by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.
Antwon Bailey, RB, Syracuse – Delone Carter has finished his eligibility, but Syracuse’s rushing attack won’t miss a beat. Bailey finished second on the team in rushing last year, adding 554 yards and two scores on 114 attempts. He was also a major contributor as a receiver, collecting 35 receptions for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Considering Bailey is only 5-foot-7, there is some doubt whether or not he can withstand a full season of work. However, the senior will be running behind one of the conference’s best offensive lines and should top 1,000 yards this year.
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia –Tavon Austin is expected to be West Virginia’s leading pass catcher, but with the switch to a pass-first offense, expect another receiver or two to collect at least 50 receptions. Bailey should continue to develop a good rapport with quarterback Geno Smith, especially considering the two were high school teammates in Miramar, Fla. Bailey caught 24 passes for 317 yards and four scores last year and could easily double those totals in 2011. If Bailey doesn’t emerge, keep a close watch on sophomore receiver Ivan McCartney.
Steve Beauharnais, LB, Rutgers – Beauharnais patrolled the middle of the linebacking corps last year, but is moving back to the strongside, where he shined as a true freshman in 2009. Beauharnais ranked third on the team with 79 tackles last year and collected 1.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries. The junior should have no trouble with the transition back to the strongside and could finish as Rutgers’ leading tackler for 2011.
Josh Chichester, TE, Louisville – At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, Chichester presents matchup problems for any defense. The senior has 69 receptions for 860 yards and nine scores through three seasons and will be targeted frequently by new quarterbacks Will Stein and Teddy Bridgewater. All signs point to Chichester having the best statistical season of his career.
Ryne Giddins, DE, South Florida – Giddins was one of the top recruits in South Florida’s 2009 recruiting class. He played in three games as a true freshman, but suffered an ankle injury and was forced to miss the rest of the year. Giddins saw limited playing time last year, making an appearance in 12 games and posting two starts. He managed six tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks last season. With a path to a starting job open, Giddins should become South Florida’s top pass rusher and likely all-conference candidate at the end of 2011.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh – With the departure of Dion Lewis, Graham is expected to shoulder the workload for Pittsburgh this season. He finished second on the team with 922 yards and eight scores in 2010. Graham collected three 100-yard efforts early last year, highlighted by 277 yards and three touchdowns against FIU. He also caught 24 passes for 213 yards and two scores last year. New coach Todd Graham wants a high-octane, hurry-up offense, but Ray Graham won’t be forgotten. With question marks about quarterback Tino Sunseri, look for Graham to top 1,000 yards and push for the conference rushing title.
Savon Huggins, RB, Rutgers – After an abysmal year on offense last season, Rutgers made some significant changes. Frank Cignetti was hired as the new coordinator and the days of relying on the Wildcat offense are over. Rutgers wants to establish a consistent ground attack this year, and Huggins will be given every opportunity to win the job in fall practice. He ranked as the No. 6 running back and the No. 28 high school overall prospect out of high school by Athlon Sports. Considering Huggins was the prize of the 2011 recruiting class for Greg Schiano, he won’t have to wait long to see the field. However, Huggins and the rest of the skill players need the offensive line to show some improvement after a disastrous 2010 season.
Jesse Joseph, DE, Connecticut – The pieces are in place for Connecticut to have the Big East’s best defensive line. All-American candidate Kendall Reyes and senior Twyon Martin form a solid duo in the middle, but the key to the line will be the continued emergence of Joseph off the edge. He managed 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss last season and should be able to build upon those numbers in 2011.
Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse – Nassib had a few rough moments in his first full season as the starter, but closed the year with 239 yards and three scores in the Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas State. The junior’s numbers in Big East play need to improve, but he should be better with another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. The receiving corps should be solid, even with Marcus Sales’ status uncertain due to a recent arrest. If Nassib cuts down on the interceptions and raises his completion percentage, he could be the third-best quarterback in the Big East, behind West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros.
Justin Pugh, OT, Syracuse –Doug Marrone is a former offensive lineman, so it’s no surprise the front five has shown significant improvement during his tenure at Syracuse. Pugh emerged as the team’s top lineman last year, earning second-team All-Big East honors. Expect Antwon Bailey to run to Pugh’s side with a lot of success this year.
Vernard Roberts, RB, West Virginia – The Mountaineers will shift to a pass-first offense this season, but new coach Dana Holgorsen won’t completely ignore the rushing attack. Roberts enrolled in the spring and finished No. 1 on the depth chart. The true freshman seems to be the perfect fit for Holgorsen’s offense, but he will have to hold off a charge from fellow incoming freshman Andrew Buie this fall. Roberts may not get to 1,000 yards, but he will be a factor on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield.
Marquis Spruill, LB, Syracuse –Spruill was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last year and responded with a solid all-around effort. He collected 51 tackles and two sacks last season. With Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith out of eligibility at Syracuse, it’s up to Spruill to become the leader of the linebacking corps. The sophomore was moved to the middle this spring, where he should be one of the top defensive players for the Orange this year.
K’Waun Williams, CB, Pittsburgh – Dave Wannstedt didn’t win enough games at Pittsburgh, but he certainly left some talent for new coach Todd Graham. Williams played in 10 games as a true freshman last season, including one start in the Compass Bowl against Kentucky. He collected 14 tackles and three passes broken up last year. Williams has been praised throughout the offseason by Graham and could be one of the conference’s top cornerbacks by the end of the year.
Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati –Wolfe is often overlooked in the hierarchy of defensive players in the Big East. With Cincinnati struggling on defense, Wolfe hasn’t gotten enough credit for his play the last two years. He has started the last 25 games at tackle and has added nine sacks during that span. The Bearcats should show progress on defense this year, especially with 10 returning starters. Wolfe was a key reason Cincinnati finished 2010 as the No. 4 ranked run defense in the Big East. As long as Wolfe stays healthy, he should be a lock for all-conference honors at the end of 2011.
Jeremy Wright, RB, Louisville – Even though Bilal Powell is gone, hopes remain high for Louisville’s rushing attack in 2011. Wright finished second on the team with 327 yards and four scores last season. He also added a score and averaged 30.6 yards per kick return. Wright’s best rushing effort came against Syracuse, earning 98 yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts. Senior Victor Anderson will also figure into the backfield mix, which should give Louisville a steady one-two punch. Wright may not equal Powell’s production, but the sophomore should ease any concerns about a drop in rushing offense.
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Ranking the Top 25 Players in the Big East for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Big East Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Team
A Strong Start at Louisville
A New Twist on the Backyard Brawl