Michigan's Devin Gardner could be college football's next great dual-threat quarterback
Following a rather lackluster and forgettable 2012 season, the Big Ten conference will now be looking to bounce back in a big way this fall.
Fortunately, the league isn't short on talent.
We already know all about established stars such as Braxton Miller, Taylor Lewan, Max Bullough, Taylor Martinez, Venric Mark and Chris Borland. However, there are also plenty of under-the-radar players who could be ready to step into the spotlight as well.
Here's a look at the one player on every Big Ten team who has the best chance to become a breakout star in 2013.
The Illinois offense wasn't just disappointing in 2012. The unit was downright dreadful.
In head coach Tim Beckman's first year at the helm, the Illini had the least productive offensive output among BCS schools, ranking 122nd nationally in both scoring offense and total offense, averaging just 16 points and 296 yards per game.
In order for things to improve in 2013, Beckman will need to find a playmaker who can become the focal point of the stagnant and struggling offense.
Running back Donovonn Young is a reliable back who should develop into the dangerous weapon the team needs.
Last year, in his first season as a featured back, Young averaged 4.3 yards on 131 carries, caught 38 passes and scored four touchdowns. He was one of the lone bright spots of an otherwise dark campaign.
The big, powerful 6'0'', 220-pound junior is cut from the same mold as former Illinois backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure. Young has the size, strength and toughness to be a physical workhorse back, but he also has the speed and pass-catching ability to be a versatile all-around threat.
Indiana's wide receiver corps is easily one of the most underrated units in the country heading into the 2013 season. Though they may not be garnering much national attention this offseason, the Hoosiers do bring back a trio of very talented receivers: Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes.
Last year, Latimer led the team in receiving yards, while Wynn led the team in catches. But now it's Hughes who has the best chance to be the team's most productive pass catcher this season.
After arriving in Bloomington as a 3-star rated quarterback recruit back in 2010, it took Hughes some time to figure out all the nuances of being a wide receiver. However, you could start to see the full transformation begin in 2012.
The 6'2'', 217-pound senior was able to use his combination of size and natural athleticism to his advantage, as he caught 43 passes and averaged over 14 yards per catch.
Now that Hughes has plenty of experience at wideout, he should be able to finally put it all together and finish off his collegiate career with a highly productive final campaign in 2013.
Brett Van Sloten
During Kirk Ferentz's tenure at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have gained a reputation for consistently producing outstanding offensive linemen on an annual basis.
Since former All-American offensive tackle Robert Gallery was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, the team has had nine other offensive linemen drafted, including recent first-round picks Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga.
Though Iowa may not have a heralded lineman the caliber of Gallery, Reiff or Bulaga this year, you can still bet that plenty of pro scouts will be keeping a close eye on OT Brett Van Sloten.
Since center James Ferentz has departed, it will be up to Van Sloten to develop into the new leader and linchpin in the trenches this fall.
The 6'7'', 300-pound senior held his own during his first season as a starter last year. Now, Van Sloten will be looking to solidify his status as one of the Big Ten's best lineman in 2013. There's no reason he shouldn't be an All-Conference performer during his final season.
In each of the last three seasons, we've seen an athletic dual-threat quarterback develop into the sport's biggest breakout star and ultimately take home college football's most coveted prize—the Heisman Trophy. In 2010, it was Cam Newton at Auburn. In 2011, it was Robert Griffin III at Baylor. Then of course last year, it was Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
Judging from his performance in the final few games of last season, Michigan's Devin Gardner could very well be the quarterback who follows in their footsteps and takes the sport by storm in 2013.
Originally it seemed that Gardner, who arrived in Ann Arbor as an All-American recruit from Detroit back in 2010, would be an absolutely perfect fit to run Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. However, following Rodriguez's dismissal, he ended up getting lost in the shuffle and eventually moved to receiver.
An injury to QB Denard Robinson midway through last season finally gave Gardner the chance to prove himself as a quarterback. He made the most of the limited opportunity, totaling 18 touchdowns and throwing for over 1,200 yards.
The 6'4'', 210-pound junior clearly has all the physical skills and talent it takes to be great. If Gardner can continue to improve his accuracy and decision-making, he's got a chance to be college football's next great dual-threat quarterback. He could even find himself in the thick of the Heisman race this fall.
Unlike last offseason, when Michigan State was scrambling to replace its two most productive receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, this offseason the Spartans are welcoming back their top two pass catchers from 2012: Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphrey, who each had over 40 receptions last year.
With all due respect to Fowler and Mumphrey, it seems like sophomore Aaron Burbridge is the Spartan receiver to really keep an eye on in 2013.
During his debut campaign last year, Burbridge hauled in 29 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns. Admittedly, those aren't exactly dazzling numbers, but it was the speed and playmaking ability that Burbridge displayed on the field that was much more impressive than what showed up in the box score.
The 6'1'', 195-pound former 4-star recruit has the talent to become the most dangerous receiver the Spartans have had since Charles Rogers left East Lansing over a decade ago.
Derrick Engel only caught 18 passes last season, but he definitely made the most of the few times he did have the ball in his hands. Engel averaged a whopping 20.8 yards per catch and he finished the year with eight catches of over 20 yards.
Engel's best performance of the season came in the Golden Gophers' biggest game—the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech. He finished with four catches for 108 yards.
During the game, you could see QB Philip Nelson slowly but surely gaining trust in Engel. That bond should carry over into 2013 and become even stronger this season.
Asking Engel to have the same type of impact as former Gophers star WR Eric Decker may be asking too much. Still, the unheralded senior could end up being one of the big surprise offensive performers in the Big Ten this season.
Chi Chi Ariguzo
Following a season in which he led Northwestern with 112 tackles, including 74 solo stops, senior linebacker Damien Proby has solidified his status as the Wildcats' undisputed defensive leader. However, you could easily make the argument that fellow LB Chi Chi Ariguzo is just as talented as his decorated teammate.
Ariguzo may have had to play second-fiddle to Proby in 2012, but he still managed to put together a mighty impressive showing as just as sophomore. In his first season as a starter, the 6'3'', 220-pound strong-side 'backer totaled 91 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions.
Northwestern could finally be ready to actually contend for a conference title in 2013. In order for that to happen, though, the Wildcats will need Ariguzo to take the next step towards stardom this fall.
Now that he has experience as a starter, the highly instinctive and disciplined junior 'backer should be ready to become a true defensive force.
Last year, RB Rex Burkhead's injury troubles gave Ameer Abdullah the opening he needed to prove himself as a full-fledged feature back. Abdullah turned out to be one the most splendid surprises in the Big Ten.
Now, with Burkhead gone, Abdullah will enter the 2013 season atop the depth chart. However, that doesn't mean that he won't have to defer some carries to fellow back Imani Cross.
Cross only carried the ball 55 times in 2012, but he averaged an extremely impressive 5.9 yards per carry and he scored seven touchdowns.
The stocky 6'1'', 225-pound sophomore looks exactly like a prototypical Husker running back. Cross possesses an intimidating combination of size, power and explosiveness that will surely strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenders.
Though it will be Abdullah who does most of the heavy lifting this season, expect Cross to play a key role in the ground game as well.
Ohio State is a team that certainly has the overall talent it takes to compete for not only a conference championship, but a national title as well in 2013. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes do have a couple big questions that they'll need to answer this season, especially along the defensive line.
After losing all four starters from a year ago, the defensive front-four has been completely rebuilt this offseason. Luckily, though, most of the pieces that are being used for that rebuilding job are former highly touted blue-chip recruits.
One of those new faces is defensive end Adolphus Washington, a former 5-star prospect from Cincinnati.
After arriving in Columbus last year with an intriguing yet underdeveloped frame, Washington has managed to bulk up and add the necessary muscle he needs to hold up for a full season as a starter.
The 6'3'', 292-pound sophomore will now get the chance to flaunt his pass-rushing ability for the college football world to see. If Washington can properly handle his weight gain without losing his quickness and burst, he's got the potential to become one of the most frightening defensive ends in all of college football.
The sky is truly the limit for the young edge-rusher.
Penn State's defensive coaches have been searching for new leaders this offseason, following the departures of important veterans such as defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.
Luckily, the Nittany Lions have a talented and experienced potential standout in the secondary, Adrian Amos, who has all the qualities to develop into a tremendous defensive leader.
Amos is a versatile athlete, who possesses the rare skill set to line up at corner—which he did last year, as safety—or even outside linebacker, which is a future role he could play in 2014 if he keeps bulking up.
In his first season as a starter this past season, the 6'0'', 215-pound junior totaled 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups. He was an important part of a Penn State secondary, which allowed just 6.3 yards per pass attempt last year.
Following a position switch from corner to strong safety in the spring, Amos will now have the chance to use his size, instincts and physical playing style to his benefit. He should emerge as Penn State's top impact defender in 2013.
Purdue certainly isn't a school that's known for producing top-tier NFL prospects on an annual basis. In fact, since 2006, the Boilermakers have had just 17 total players drafted.
The team has, however, produced plenty of standout defensive linemen such as Cliff Avril, Shaun Phillips, Anthony Spencer, Rob Ninkovich and Ray Edwards, who have all gone on to make a name for themselves at the pro level.
DT Kawann Short, a second-round pick in this year's draft, looks like he'll continue that trend. Short was the team's star defender for the past two seasons. But now that he's wearing a Carolina Panthers uniform, it's time for another Purdue defensive lineman to step up in 2013.
Bruce Gaston seems ready to step out of Short's shadow and cause chaos in the interior this year.
Though Gaston may not be as naturally quick or agile as his former teammate, he does have the size, strength and tenacious playing style to develop into one of the Big Ten's nastiest run-stuffers.
If he plays up to his potential as a senior in 2013, the 6'2'', 310-pound tackle could become the Boilermakers' next coveted defensive line prospect.
Normally, losing a running back the caliber of Montee Ball would devastate an offense, but this is Wisconsin we're talking about. Madison is a town that churns out 1,000-yard rushers on a yearly basis.
Though the Badgers may have lost Ball, one of the most productive rushers in Big Ten history, they'll still have a dynamic backfield duo in 2013 comprised of James White and Melvin Gordon.
White, a 5'10'', 195-pound senior, is the most experienced and proven of the two backs. However, it's Gordon who possesses the real star potential.
Last year, the speedy sophomore carried the ball just 62 total times, but he made each of those touches count, as he averaged an incredible 10 yards per carry during his debut season.
The 6'1'', 203-pound Wisconsin native will play a vital role in the team's offensive success this season, and he should serve as a perfect complement to White.
Even without Ball, the Badgers should still have one of the best rushing tandems in the nation in 2013.