In 2015, a beleaguered Penn State offensive line received the best gift any lineman could ever want, a strong shifty back in the form of freshman sensation Saquon Barkley. Without Barkley, Penn State doesn't win seven games last year.
The Big Ten has a long list of outstanding freshmen that win the Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year in 2015. That list includes some of our brightest stars of the last decade: Jabrill Peppers (UM), J.T. Barret (OSU), Christian Hackenberg (PSU), Deion Barnes (PSU), Braxton Miller (OSU), James White (Wisc), Chris Borland (Wisc), Terrelle Pryor (OSU), Arrelious Benn (Illinois), P.J. Hill (Wisc), and Tyrell Sutton (NU).
I thought it would be interesting to look at all the teams in the Big Ten, to see who might be the next Saquon Barkley or Jabrill Peppers. While some teams don't need freshmen to play, some do. And others have stars that just shine too bright to stand on the sideline.
Below is a list of freshmen from each B1G team. While they won't all make as big an impact as Barkley did, some will. Here are some of the rising stars that you should watch for this year:
Get ready to see five-star all-everything freshman Rashan Gary destroy offenses. The best defensive lineman in the country was also the best player in the country in 2016. And he's now lining up for the Maize and Blue.
The question is...where will he line up? He's big and fast at 6' 5" and 293 pounds. He could line up inside as a run stopper, or outside at end as a quarterback hunter-killer. Either way, we'll know shortly. Expect this kid to be a candidate for freshman of the year.
Lamar Jackson, a four-star safety, will have the largest impact as a freshman. He was the fifth best safety in his class. He's already slated to play a lot at Safety but I would not be surprised to see him start at a corner spot.
He's both big and fast. At 6'3" and 205 pounds, he's probably already one of the best players - athletically - on the team.
Gabe Megginson is the only freshman that's likely to start for illinois. Gabe came in as a highly touted four star recruit.
At this point he's taking most of the first team reps at guard (our terminology is strong side quick side). So he's a quick guard.
He was the best recruit Tim Beckman ever got. One of just a couple of four-stars, both from 2015 (Ke'shaun Vaughn is a true soph this year). Illinois "writer" extraordinaire, Thumpasaurus, was a little surprised that Megginson made it to the first string this early, but there he is.
True freshmen tight ends TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant won't start but they'll both burn their redshirts and see plenty of snaps teaming as Iowa's second tight end. It's difficult to say if either would have had this opportunity under different circumstances, but after starting tight end George Kittle, there are no established players who inspire any confidence.
The second tight end under Ferentz is more or less a starter seeing at least one third, and probably over one half, of the offensive snaps. Last year's No. 2 tight end, Kittle, had 20 receptions for 290 yards and six touchdowns. The previous year's No. 2, Ray Hamilton, had 18 catches for 175 and three touchdowns.
Hockenson and Fant aren't Iowa's most impressive freshmen--all news out of camp has that title belonging to true freshmen DT Cedric Lattimore, LB Amani Jones and QB Nate Stanley--but Fant and Hockenson will make the most waves due to sheer opportunity. Both seem ready to run routes and make catches, but in Iowa's scheme, they need to do a lot of blocking.
JC Jackson will be the next star at Maryland...and it's not even close. Jackson is a former four star CB recruit that was recruited by DJ Durkin at Florida. He transferred down to community college, and has now moved back to D1 at Maryland.
Jackson has immediately stepped in as a starting corner over the summer and will start on the boundary with Alvin Hill manning the other boundary corner spot when Will Likely moves over to nickel corner. Jackson is an elite athlete and gives Maryland another legitimate corner to work with while they recover from the lack of DB recruiting under the prior regime.
Donnie Corley is the easy choice for MSU's breakout freshman, but I actually think Raequan Williams is going to be more important.
Wide receiver is a position that Sparty needs depth. Only R.J. Shelton has any real experience among the MSU receiving corps. Donnie Corley is the easy pick to replace wide out Aaron Burbridge this fall.
Those are huge shoes to fill. Burbridge, now with the San Francisco 49'ers, was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2015. However, Corley, nicknamed "Freak" could be the guy to do it.
The 6' 3" true freshman earned glowing praise in summer camp. He was a four star recruit and the 15th best wide receiver in the nation. So far, he's living up to his billing.
However, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle could make a bigger splash. Interestingly, it was Shilique Calhoun, now a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, who called out Raekwon Williams as a potential star. At 6'4" and 307 pounds, Williams has the size to be a run stopper.
Last year, he was a key player on the scout team, impersonating the best interior defensive linemen from the teams MSU played. Those were some of the best defense men in the country. Now the former captain of his high-school basketball team is ready to show the rest of the Big Ten what he learned.
This could be an interesting year. The Buckeyes have to reload, after a massive exodus to the NFL. That includes replacing one of the best running backs in the Big Ten from last year, Zeke Elliott. And a candidate for that position is redshirt-freshman Mike Weber.
The four-star came in as the 9th best running back in the 2015 class. Weber is the "next man up" for Ohio State, which boasted some truly talented backs. Just look at this list of previous backs: Antonio Pittman, Beanie Wells, Carlos Hyde,and Zeke Elliott. Those are all home-runs at the position.
Weber looks like the next NFL running back to come through Ohio State. Expect to hear his name a lot in 2016.
Penn State is loaded with quality freshmen and redshirt freshman. That's a two-edged sword. This is the youngest team in the Big Ten this year. And no matter how talented the kids are, they are still young. That means new to the system and new to college life and new to college football.
That said, there are some names you should be familiar with, going into the 2016 season. Let's start with Miles Sanders. He's a highly-touted kid who came in as a five-star running back. He was the top running back in the 2016 class, so it will be hard to keep him off the field. Word out of camp is he's as good as his billing. The problem is, he's behind a solid group of running backs, led by future Heisman Winner Saquon Barkley.
The next name you'll need to know is tight-end Nick Bowers. He's a bright star at a position that will be featured in Joe Moorehead's new offense. He was a three-star recruit and the 15th best tight-end in the nation. Penn State needs his talents this year. I expect to see him in both a road grader role and as a surprise pass catcher too.
The next (and possibly second largest impact redshirt freshman) is guard Ryan Bates. He came in as a four-star lineman and the 12th best offensive tackle in the 2015 class. He took a redshirt year in 2015 to bulk up and get stronger. He's now the likely starter at left guard. As you all know, offensive line is an area of need. I'd love to see this kid play well.
My pick for breakout freshman of the year in 2016 for Penn State is punter Blake Gilliken (so, so B1G, I know). The three-star recruit was the second best punter in the U.S. in the 2016 class.
Punting is an area that Penn State needs help. We punted 81 times in 2015, second to only the nerds at Northwestern. But we ranked 11th in the B1G in average distance per punt at 39.3 yards. The net yards per punt was a dismal 35.7 yards per. That's terrible, but Gilliken will help. Punts will be the big improvement this year...and will probably be responsible for at least one win we would've lost last year.
The whole point of a team full of nerds (besides to punt so much and so poorly your eyes bleed) is to have depth and time for kids to learn the offense and grow. Y'know, that whole "3*, coach ‘em up" thing. So Northwestern usually doesn't give freshmen too much run under Pat Fitzgerald unless talent/the situation warrants it.
If I were choosing a freshman who'd have impact right away, I'd say look for Charlie Fessler, the redshirt freshman from Erie, PA, who InsideNU is now projecting at starting Y-receiver. At 6'4", 215#, he's got the size Northwestern so desperately needs to go up and get the ball, though we've not had too much indication yet that he's the guy to actually do it. Then again, there are about 4-5 (redshirt) freshmen in the wide receiving corps who could, including dancing fiends Steven Reese and Cam Green. Throw a dart and see which one you hit, I guess.
Otherwise your best bet is to run with Trae Williams, a redshirt freshman who moved to safety right before cornerback Keith Watkins II went down with a knee injury. Williams could see clock at either spot. Jeremy Larkin out of Cincinnati is supposedly a speedy option at RB, but he's buried in a deep stable of backs for Northwestern.
Dacovan Bailey is a name that emerged from camp. He's fast. A three-star wide receiver, he was the 362nd best wide receiver in the 2016 class.
New head coach Chris Ash snagged Bailey in just five weeks. Now Bailey is in line to start as the slot receiver for Rutgers. He's cut from the same cloth as Janarion Grant, Rutgers star wideout and return man. Expect Bailey to spell Grant this season on both offense and special teams.
Two freshmen are making waves for the Badgers this offseason. The most visible is Alex Hornibrook, a three star quarterback recruit in 2015. The 55th ranked pro-style quarterback is 6'4", 215 pounds. A prototypical pocket guy, he's looked great in spring ball this year.
However, he's competing with last year's back up, fifth-year senior Bart Houston, for the job. The battle rages on, so we'll have to wait and see if the Badgers are captained by the youngster.
On the other hand, redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen is a lock on the offensive line. Dietzen came in as a three star recruit, the 36th ranked tackle in the 2015 class. He practiced so well last year that they nearly burned his redshirt.
We know Wisconsin has road graders up front. This kid could have a great career ahead of him, if he lives up to his potential.
This Indiana team is loaded with upperclassmen. There are only five sophomores on the official first team depth chart. All the rest are juniors and seniors. This is a loaded Indiana team...from an age perspective.
However, there is one freshman in the starting line up that will get work. Devonte Williams is a three star recruit and the 67th ranked running back in the nation in 2015. He took a redshirt year last season and broke into the first team as Indiana's kick returner this season.
He's also getting looks at backup running back, along with true freshman Cole Gest. This Indiana squad is known for explosive offense and outstanding running backs. If Williams is the starter at return man, we know he's quick and durable. Expect to see him spelling Redding during the season.
The only freshman starting on Purdue's football team this year will be J.D. Dillinger. But Dillinger will need to perform, because he's the starting place kicker. The 6'2", 190 pound freshman has to have a good season for Purdue to fare well this year.
The team had no options, with the departure of last year's senior Paul Griggs, they are going with Dillinger. Good luck kid.
This year's Gophers team has a lot of upper classmen starters, but it isn't deep. Freshmen are second teamers at several positions, according to the new depth chart. Freshmen could play roles on the offensive line,wide reciever, tight end, defensive line linebacker, and secondary.
However, one redshirt freshman won the job and will start. Ray Buford came to Minnesota as a three star recruit. He was the 79th best athlete in the 2015 class. He was a two-way star for Southfield high school in Southfield Michigan.
He has a lot of speed and a nose for the ball. He had a great camp and the coaches noticed. We'll be watching this youngster this season, to see if he emerges as the Gophers' next defensive star.
There you have it. These are the youngsters worth watching on every team in the B1G. Let's all crack a beer and toast to their success.