Big Ten Football: Breaking Down Athlon's Top B1G Freshmen of 2012
There's nothing the folks at Athlon do better—or more prolifically—than season previews, and they just recently published a list of the top freshmen in the Big Ten.
It's not necessarily exhaustive—there are well over 200 members of the 2012 recruiting class alone, to say nothing of everyone who redshirted last year—but by and large, this is a fine list of who to expect to excel in their first year of action.
Let's take a look at some of the names listed and see whether to expect big things or not in 2012.
Immediate Impact Players
If Michigan's defensive line stays strong in the wake of more shuffling this year, Ondre Pipkins is likely going to be a big reason why. He's physically ready to play right now at 6'3" and 340 pounds (seriously, he is massive), and the neck injury scare from last week is already old news; he's practicing like normal already.
Donovan Smith, meanwhile, looks to be Penn State's left tackle of the future. He and senior Adam Gress have switched back and forth between the left and right tackle spots throughout the spring, but the two guys have those two starting spots locked in, regardless of which side each finds himself on.
Smith is a load at 6'5" and 310 pounds, and he's got the physicality to be a four-year starter for the Nittany Lions.
Finally, look for cornerback Nick VanHoose to be an enormous boost for a Northwestern secondary that struggled badly in 2011. The Wildcats ceded conversions on 50 percent of third downs on defense last year—and yes, that's very bad.
As Athlon notes, VanHoose nearly earned his way onto the field as a true freshman last year and is athletic enough that he stood in for Denard Robinson in Michigan game prep. A spot on the field on defense should be in short order.
One Year Away
Amara Darboh is a refugee from Sierra Leone and relatively inexperienced as a football player; he focused on soccer until becoming a star at wideout in high school.
Michigan's extremely high on its wide receiver of the future, but his routes still need a lot of polish, and his hands could still stand to develop some. He's got the frame and physical skills to play in the NFL one day, though.
Meanwhile, Melvin Gordon is Wisconsin's third tailback behind Montee Ball and James White. It's sort of cheating to call him a freshman, as he played early on in 2011 before a groin injury forced him out for the year and necessitated a medical redshirt.
In terms of physical talent, Gordon is a gamebreaker, and his 30-carry performance at the 2012 Wisconsin spring game showed he could be an every-down back. But barring catastrophe, that's not something the Badgers will expect from him this year.
Not Enough Love
The list of the top freshmen also includes an "other freshmen to watch" section that rattles off a few other players. Some of these guys should be higher on Athlon's radar than the selected top freshmen.
Jesse James of Penn State, for example, has already played his way into a starting role, according to the latest PSU depth chart. It's James' rapid ascent over Kevin Haplea that likely made Haplea's departure to FSU a lot easier.
Likewise, look for Deonte Gibson to push for major playing time as Northwestern's primary pass-rushing threat. He'll likely have to split snaps with incumbent starter Quentin Williams, who missed this spring with injury woes, but Gibson's speed off the edge can't be duplicated by anyone else on that roster.
Who's your pick to stand out in his first year of action? What did Athlon get right or wrong? Tell us in the comments.
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