The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the Big Ten this fall?
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
This list has to begin with the Charles Woodson clone in Ann Arbor. He will begin his career as the nickelback but could easily work into a starting role on defense. Peppers, in true Woodson fashion, is a dynamic return specialist and don’t be surprised if he gets some snaps on offense as well. He was the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2014 class for a reason.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The No. 2-rated recruit in the Big Ten was the top inside linebacker in the nation and he is already pressing for starting reps in Columbus. The 242-pounder is breathing down Curtis Grant’s neck at MLB and should see plenty of snaps all year long. The early enrollee is the next great tackling star for Ohio State.
Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
A man among boys, McDowell has rare size (6-6, 295) and quickness for such a young player. With an injury to Damon Knox, Pat Narduzzi needs McDowell to be ready to start sooner rather than later. He may not start the opener but he will be major factor for the Spartans this fall.
Damian Prince | Derwin Gray, OL, Maryland
Both Prince and Gray are in the heat of two position battles for starting time up front for the Terps. Prince (6-5, 295) was recently moved to guard and is the odds-on favorite to earn the starting job. Gray (6-5, 295) is battling Ryan Doyle for the starting right tackle spot. Both Prince and Gray are dramatically more talented options but need to catch on quickly to start all year.
Chikwe Obasih | Alec James, DL, Wisconsin
The Badgers could feature two redshirt freshman starting defensive ends in Week 1 against LSU. Obasih (6-2, 245) and James (6-3, 239) are undersized but both bring a quickness off the edge Wisconsin hasn’t had in years. Obasih was the starter throughout spring camp and James, a converted outside backer, has risen quickly into a starting role. There will be a rotation up front this fall but expect both Obasih and James to finish the year as the starters.
Mason Cole, OL, Michigan
Most offensive linemen need to time to develop but Cole is proving he is ready to play right out of the gate. The Florida native checks in at 6-foot-5 and a slighter 285 pounds but has great athleticism and is already working with the first team in camp. Both David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman could see playing time as well up front for a team in desperate need of stability on the O-line.
Gelen Robinson, DE/LB, Purdue
The hybrid Purdue freshman has already been moved from outside linebacker to defensive end. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder was an end in high school and is at his best coming off the edge. The physical player should force his way into the starting lineup by the end of September.
Andrew Nelson, OL, Penn State
One of the biggest question marks in the Big Ten this fall is the Nittany Lions' O-line. Herb Hand is going to try everything to counteract the concerning lack of depth and that likely means a lot of young players getting reps this fall. Nelson is already slotted to start at right tackle and pretty much any other player on the roster should expect to see time for the depleted Lions.
Freddy Canteen, WR, Michigan
Canteen has already earned high marks from quarterback Devin Gardner and figures to be a big contributor in the slot this fall. He had an excellent spring and has outplayed more highly touted freshman and plenty of upperclassmen. Once Drake Harris is healthy, he also figures to play a role this fall as well.
Chris Goodwin | De’Andre Thompkins, WR, Penn State
James Franklin and his staff attacked depth at the wide receiver position on the recruiting trail and landed a quartet of athletic playmakers. Goodwin and Thompkins are the two names that continue to stand out. Thompkins (6-0, 175) is the speedster who can fly while Goodwin (6-2, 205) brings a physical frame and maturity to the position. Both Troy Apke and Saeed Blacknall could see playing time as well.
Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder recently was moved into the starting lineup at left guard for Kirk Ferentz. Surrounded by seniors and juniors, the Ohio native is proving quickly that he belongs on the field for Iowa.
Curtis Samuel, AP, Ohio State
Fans have been pointing to Dontre Wilson as a guy who could fill the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. And while Wilson is going to have an excellent sophomore season, it’s actually Samuel who is drawing the brightest reviews. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is listed as a wideout but has been getting plenty of carries out of the backfield. Look for Samuel to play a lot in a variety of roles this fall.
Best of the Rest:
Demetrius Cooper, DE, Michigan State
Dominique Booth, WR, Indiana
Jeff Jones | Berkley Edwards, RB, Minnesota
Corey Clements, OL, Purdue
Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State
George Rushing | Natrell Jamerson, WR, Wisconsin
Derrick Willies, WR, Iowa
Enoch Smith, DL, Michigan State
Shane Jones | Jon Reschke, LB, Michigan State
Sebastian Joseph, DL, Rutgers
Myles Nash, LB, Rutgers