Big Ten Football: Nine Breakout Players for 2012
Last season, the Big Ten said goodbye to a number of its biggest stars.
It's top quarterback graduated (again). Every receiver that earned all-conference honors is gone. Nine of the media's all-conference offensive linemen have moved on. The top tight end is gone.
The top linebacker is gone. All but one of the first-team all-conference defensive linemen have moved on. The top defensive back is gone.
Nevertheless, college football is a fluid world. Players have four years, after which opportunities open up for new players.
This is not a list of true freshman that will be making waves in the Big Ten in 2012.
It is also not necessarily a list of players that will see their first starting experience next season.
Rather, it is a list of players that showed some glimpses of talent during the past season, whether as a starter or key backup.
In short, these are players that have recognition among their own fan base, but they are largely anonymous around the rest of the Big Ten.
They won't be for long.
C.J. Fiedorowicz: Tight End, Iowa Hawkeyes
Between 2001-2011, the top Iowa tight end has averaged 32.8 receptions per year.
Last year, the top Iowa receiving tight end was then-sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, who had 16 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns.
Fiedorowicz wasn't the starter through the first seven games, and wound up getting 14 of his receptions—as well as all of the touchdowns—in the final six contests.
Expect Fiedorowicz to continue to be a top target, especially with the graduation of Hawkeye receiver and inaugural Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year winner, Marvin McNutt.
In 2012, CJ Fed will have at least 40 receptions and will snag all-conference honors.
Akeem Spence: Defensive Tackle, Illinois Fighting Illini
Junior Akeem Spence goes into his third year with two years starting experience under his belt.
Both seasons have seen him overshadowed—in 2010, by Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson and last season, by All-American Whitney Mercilus and all-conference Michael Buchanan.
He finished 2011 with 69 tackles—the fourth-most on the Illini and the most of any Big Ten defensive lineman.
He also had 5.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks.
Spence is not a pass rusher in the way that former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh got after quarterbacks.
Spence is a space eater, much like Liuget, and at 6'1", 305 pounds, he takes up a lot of space.
This year, look for Spence to achieve national recognition of his own.
Jeremy Jackson: Wide Receiver, Michigan Wolverines
Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez's offense centered around getting six slot receivers on the field at all times, finding ways to get them the ball in space and watching them outrun the opposing defense.
A slot receiver is generally between 5'8"-6'1" and weighs in the neighborhood of 175-200 pounds.
A model slot receiver is former UM standout receiver Steve Breaston, who currently weighs in for the Kansas City Chiefs at 6'0" and 189 pounds.
Further model slot receivers include most current Rich Rodriguez-recruited Michigan receivers, as well as the current UM quarterback.
The problem is that current Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinator Al Borges do not operate with the six-slot-receiver offensive model.
Hoke and Borges want an accurate, NFL-style quarterback, a powerful downhill running back, a versatile tight end or two and big, physical receivers that make plays along the sidelines.
Receivers of that mold are usually between 6'2"-6'5" and weigh 190-220 pounds.
A model receiver of this sort is former Michigan standout receiver Braylon Edwards, who clocks in for the San Francisco 49ers at 6'3" and 214 pounds.
The 6'3", 200-pound Jeremy Jackson is one of the few current Michigan receivers that fit Hoke's and Borges' ideal of what a receiver should be. In 2011, he only had three catches for 36 yards.
With last year's somewhat poor showing by the UM receiving crew, not to mention the graduation of top receiver Junior Hemingway and dismissal of Daryl Stonum, look for Jackson to be more involved in the offense.
Senior Roy Roundtree will still be the Wolverines' No. 1, but Jackson will take over No. 2 duties, and will be the bigger downfield threat.
David Gilbert: Defensive End, Wisconsin Badgers
David Gilbert came to the Badgers as a moderately recruited defensive end prospect out of Oakland Park, Florida.
He burned his redshirt his first year on campus, though he mostly played on special teams and in garbage time.
He was worked into the rotation his sophomore year, primarily serving as backup to the defensive ends
Big things were planned for him last season. All-conference end J.J. Watt had graduated and Gilbert came out of fall camp as the No. 1 strong-side end.
He played well in the first four games, recording 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks.
Then he broke his foot in practice, which effectively ended his season.
When the season was said and done, Gilbert's three sacks still tied for third on the team. In fact, the Badgers recorded 10 of their 25 sacks on the season in the first four games.
It is true one has to consider the competition—UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota (FCS)—but three sacks in four games is nothing to scoff at.
Moving into 2012, UW's top sack specialist, Louis Nzegwu, has graduated.
Gilbert is healthy, and he will be depended upon to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Assuming he stays healthy, look for him to have a breakout year.
Tony Lippett: Wide Receiver, Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans graduated their top four receiving targets, as well as their top five wide receivers.
Returning MSU receivers have combined to grab six receptions for 103 yards.
Four of those receptions and 44 of those yards belong to true sophomore Tony Lippett.
Last season, Lippett split his time between offense and defense, logging minutes at both receiver and cornerback.
I have no idea why Mark Dantonio went in that direction given the looming graduation of his entire receiving corps, but perhaps it's for the best.
Either way, Lippett is now a full-time receiver.
With so few returning pass catchers, look for Lippett to get a lot of targets from new signal caller Andrew Maxwell.
Moreover, if his versatility is any indication, look for the Spartans to do everything to put the ball in his hands.
Kevin Haplea: Tight End, Penn State Nittany Lions
As Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead blogger, Adam Jacobi, reported, new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien "love(s) the tight end."
For those that don't know much about O'Brien, he began his coaching career in the ACC, bouncing around Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke.
He was then hired by the New England Patriots, where he coached receivers and quarterbacks before becoming the offensive coordinator in 2011.
As the Pats' OC, he quickly made getting the ball into his tight ends' hands a top priority.
His top tight end, second-year player Rob Gronkowski, caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. This was more than double his production from the previous season and was enough to earn him all-pro status.
The Pats' second tight end was another second-year player, Aaron Hernandez. With O'Brien's play calling, Hernandez had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. This was just shy of double his production from the previous season.
Penn State hasn't done much with the tight end since Andrew Quarless graduated following the 2009 season.
Last season's top returning tight end is true junior Kevin Haplea, who finished 2011 with three receptions for 21 yards and one touchdown.
Look for him, as well as top backup Garry Gilliam, to play much larger roles in the Nittany Lion offense.
Ryan Shazier: Linebacker, Ohio State Buckeyes
Ryan Shazier came to Columbus last season as the less heralded of OSU's two big linebacker commits in the 2011 class; however, he made the biggest impact.
Despite his lack of experience, he worked his way into the Bucks' rotation and started the final three games at strong-side linebacker.
He finished the year with the sixth-most tackles on the team, which was also the third-most of any linebacker.
Along with 56 tackles, he had four tackles-for-loss and three sacks.
In 2012, he is a lock to start, most probably on the strong side.
After a down year in 2011, look for Shazier to be one of the key players that leads the silver bullets back to defensive dominance.
Blake Countess: Cornerback, Michigan Wolverines
Countess was an across-the-board four star recruit and was selected for the Army All-American Bowl.
He committed to UM coach Rich Rodriguez, but maintained his commitment after Rodriguez was fired.
He saw his first substantial playing time in the fourth game of his true freshman year—against San Diego State—and by mid-year, had wrested the starting job away from seasoned veteran Troy Woolfork, who was moved to free safety.
Last season, Countess was picked on quite a bit, but that has to be expected from a true freshman cornerback.
In 2012, with a year of experience and a year in the weight room behind him, look for Countess to become the lockdown cornerback that Ann Arbor hasn't seen in a while.
Bradley Roby: Cornerback, Ohio State Buckeyes
Fourteen Ohio State defensive backs were drafted during the Jim Tressel era. Three of them were first rounders.
This was the most defensive backs drafted out of any program during that time period.
One of the big questions surrounding Urban Meyer is whether he will be able to generate the same defensive success that Jim Tressel did, and specifically, whether he will produce the same quality of defensive backs.
If Meyer's history at Florida is any indication, the Buckeye secondary should be in good hands.
Six Gator defensive backs were drafted during Meyer's six years in Gainesville. Two of them were drafted in the first round.
One defensive back per year is slightly less than Tressel's Buckeyes, but is still a pretty good clip.
This brings me to Bradley Roby.
Roby came to the Bucks from Suwanee, Georgia. He was not highly regarded by the recruiting services—Rivals, Scout and ESPN each ranked him as three stars—but he had offers from many of college football's bluebloods—Bama, Auburn, Georgia.
After redshirting his first year, Roby ascended to the top of the depth chart.
He started 12 of OSU's 13 games and led the Buckeyes with three interceptions.
Next season, look for Roby to cement himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in the conference.