Ryan Shazier was an easy pick for most improved in 2012, but who will break out in 2013?
When it comes to most improved players, every team in Big Ten football could use some emerging stars heading into the 2013 season. Whether competing for a national or conference title or just looking for bowl eligibility, every team will need help from unexpected places to reach its goals.
Part of the reason national perception of the conference is down has been a lack of such standout improvements for many of these teams on a consistent, annual basis.
However, some of the newer coaches in the league such as Urban Meyer, Jerry Kill and Brady Hoke appear to be capable of honing these young talented players into stars. With just a few players making the leap from "just OK" or "mediocre" to "great player," a coach can ensure his program (and his job prospects) stays headed in the right direction.
So which player on each Big Ten football team is ready for a breakout improvement season?
Whether the improvement comes from being more healthy, having new coaches in place or just receiving a better opportunity for an underachieving player in 2012, each of the players on the following slides is ready to be a star or a key contributor in 2013.
Let's take a look at the projected most improved players in Big Ten football this year, starting with the Leaders Division.
Tim Beckman is pulling out all stops, including JUCO players, to turn the Illini around
Although Tim Beckman had an offense that could carry a team past any defensive weaknesses in Toledo, his first Illini team collapsed on offense while remaining porous on defense. Giving up 32 points per game when you only score 16 is not a recipe for success.
For better or worse, the Illini will have seven new defensive starters in 2013. One of those will likely by junior college transfer safety Zane Petty, who had 90 tackles last season.
In addition, Petty showed a flair for big plays with 7 interceptions, one of which he returned for touchdown. If Petty and some freshman recruits at cornerback can lock down opposing passing games, then the defense will have a chance to keep (what should be) an improving offense in games.
If nothing else, Petty gives the Illini some much-needed swagger in a position where the team got burned repeatedly last year. On a team with few bright spots, Petty could be and should be an immediate star.
Indiana brings back ugly helmets AND their best quarterback in 2013
When Kevin Wilson came in to lead Indiana two years ago, one of his first big recruits was quarterback Tre Roberson. Roberson immediately made an impact as a freshman, becoming the starter and passing for nearly 1,000 yards.
Even with a transfer JUCO quarterback Cameron Coffman coming into the program in 2012, Roberson was the clear choice to lead the team. Then he broke his leg in the second game of the season.
That forced freshman Nate Sudfeld and Coffman to pick up the pieces and lead the team. While both players showed some promise, neither has the athleticism or improving arm like Roberson.
Consequently, Roberson should win the three-man quarterback derby in fall camp to be the starter in his second sophomore season. Roberson has the talent to be a player on the level of Antwaan Randle El.
That should make Indiana fans very excited for 2013 and the next three seasons in Bloomington.
Washington will lead the line this year, ready or not
Ohio State lost all four starting defensive linemen to graduation this offseason, and that means some young talent that Urban Meyer recruited in his first two classes now must take over. One of those players from Meyer's first recruiting class is Adolphus Washington.
The hype is off the charts for Washington, who racked up nine tackles and three sacks in 2012. He matched that number in the spring game in April, adding four sacks of Braxton Miller to boot.
Although those latter numbers came against some offensive line backups, Washington was a backup and a true freshman just a few months ago. Thus, the numbers are still impressive despite being in a spring game.
Washington is set to explode alongside Noah Spence on the revamped defensive line. Look for Washington to make Buckeye fans forget the name John Simon much quicker than expected.
Hull has proven to be able to make game-changing plays
The story of the Penn State Nittany Lions in 2012 was a senior class that stayed through the sanctions storm and kept the team together for an 8-4 season.
Now those seniors are gone, including two great linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Although Glenn Carson returns to anchor the center of the linebackers, junior Mike Hull will need to step up as the next star alongside a likely freshman starter on the other side.
Hull appears more than ready to do that, after sitting behind the great trio that started the last two seasons. Hull had 58 tackles and four sacks, so he has already put up good numbers as a reserve.
With so many young players taking over on defense at all levels, Hull should break 100 tackles this season. That will put him on all-conference radars, especially if Penn State has a winning record again.
One of Williams' pass break ups
Darrell Hazell has a ton of starters coming back, especially on defense, but that defense surrendered more than 415 yards per game in 2012. Thus, the defense needs to improve with all these returning starters.
Cornerback Frankie Williams is the only new starter in the defensive backfield. He does not feel like the normal new starter though, after having 45 tackles, two interceptions, and nine pass breakups as a freshman.
Williams put up great numbers for a player who only started towards the end of the season, so he should be even better with more playing time this year.
Another great sign came from this spring, when Hazell continued the tradition of handing out certain award for spring practice outstanding play. Williams won the Hammer Award, which is given to the hardest hitter.
Adding that award to his clear skills with his hands in 2012, look for Frankie Williams to be a name many opposing quarterbacks worry about when preparing for Purdue in 2013. With good reason.
Playing in a Rose Bowl is always a good thing in your first season
Melvin Gordon almost cannot qualify for this list because he was so good and so acclaimed in limited action in 2012. Gordon racked up 642 yards on 62 carries, an astounding 10 yards per rush.
Gordon did benefit from having defenses worn down many times by the likes of Montee Ball and James White, and he is slated to be the starter this fall.
That will push his number of carries up dramatically. Unfortunately, that will also increase the number of carries he has against fresh defenders early in games as well.
While Gordon may not be the next Montee Ball as a sophomore, he will have a breakout year leading the Badger offense. As a result, look for a big season from yet another Badger running back.
Check back later this week when we finish this list with the projected most improved players for the Legends Division. That article will be up Tuesday evening.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know any other Leaders Division players you think will break out in the comments below, and follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald. See you later this week.