6 Big Ten Players Set For Breakthrough Seasons in 2017
Which college football role players from a year ago are ready to blow up into breakout Big Ten stars in 2017?
A new year in the Big Ten means an entirely new wave of stars are ready to arrive onto the scene in 2017. Yeah, they were hyped in high school, and they’re not without relevant experience at this level. But they’ve been more or less role players in the early stages of their college careers … until now. The following Big Ten players are preparing for liftoff, making the leap from relative anonymity in 2016 to national notoriety during the season that kicks off in August.
6. WR Jalen Brown, Northwestern
Austin Carr and his sticky hands are the property of the New England Patriots, and projected starter Solomon Vault is out for the year. The Wildcats are looking for new targets for QB Clayton Thorson so that defenses can’t key on star RB Justin Jackson.
Flynn Nagel will likely lead Northwestern in catches from “Y” receiver. But Brown, a graduate transfer from Oregon and former blue-chipper, could give the Cats the field-stretcher on the outside it was lacking a year ago. While Carr and Nagel are possession receivers who can keep the chains moving, the 6-1, 200-pound Brown possesses the physicality and speed to add a much-needed new dimension to the offensive attack.
5. WR Juwan Johnson, Penn State
The early departure of current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chris Godwin left a void in the Lion receiving corps that Johnson is looking to fill.
Saquon Barkley is going to run for plenty of yards. And Trace McSorley will continue to strafe opposing defensive backfields. But who’ll step up on the outside? If the offseason is any indication, Johnson is poised for a breakthrough sophomore season in Happy Valley. He has the size, 6-4 and almost 200 pounds, and the separation speed to create mismatches with DBs. And on jump balls and back-shoulder fades, Johnson could become a preferred target, even stealing touches from veterans DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins.
4. CB Lamar Jackson, Nebraska
The Huskers boast their own Lamar Jackson. And while Heisman contention isn’t in his future, the program remains bullish on his potential in Lincoln.
Jackson got his feet wet in his first season out of Franklin (Calif.) High School. In Year 2, he’s on track to become one of the cornerstones of coordinator Bob Diaco’s D. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Jackson is well-sized by safety standards, yet he has all of the agility and athleticism of an emerging cornerback. Plus, he’ll be operating with a sense of urgency now that senior Joshua Kalu has relocated to safety and top cover corner Chris Jones will miss a large chunk of the year to a knee injury.
3. RB Bradrick Shaw, Wisconsin
It’s Madison, where running backs go to pile up yards behind one of the more physical offensive fronts in the country. This year will follow the script, even if Corey Clement’s successor remains somewhat unsettled.
Shaw is teed up to be Wisconsin’s next in a long line of 1,000-yard rushers, though Pittsburgh transfer Chris James will be no worse than a key cog in the rotation. Shaw flashed for 457 yards and five scores on 88 carries as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He runs hard between the tackles, and has that extra gear and little wiggle to make people whiff in space. If the touches are there for Shaw, he has an All-Big Ten ceiling in his second season of duty.
2. CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
The Buckeyes these days are annually spitting out next-level DBs like a scarlet and gray Pez dispenser. Ward appears ready to use his junior season in Columbus as an audition for NFL scouts and GMs.
After mostly playing in nickel packages last season, Ward is determined to step forward for a secondary that lost Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley to the first round of the NFL Draft. While Ward isn’t quite as big as his predecessors, and he’s not overly chatty, he has the cover skills and straight-line speed to neutralize the opponent’s top pass-catcher. He’s not especially well-known today, but that’ll change after early tests with Indiana and Oklahoma in the first two weeks.
1. DE Rashan Gary, Michigan
Gary was a situational player in last year’s Wolverine debut. This fall, he’ll have a chance to blossom into one of the most celebrated defenders in college football.
Michigan didn’t need Gary to be special in 2016, since Don Brown’s unit was so experienced up front. However, wholesale graduations will afford the former can’t-miss recruit an opportunity to perform like it in 2017. Gary is among the rarest of athletes, blending 4.57 speed, quickness and a high football IQ in a powerful 6-5 and 287-pound frame. He’s attracted a ton of hype this offseason, all of which is warranted. The sky is the limit for No. 3, who is not the least bit unnerved by the expectations greeting his second season in Ann Arbor.