Jake Ryan would have been most improved from 2012, and his contributions will be missed due to injury
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?
The most improved players in the Leaders Division were listed on Sunday night. Now let's take a look at the projected most improved players in Big Ten football this year—in the Legends Division.
Canzeri's last action was during the 2011 bowl season.
Picking any Iowa running back to have a big season is risky, as the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) is always poised to strike. What's more likely is that shining the spotlight on a Hawkeye running back causes a broken leg, not a breakout performance.
But Iowa has avoided any players leaving the program or major injuries so far, while three running backs were already lost for the year or transferred by this point in 2012 (Marcus Coker, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill). That forced Damon Bullock and FB Mark Weisman into the lead roles, and both of these players thrived, despite struggling with injuries.
Now a position of weakness may finally be becoming a strength, thanks to all the experience spread out among Canzeri, Bullock and Weisman. While Bullock and Weisman will continue to get carries as the power-style backs Iowa's program prefers, look for Canzeri to make a big comeback after the lost 2012 season.
Canzeri has explosiveness and may give this offense some dynamics playing a flex position that could include receiving passes as well as running the ball. Canzeri is 5'9" and under 200 pounds, which makes him a small elusive kind of back that will be a nice change of pace compared to the power of Bullock and Weisman.
Especially if Canzeri participates as a punt returner and kick returner, look for him to single-handedly make Iowa turn things around on offense in 2013. He may not be Percy Harvin, but he definitely has the diverse skills to demand more touches and a breakout in 2013.
Now Devin will be the only starter for Michigan, a good place to be.
Thanks to the Rich Rodriguez era, Brady Hoke and Al Borges had to deal with Denard Robinson and a different style of offense than they wanted to run in the first two years in Ann Arbor. However, Robinson was a talent who could not be denied, as he graduated with the all-time NCAA record for quarterback rushing yards (and he became the NCAA football video-game cover boy!).
Typically, the loss of such a player would make for a big step back, but Michigan may not miss much of a beat, thanks to Devin Gardner taking over. Gardner was a talented passer coming into Ann Arbor, but moved to wide receiver when it became clear Robinson was keeping the starting job the past two seasons.
Gardner started the last five games in 2012 due to Robinson's nerve injury, and that allowed him to show off those previously unused talents. Gardner threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in those five games, easily winning the right to start in the pro-style offense Hoke wants to run now.
Gardner also gives another phenom freshman Shane Morris time to redshirt or learn the ropes of college football at a relaxed pace instead of being forced into action immediately. Morris likely will not play a big role, if at all, assuming Gardner continues to thrive as he did at the end of 2012.
In the meantime, Gardner should break out and become one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Not bad for a converted "wide receiver."
One of Burbridge's big touchdowns in 2012
After the disaster that was the Michigan State offense in 2012, one would figure that multiple players are ready for a breakout season. If the Spartans plan to get back to the 11-win seasons from 2010 and 2011, the improvement must start with the passing game.
The quarterback situation remains in limbo, although either Connor Cook or Andrew Maxwell should be better than they were last season. However, the numbers should improve with four of the top five receivers coming back, including highly talented sophomore Aaron Burbridge.
Burbridge put up a respectable 29 receptions for 364 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, but only two games were highlights (134 yards vs. Indiana, 89 yards vs. Iowa). Still, that made him the first freshman since Terry Love in 2004 to go over 100 receiving yards in a game.
Receivers Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery led the team last year and will require attention from top defensive backs, which should open up significant opportunities for Burbridge to star. Here's guessing the highest-rated receiver recruit in a few years in East Lansing lives up to the billing in 2013.
Look for eight touchdowns and multiple 100-yard games from Burbridge this fall.
Nelson will continue leading this team after starting the final seven games in 2012.
With the exception of Gardner, this division's list of potential breakout players is stacked with super sophomores looking to build on promising freshman campaigns. For Minnesota, that sophomore is starting quarterback Philip Nelson.
Jerry Kill wanted to redshirt the talented Nelson in 2012, but circumstances dictated otherwise, as MarQueis Gray kept getting injured and Max Shortell failed to provide consistency behind him. That caused Nelson to start the final seven games last year, a stretch where Minnesota struggled and went 2-5.
Nelson showed many of the signs of a freshman in over his head a bit in conference play, throwing eight interceptions to go with eight touchdowns and completing under 50 percent of his pass attempts. Those numbers will dramatically improve after a full offseason working with the top offensive unit, especially after learning on the job in Big Ten play.
Nelson also benefits from having everyone else returning on offense, except for one receiver—A.J. Barker. While Barker will be missed, an improving offensive line and a great running game with Donnell Kirkwood should allow Nelson to thrive and become a super sophomore in 2013.
Look for much-improved numbers, as Nelson may very well lead his team to a much better record than 6-7 this year.
Santos can make it tough on opposing receivers and tight ends in the passing game.
When a defense loses seven starters, including all starting linebackers, the opportunity is there for a breakout performance. That is exactly what should be expected from sophomore David Santos, who will man the middle linebacker spot.
In 13 games as a freshman, Santos contributed 24 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Although Santos has not officially had any interceptions or pass breakups, he has proven capable in the coverage game against opposing tight ends and running backs.
Nebraska needs to shore up against the run more than anything else, after giving up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground in 2012. If Santos wants to be one of the top tacklers on a defense looking for leaders, he will need to step up and sniff out running plays better than the linebackers did a season ago.
The upside on Santos is nearly unlimited, and he has the natural ability to be in the discussion for all-conference each of the next three years. The Cornhuskers certainly need a breakout on this side of the team if the first conference title since 1999 is to be won.
Tough spot to make a big play
After having a few years of declining records and more failed bowl games, Northwestern had a big breakthrough with a 10-3 season and a bowl victory last year. Considering that the Wildcats were building for a big year in 2013 (15 starters return), there could be no limits on the levels of success this season.
One of the players who made big strides on an improving defense was sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, and another sophomore is set for a breakout in 2013. That sophomore is cornerback Nick VanHoose, who made 10 starts as a freshman in a young defensive secondary.
Now that secondary is loaded with juniors and sophomores ready to begin shutting down opposing passing games, especially when it matters, like the late collapses in 2012 against Michigan and Nebraska. If VanHoose makes a similar leap Ariguzo's made last season, then those close losses could turn into the wins that make a division champion.
In the limited playing time in 2012, VanHoose managed to lead the team with three interceptions. That big play ability, combined with less broken coverages naturally coming with experience, could make him the next big defensive star in the Big Ten.
Look for VanHoose to positively change at least two games this season, as he grows into the player he will be for Fitzgerald's defense until 2015.