Braxton Miller knows how to look styling off and on the field
As the countdown to Big Ten football enters the final days, there are many players around the conference getting ready for a breakout season in 2013.
Whether these players had a great 2012 or a promising spring camp and fall camp, these will be the superstars competing for national awards and All-American status at the end of the season. Circumstances like a lot of inexperience around some of these players will also help the spotlight shine more on them than ever before.
The following players show that the top level of talent does not reside solely in Columbus and Ann Arbor. Quite to the contrary, the other teams competing for Big Ten championships are recruiting and developing solid talent as well, even if the depth may be a bit less in some programs.
Still, all it takes is a couple of injuries and an entire team—even a good one—can be derailed from success. Just ask Iowa's running back corps from the past three years.
Next week, actual football will finally be the talk. For now, enjoy the final look ahead at the players who will define how well the Big Ten will do in 2013.
The following list is in no particular order, as all 10 of the players will be huge factors in the conference championship race.
Mark makes the stripe on his uniform look like a racing stripe
We begin this list of breakout players with one of the biggest (if not the biggest) come-from-nowhere stars of 2012, running back Venric Mark.
The Wildcat junior showed his talents both in the offense by rushing for 1,366 yards and in the return game, scoring two touchdowns on punt returns.
Mark ended up with All-American honors in 2012 as a returner, and he plans to continue these special teams duties again as a senior in 2013. Considering that might be his ticket into the professional football leagues—and also that any Heisman Trophy hopes will ride on the return game as well—this is a wise decision for Mark and for Northwestern.
As long as Mark can avoid taking a ton of vicious hits on his smaller frame, he will survive the season and put up huge numbers once again.
If those numbers improve from 2012, then expect more national attention and potentially a division title run for Northwestern. That would be a whole new level of breakout!
Abdullah hopes to take some load off Martinez this season
Another running back who must make the list for 2013 breakout players is Ameer Abdullah.
He had a big season just like Venric Mark did last year. Also like Mark, Abdullah was a star in the return game who got a chance to shine in the offense thanks to the injury problems with starter Rex Burkhead.
For the first two-thirds of the 2012 season, Abdullah shouldered the starting running back position with plenty of prowess, pushing himself to an impressive 134.6 all-purpose yards per game. As the season wound down in November, though, Abdullah struggled to keep his production levels high outside the return game.
Now that Abdullah knows he will be the man heading into the 2013 season, he must be better prepared to run effectively all season long. This will be especially critical as the important division games against the Michigan schools and Northwestern come in the final four weeks of the schedule.
The return trip to Indianapolis will not be as easy to earn as in 2012. Expect Abdullah to be a major factor in pushing Nebraska back to where Bo Pelini wants his program to be—playing for conference championships.
Weisman will be looking to bowl over Big Ten defensive fronts this season, just like 2012
Weisman was a fullback not expected to contribute much to the rushing game heading into last season, but he turned into the emergency starter thanks to Iowa's bad string of running back injuries and dismissals since 2009.
Weisman put up more than 100 yards in four difference games, although he was injured himself and not able to contribute much in five other games.
Although spring football looked to provide a lot more competition for carries this season, Weisman has continued to prove himself the best fit for the power running attack Kirk Ferentz wants to use in Iowa City. As a result, Weisman will carry the ball more than all other Iowa backs to start the season, as other power players like Damon Bullock will help out in other ways like the passing game.
Weisman will also benefit from having a deeper and more experienced offensive line. If that line opens holes better than a season ago, then expect Weisman to have many more 100-yard games this year.
And if that occurs, then Weisman will become a star on a national scale. Not bad for a converted fullback.
Shazier will lead the Buckeye defense while training many new starters around him
Moving on to some defensive players now, the list of breakout players continues with another big star from the 2012 season, Ryan Shazier.
Ohio State had a serious depth problem at linebacker during their 12-0 season, even going so far as to convert fullback Zach Boren. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Shazier, who has only played linebacker since coming to college but knows how to sniff out plays with the best of linebackers, quickly turned into the leader of the defensive unit.
Now Shazier will likely have to do it again, as Ohio State replaces all of the defensive front seven except for him.
If Shazier somehow manages to improve on his ridiculous numbers from a season ago (115 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, one interception, three forced fumbles, five sacks), then All-American honors will await him in December.
In addition, Ohio State may find itself in Pasadena for either a Rose Bowl or a BCS Championship—both of which are much better holiday destinations than it had in 2012.
Shazier is the key to the Buckeyes, perhaps even more so than the other Buckeye who makes this list later.
Once Bullough puts his helmet on, he's serious business
Another linebacker joining Shazier on this list is Max Bullough, who may well be one of the best linebackers to ever play Big Ten football. He has single-handedly led a Top 10 nationally ranked defense from the middle linebacker spot the past two seasons, and he returns as a senior to do it again.
Bullough had 111 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss a season ago, and those numbers could improve even with some new faces being added in the Spartans defense. If defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi could convince the NCAA to give his middle linebacker three more years of eligibility, he likely would do anything to do so.
Bottom line: As long as Bullough leads this defense, Michigan State will stay close in games and be difficult to defeat. Expect a huge rebound for the Spartans in 2013, led by the defense (as always) and led by a man who will finally become an individual star.
Anything short of an All-American performance as a senior will be a disappointing end to Bullough's career. Michigan State fans should enjoy and cherish every game he has left playing in East Lansing.
Borland would love a return trip to Pasadena, his regular bowl destination
Just like the the trio of running backs who started this list, the linebacker crews in this conference are deep enough to also put three players on the breakout-in-2013 radar. The final linebacker to make the top 10 is Chris Borland, the leader of the Wisconsin defense.
Borland only has some question marks because the new coaching staff led by Gary Andersen brings a new 3-4 defensive scheme, which coincides with the graduation of Borland's long-time partner Mike Taylor. However, Borland has enough pure talent and technique to stand out even with learning a new defense.
Borland has contributed more than 100 tackles each of the past two seasons, and that is not likely to change in 2013. Add to that the likely breaking of the NCAA career record for forced fumbles (14, while Borland sits at 13 already), and Borland will quickly get national attention and possibly awards.
If Wisconsin is going to continue the string of conference championships and success, Borland will need to key the defense in year 1 of the Gary Andersen era. Expect his star to shine brighter with even better numbers and statistics this fall.
Lewan handled South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney very well
There's not much more that can be said about Taylor Lewan, honestly, after he anchored a relatively mediocre line and made them effective in 2012. Although it may be shocking that he turned down a likely top-10 pick in the NFL draft to come back to Ann Arbor, he knows that he can continue to develop and learn under great offensive line tutors, including head coach Brady Hoke.
This extra year of seasoning could push Lewan to even higher heights, competing with the seemingly consensus No. 1 pick for next year, Jadeveon Clowney.
Speaking of competing with Clowney, Lewan proved all he had to prove in containing Clowney for most of the Outback Bowl this past January.
Lewan's already got what it takes to compete at the next level adequately. Now he needs to take the next step, and he should do just that in his senior season.
This could be best offensive line prospect to come out of the Big Ten since Orlando Pace. Lewan may win just as many awards if he lives up to the high expectations now set for the leader of the Michigan offense (well, at least the line).
Ra'Shede is a brickhouse on the front of the Golden Gopher front line
Some might not expect a Minnesota player on this list; but then again, if an Iowa fullback converted to running back can make the list, so can Ra'Shede Hageman.
Hageman may be one of the strongest players in the nation, but it helps when your body build allows for 311 pounds of muscle on a 6'6" frame.
In fact, some comparisons have been made between Hageman and Jadeveon Clowney, who was discussed on the last slide. That type of comparison makes writers and fans stand up and pay close attention to what this physical specimen of a player can achieve.
If Jerry Kill wants to continue improving his team and moving up the ranks of the Big Ten conference, he will need to find more talents like Ra'Shede in future recruiting classes. It is clear that Kill developed Hageman into the monster of a player he is today, and that should pay off huge dividends assuming he can continue to disrupt plays quickly up the middle of opposing offensive lines.
Much like Clowney, only double teams will be able to truly contain this player. Even then, that may not be enough to stop Hageman from racking up something ludicrous like double-digit sacks.
Which would certainly make 2013 a breakout season for him and the Gophers.
Miller hopes to add more throwing prowess in his junior season
Ohio State won a Heisman back in 2006, when Jim Tressel learned to trust in his dual-threat quarterback recruits like Troy Smith.
Smith has been followed by even greater athletes like Terrelle Pryor and now Braxton Miller. Given the chance to shine in a spread running offense thanks to Urban Meyer, Miller hit a whole new level as a sophomore in 2012. Now he looks to take his passing game and his game overall to another level in 2013.
So far, the reports from spring and fall camp appear to be positive on this front. Considering that Ohio State will likely need to be carried by the offense at many times this season thanks to a young defense, Braxton Miller is at the helm of the entire Buckeye hopes for another undefeated season.
If that occurs, it would be an absolute shocker if Miller does not win the Heisman Trophy. Just like Troy Smith.
Then the fun debate would begin about whether Ohio State can beat an SEC team for a national title.
Quarterbacks cannot afford to get too comfortable with Barnes on the trail
Deion Barnes closes out the list of breakout players for 2013, and he stands out as the only player on this list who perhaps has not totally proven himself to be a superstar yet. However, racking up 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and three forced fumbles proved enough big-play capability as a freshman to make him the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012.
Those players typically do become the next big contributors, especially on teams needing reinforcement for lost seniors like Penn State. Barnes should become a more complete player who still contributes the big difference-making plays this fall.
Look for Barnes to take the next steps towards becoming the defensive player opposing quarterbacks and running backs hate to deal with. He may be able to shut down most offensive plays on his side of the line, which could allow Penn State to cheat on the other side and kill some drives quickly.
This is the youngest player on the list and he may just make the list for two or three years to come, assuming good player development continues under Bill O'Brien's staff.
Thanks for reading! Please follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald and comment below about any other players you expect to have huge seasons in 2013 in the Big Ten. See you next weekend, when we can finally discuss game results with one another! Amen!