Every year, players emerge from the abyss and jump onto the college football map. It’s the nature of the beast. Guys graduate and are replaced.
Penn State running back Saquan Barkley and Chris Goodwin, along with Josey Jewell, a linebacker at Iowa, rose from relative obscurity to all-Big Ten performers in 2015. Indiana’s Jonathan Crawford, Purdue’s Markell Jones, Illinois’ Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Shannon Brooks of Minnesota also burst on the scene.
Little-known players are working hard to make names for themselves as college football season approaches. Here’s a look at potential breakout players for each Big Ten team:
Illinois – Gabe Megginson, OG, RS FR – A Rivals.com four-star prospect, the Jacksonville (Illinois) High product chose the Illini ahead of reported scholarship offers from Arkansas, Cal, Louisville, Miami (Florida), Michigan State, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State, among others. Illinois loses two key interior linemen, paving the way for a Megginson emergence.
Indiana – Jayme Thompson, HUSKY, JR – An Iowa Western junior college transfer, Thompson began his college career at Ohio State. The Toledo native ranked as a four-star recruit coming out of high school, picking the Buckeyes ahead of offers from Cal, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Notre Dame among others. He’ll play husky, the hybrid safety-linebacker position.
Iowa – Jay Scheel, WR, SO – The Hawkeyes are replacing two starting wide receivers, and that opens up opportunity on the other end of C.J. Beathard’s passes. Scheel took time to develop as a receiver after playing QB in high school and also has battled injuries. If he can stay healthy, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder possesses the talent to break out.
Maryland – Damian Prince, RT, RS SO – The Rivals five-star and No. 2 offensive tackle in the nation during the 2014 recruiting cycle stayed home. Prince chose the Terrapins over Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and many others. Prince broke into the starting lineup during the 2015 season and is poised to leap forward.
Michigan – Rashan Gary, DL, TR FR – The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect per Rivals, Scout and ESPN, Gary won’t turn 19 until December. Don’t be fooled by his youth; at 6-5, 287, the New Jersey native is expected to contribute right away on an already talented defensive line. Gary recorded 27.5 sacks during his final two prep seasons.
Michigan State – Felton Davis III, WR, TR SO – The Virginian took the field during his first year on campus, saving his best for last. He helped set up a first-quarter field goal with his first career catch, a 22-yarder on 3rd and 15 against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. At 6-4 and 192 pounds, Davis III is a big target.
Minnesota – KiAnte Hardin, CB, TR SO – The Missouri native played in all 13 games during his first year on campus and acquitted himself well. He’s positioned himself to grab a spot on an outfit that lost two cornerbacks – Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun – to the NFL. During the final half of the season, Hardin returned 11 kicks and nine punts.
Nebraska – Freedom Akinmoladun, DE, RS SO – Akinmoladun isn’t completely unknown; he did land on the Big Ten All-Freshmen Team and posted a team-high 4.5 sacks. However, after a strong start, a knee injury kept him from breaking out to become a household name. That should change in 2016, when the Missouri product should be one of the conference’s top edge rushers.
Northwestern – Nate Hall, LB, RS SO – Hall took over as the starting outside linebacker during the final four games of 2015. The Toledo native will try to build on that experience. The potential is there for a guy who ranked fifth on the team in tackles despite sporadic playing time for much of the campaign. All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker may overshadow him, but Hall is a good one.
Ohio State – Marcus Baugh, TE, RS JR – Baugh’s playing time increased as the 2015 season advanced, and he’s primed to break out this fall. Baugh (6-5, 255) bided his time behind NFL draftees Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett the last two years. He caught seven passes for 64 yards in the spring game to foreshadow big things to come.
Penn State – John Reid, CB, TR SO – Reid got his feet wet last year, mostly in a reserve role. He shined in the regular-season finale with a career-best five tackles against Michigan State and followed that with two tackles and two pass breakups versus Georgia in the Taxslayer Bowl. The former four-star prospect turned down offers from Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame and others.
Purdue – Cole Herdman, TE, RS SO – Herdman (6-4, 251) came to West Lafayette as a lightly-recruited prospect from Virginia. After waiting behind veteran players, he emerged at the end of last season with 10 receptions and two touchdowns during October and November. Herdman, who blocks well, should gain more receiving opportunities with Purdue going to a West Coast attack.
Rutgers – Najee Clayton, LB, TR SO – The New Jersey native stayed home and earned action as a true freshman. He chose the Scarlet Knights ahead of offers from Florida, Iowa, Georgia Tech, Pitt and others. Recruited as a safety, Clayton moves to the hybrid position in Chris Ash’s aggressive defense. He’s built to excel in it.
Wisconsin – Beau Benzschawel, OG, RS SO – The only thing that might be harder than spelling and pronouncing Benzschawel’s last name is getting around him. The Badger State native started eight games during 2015 after returning from a camp injury. He was part of a young front that suffered growing pains, but that should serve the Badgers well going forward.