Big Ten Football Players Primed for a Breakout in 2014
Remember catching a glimpse of some unknown running back by the name of Melvin Gordon in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game? Well, that was how a star was born for 2013, and the Badger back lived up to the hype in a breakout season.
However, please let me know if you had Tevin Coleman outrushing Fitzgerald Toussaint or teammate Stephen Houston. If you had David Cobb of Minnesota and Jeremy Langford of Michigan State rushing for more than Braxton Miller, please let me know the numbers to the next Powerball lottery winnings.
Raise your hand if you had Steve Hull as a top-five wide receiver in the Big Ten, or Connor Cook as the No. 4 quarterback in passing yards, ahead of Nate Sudfeld or Joel Stave?
Stop it, you're just pulling my leg...or you're an extreme Michigan State fan who knew more about the quarterback battle than Mark Dantonio and staff did.
The point is, the 2013 season provided a few names most people never saw coming and a few that some did and the rest of the world got hip to. Now that the season is over and we painfully crawl our way to spring football, what names should we be watching for in 2014?
Enjoy the six-pack of players the Big Ten universe will all know by the end of 2014.
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Braxton Miller is back, so that means a 1,000-yard rusher will be in the Buckeyes backfield, but could it be two years in a row for 1,000-yard running backs?
Carlos Hyde went for over 1,500 yards in his senior campaign, and with Jordan Hall and him gone, someone needs to step up. Good thing we all got a glimpse of now-sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott this past season.
Sure, he only ran the ball 30 times for 262 yards this past year, but all we needed to know about Elliott we learned in two performances. He put up 162 yards and his only two touchdowns on 14 carries in the romp over Florida A&M, but he also put up 37 yards on five carries against Purdue as well.
Elliott's numbers weren't crazy except for his insane yards-per-carry average of 8.7 on the year, but he did show plenty of explosiveness and an ability to play physical as well.
Don't be surprised to see him become a star player for the Buckeyes, as Bri'onte Dunn, who redshirted last season, and Rod Smith are really the only other options with any sort of experience.
Elliott appears to have the inside track to becoming the next star at running back for Ohio State, but this spring will be interesting in Columbus. File his name away, because you'll want to remember where you heard it first in 2014.
Michigan DE Chris Wormley
Michigan's defensive line will be all about the ends in 2014, as both defensive tackles will depart the program. That means we could see more playing time for sophomore Chris Wormley on the edge.
His first campaign in Ann Arbor wasn't too shabby, recording 19 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack on the season. All of that while playing as a freshman behind fellow ends Brennan Beyer and Frank Clark. Wormley is an offensive line coach's worst nightmare waiting to happen, but he needs this offseason to prove he's capable of a bigger role all season long.
At 6'4" and 289 lbs, he can be a massive load to deal with, but he's also very relentless off the edge. With a year of education from Greg Mattison and of course head coach Brady Hoke, this could be a breakout year for the sophomore.
He just needs to find a way to force himself on to the field more often to make a true impact, and with Beyer and Clark both back, that will be his challenge.
Look for Wormley to be the guy most people are talking about along the Wolverines defensive line should they start trending upwards as a team.
Purdue WR DeAngelo Yancey
A player from a 1-11 team as a breakout star? Yes, it's a bold pick, but one that anyone who was paying attention to Purdue football last year easily could see happening.
DeAngelo Yancey wasn't a household name at the end of 2013, simply because of the terrible team he was playing on, but by this time next year, there won't be a player, coach or fan in the Big Ten who doesn't know about this guy.
He finished 2013 with 32 receptions for a team-high 546 yards and two touchdowns, but he has plenty of room for growth. After all, that was just his true freshman season.
Yancey has the right collection of size, speed and relationship with his quarterback to really break out this season. A five-catch, 156-yard performance in a loss to Nebraska, where Danny Etling looked his way almost the whole game, spoke volumes as to the player Yancey could be moving forward.
It was something his head coach, Darrell Hazell, noted after the Nebraska game, according to Michael Osipoff of the Post-Tribune.
“He’s going to be an exceptional player when it’s all said and done,” Hazell said. “He has a lot of talent. He’s big, he’s quick, he has speed, soft hands. He’s starting to develop a chemistry with Danny. So it is a bright spot, but we have to get better in a lot of areas.”
That was high praise for the freshman, and with Danny Etling along for the ride over the next few years; this could be a very productive relationship. Dare we say one that could help bring Purdue back to competitive football again.
Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel
No one could blame anyone for looking past the rest of the linebackers on the Badgers roster in 2013, because one name mattered most: Chris Borland.
The senior freak of an athlete had a memorable final season in Madison and collected the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year and Linebacker of the Year awards at season's end.
However, lost in the shuffle and loaded senior class of linebackers was a kid who was growing up each and every week he saw the field. That kid was named Vince Biegel, a former U.S. Army All-American in high school.
With the switch to the 3-4 defense, no longer are linebackers in on nearly every play, and that meant Biegel got a chance to see a lot of action on both sides of the outside linebacker spots. It added up to him recording 25 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
Biegel also showed he can play in coverage from the outside linebacker spot with two pass breakups and passes defended, as well as recording one fumble recovery.
Considering he never made a start in 2013, he found a way to make an impact on the stat sheet.
His pass-rushing abilities continued to blossom as the season wore on, and by the time Big Ten play rolled around, he was seeing some very good playing time. However, he only made one start thanks to senior Brendan Kelly being in front of him most of the season.
Kelly won't be there in 2013, and that means as Biegel enters his junior year, he could be primed for a true breakout season.
Penn State RB Akeel Lynch
The wonderful thing about being stuck behind two seniors at running back is when your head coach leaves. It means a clean slate and a chance to impress the new head coach.
Akeel Lynch, who ran the ball just 60 times last season for 358 yards and a touchdown (video above), could be the guy who benefits most from James Franklin's hire.
Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton were entrenched in front of him, but neither are barnburners in the backfield, and that's not how Bill O'Brien looked at the running game. However, with Franklin in the mix, it means a much more aggressive and hopefully a faster run game.
Enter Lynch and his reported 4.4 40-second dash. He's easily the fastest of the backs Penn State currently has on roster and the one who has the brightest future in my opinion.
The only question is, will the clean slate be enough to overcome the experienced seniors in front of him?
If Franklin's version of offense at Vanderbilt translates, even remotely, to Penn State, then Lynch will be one of the biggest names to come out of the 2014 season at running back. There's simply no way his talent won't allow him to get on the field more in his sophomore season.
Minnesota WR Drew Wolitarsky
Call Drew Wolitarsky the 2013 Melvin Gordon if you will, as the freshman broke out for a huge game in the Minnesota Golden Gophers' loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
He had four catches for 94 yards and one touchdown on the night, and it included a 55-yard touchdown score that's shown above. On the year, Wolitarsky had just 15 receptions for 259 yards and just that one touchdown.
It may not seem like this would be a guy poised to break out, but let's remember the Gophers had no passing game to speak of at all last season thanks to the quarterback shuffle and two guys who couldn't throw a stone into a lake at times.
So, as we look toward 2014, the Gophers need to find a passing game to say the least. Having a game-breaking wide receiver certainly helps the equation, and Wolitarsky is just that.
As long as there's a halfway competent passing quarterback behind center for the Gophers, this guy is going to see plenty of throws come his way. He's what the Gophers' passing game has been missing since Eric Decker left, and honestly, he reminds me a lot of him.
Wolitarsky has the size and speed to be a burner, but he also is physical enough to play in the slot and over the middle.
This may be the one pick that has the biggest risk to it, but also the highest upside. Look for whoever the QB is in Minneapolis to love playing with Wolitarsky on Saturdays this fall and for a few more to come as well.
Andy Coppens is the lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.