he could potentially be a much-needed sparkplug if things go south.
Defense: Milo Eifler, LB
Illinois has been busy adding transfer players. One that sat out last season after transferring from Washington is Eifler, who is finally healthy and ready to go at full strength. Illinois had two holes to plug at the linebacker positions.
Offense: Nate Wieting, TE
It’s no secret the tight end position was a strong one for the Hawkeyes last season. But with two players off to the NFL, it’s up to Wieting to keep the position going strong for Iowa to make a run at the Big Ten West Division.
Defense: Chauncey Golston, DE
A.J. Epenesa may have been the breakout star for Iowa a year ago, but Golston is capable of doing some damage too. Golston was fourth on the team with 9.0 tackles for a loss last season and recorded 3.5 sacks. On the opposite end of Epenesa, Golston should have some chances to leave his mark.
Offense: Rodney Smith, RB
Smith returns from an ACL injury and may be asked to be more of a complement to last season’s breakout star, Mohamed Ibrahim. That may not be a bad idea, and the Gophers may have a bit of a running combo to utilize.
Defense: Micah Dew-Treadway, DT
The Gophers need bodies up front, and the addition of Dew-Treadway should help. The graduate transfer from Notre Dame doesn’t have much experience (2 tackles in 11 games for the Irish), but the Gophers will take a 300-lb lineman to eat up space.
Offense: Dedrick Mills, RB
Nebraska will need to take some pressure off quarterback Adrian Martinez at times with the run. Mills, a junior college transfer who started at Georgia Tech, will likely be asked to take on that role while a cloud of certainty hovers above Maurice Washington’s status.
Defense: Deontai Williams, DB
The Huskers pass defense could stand to improve its performance in 2019 if Nebraska is going to make a run in the division. Williams has limited starting experience but likely will be taking on a starting role full-time this fall.
Offense: Hunter Johnson, QB
After losing Clayton Thorson to the NFL, Northwestern hopes to keep the position in good hands with Johnson. After sitting out last fall after his transfer from Clemson (The Tigers have some guy named Trevor Lawrence), Johnson will get a chance to show his five-star recruiting potential.
Defense: Greg Newsome II, DB
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has spoken highly of Newsome, and the rising sophomore should get a chance to show why there is so much confidence in him within the program.
Offense: Elijah Sindelar, QB
The senior passer will be tasked with continuing the production put up by David Blough last year. As long as he just eliminates self-inflicted wounds in the turnover department, Sindelar should keep Purdue chugging along.
Defense: George Karlaftis, DE
One of the top recruits in Purdue’s most recent recruiting class and a local star in high school, Karlaftis could quickly become one of the top linemen Purdue throws at opponents on the edge.
Offense: Graham Mertz, QB
Star freshman quarterback may have to work his way up the depth chart this season, but Mertz certainly seems to have the highest ceiling to reach for. If the Badgers need a spark in the passing game, Mertz may prove to be the answer.
Defense: Jack Sanborn, LB
Linebackers have been an underrated strength of the Badgers over the years, but the unit could use a little push this season. Sanborn, a sophomore, looks to take on a spot in the middle of the defense this fall, which will be tested often this 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.