Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts.
The Big Ten is home to college football’s defending national champions (Ohio State), but the conference is full of intrigue, especially as Jim Harbaugh returns to Michigan, and Penn State should improve in coach James Franklin’s second season. Additionally, Nebraska hopes new coach Mike Riley will elevate the program into Big Ten title contention.
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
With the 2015 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 10 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
Big Ten's 10 Most Underrated Players for 2015
Jacoby Boren, C, Ohio State
Most of the attention on Ohio State’s offensive line revolves around standout left tackle Taylor Decker or guard Pat Elflein. But the play of Boren should not be overlooked, as the Buckeyes have one of the nation’s best offensive lines entering the 2015 campaign. Boren played in 16 games as a backup prior to 2014 and started all 15 games for Ohio State last season.
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Minnesota
Minnesota’s defense held opponents to 24.2 points per game last season, and with seven starters back, the Golden Gophers could be even better on that side of the ball in 2015. Campbell was a key find for coordinator Tracy Claeys in the junior college ranks, as the Florida native has played in 26 games in his two years in Minneapolis. Campbell started all 13 games in 2014 and finished the year with 75 tackles and 2.5 sacks. With Damien Wilson departing, Campbell is now the leader of Minnesota’s linebacker corps.
Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois
Ferguson led the Illinois’ offense in rushing in each of the last two seasons, finishing 2014 with 735 yards and eight scores on 146 attempts. In addition to his production on the ground, the Illinois native has 100 receptions over the last two years. And despite inconsistent offensive line play, Ferguson managed to average at least five yards per carry in back-to-back seasons. Look for Ferguson to have his best statistical performance of his career in 2015.
Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers
As Rutgers enters its second season in the Big Ten, improving the play in the trenches will be a priority for coach Kyle Flood. The defensive front allowed 212.3 rushing yards per game last season, and the coaching staff hopes Hamilton and sophomore end Kemoko Turay can elevate the performance of this group in 2015. Hamilton has been a productive force for Rutgers over the last three seasons, recording 11.5 tackles for a loss in back-to-back years. Additionally, Hamilton generated 10.5 sacks from 2013-14 and recorded two forced fumbles in his career.
Desmond King, CB, Iowa
The Hawkeyes had a stingy secondary in 2014, as this unit allowed only 12 touchdown passes in Big Ten play and held quarterbacks to a 48.7 completion percentage. King was one of the leaders for coordinator Phil Parker’s defense, recording 64 tackles and three interceptions in 2014. The Detroit native didn’t redshirt as a freshman and has played in 26 consecutive games to start his career at Iowa. After earning honorable mention all-conference honors in 2014, King should breakthrough with an all-conference season in 2015.
Alex Lewis, OT, Nebraska
In his first year with the Cornhuskers, Lewis was a key cog in a ground attack that averaged 240.2 rushing yards per game. The Colorado transfer started all 13 games in 2014 and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. In addition to being one of the Big Ten’s most underrated linemen, Lewis is arguably one of Nebraska’s most valuable players. The Cornhuskers return just two starters on the offensive line and need Lewis to stay healthy in 2015.
Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State
The Nittany Lions boast one of the nation’s best defensive tackle combinations with Johnson and Anthony Zettel anchoring the interior for coordinator Bob Shoop. Zettel was among the nation’s best at the position last year, but Johnson’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. In 13 games, Johnson recorded 49 tackles (six for a loss), one sack and two fumble recoveries. At 325 pounds, the New Jersey native has the size and ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, as well as command double teams to free up Zettel or Penn State’s defensive ends.
Sojourn Shelton, CB, Wisconsin
With Shelton, Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo returning, Wisconsin’s secondary is quietly one of the best in the nation. Shelton was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2013, starting 12 games for the Badgers and recording 36 tackles and seven pass breakups. The Florida native continued the strong start to his career with 12 starts and 33 tackles in 2014.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
Jason Spriggs, OT, Indiana
Either Spriggs or fellow lineman Dan Feeney deserves a mention in this space. Indiana’s offensive line has developed into a strength under coach Kevin Wilson, as this unit led the way for running back Tevin Coleman to eclipse 2,000 yards in 2014. Spriggs started every game in his first two years on campus and played in 11 games (with 10 starts) last season. Spriggs should push for All-Big Ten honors in 2015.
Lawrence Thomas, DL, Michigan State
The strength of Michigan State’s defense is in the trenches. End Shilique Calhoun is among the nation’s best, and there’s talent on the interior with Joel Heath, Damon Knox and Malik McDowell. Thomas has bounced between end and tackle during his Michigan State tenure and started all 13 games in 2014. The Detroit native has only recorded 34 stops and three sacks in his career, but that’s largely a product of playing on the interior and plugging the gaps up front. Thomas is expected to shift to defensive end in 2015, and his versatility is a huge asset for new co-coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel.