The Big Ten was dominated by upperclassmen in 2013.
Of the 27 players elected to the Coaches' All-Big Ten first team, only two—defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Randy Gregory—weren't juniors or seniors last season, and both of those guys could have declared for the NFL draft had they chosen to in 2014.
With so much talent leaving this offseason, the door has been opened for certain underclassmen to step up and take the conference by storm. Whether the leap they take is from decent to good, good to great or great to phenomenal, those who improve have a chance to become the class of the league.
With so much young talent to choose from, it was hard to whittle the list down to five. I focused on players who won't just improve, but whose improvement—or at least the magnitude of that improvement—would be the most profound.
I don't hate your team if it doesn't have a player listed. I swear. But these are the five guys, in my opinion, who could most shock the conference in 2014.
All things considered, Danny Etling was pretty good in 2013. The true freshman quarterback was put in a wretched situation, but he made the best of it and showed improvement—if not downright star potential—toward the end of Purdue's awful season.
Yes, it was against Indiana, but Etling finished the year with one of the best statistical games by a Big Ten quarterback all season. He went 33-of-49 passing for 485 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. No matter the defense it came against, seeing those numbers on the box score gives a young QB both confidence and momentum heading into the offseason.
The Boilers were awful on offense in 2013, but they were also very young. The five leading rushers and nine leading receivers are all expected back next season. Fellow rising sophomore DeAngelo Yancey flashed a nice rapport with Etling down the stretch, and the duo should only get better with more time to put in work.
Purdue might not make a bowl next year, but it should certainly take a step in the right direction, much like Illinois did in 2013. There's nowhere to go but up.
Wisconsin didn't miss a beat without Bret Bielema last season, sticking with a run-heavy approach under new head coach Gary Andersen. Corey Clement was the third banana, carrying the ball just 67 times, but he made the most of those opportunities by averaging 8.16 yards per attempt.
Those numbers look a lot like Melvin Gordon's from 2012, when the then-sophomore averaged 10.12 yards per attempt on 62 carries. When Monte Ball left in 2013, opening up more playing time for Gordon, he exploded for 1,609 yards on the ground.
Now that James White is out of the picture, a similar role appears to be open for Clement—behind Gordon himself, of all people. This is the natural order of Wisconsin's ground attack, and Andersen knows better than to mess with the system.
With Jared Abbrederis out of the picture, Wisconsin might lean even more on the run than it did last season, especially in the first few weeks. Clement and Gordon should be the best backfield duo in the conference, and it would come as a minor shock—at least to me—if both didn't break, say, 1,200 rushing yards next year.
James Franklin knows a talent when he sees it, and he knows how to force-feed that talent the ball. There's a reason Jordan Matthews is now the all-time leading receiver in SEC history.
Do what you do best.
It would have been nice to see Franklin work with Allen Robinson in 2014, but Penn State's leading receiver (rightfully) declared early for the NFL draft. That leaves the Nittany Lions without two of last year's three leading receivers and leaves Christian Hackenberg searching for a new primary target.
Enter Adam Breneman, who struggled with knee problems as a true freshman but ended the year with 78 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin. He was the No. 44 overall player on 247Sports' composite for 2013, and he's already established a nice rapport with Hackenberg, with whom he co-headlined last year's class.
With impressive size (6'4'') and athleticism for the position, Breneman could emerge as an All-Big Ten type of player in 2014. His ability to get open in the seam complements Hackenberg's vertical arm strength very well.
The cat's out of the bag in Columbus. Joey Bosa is no longer the Buckeyes' secret weapon—he's their primary one. He played too well at the end of this year to sneak up on anybody. The Big Ten is on notice
So why is he a part of this list? Easy. Because as a true sophomore in 2014, Bosa might have a ceiling even higher than All-Big Ten first team. He might be a potential Defensive Player of the Year.
Yes. He is that good. More importantly, he is that good on a big stage. Against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson, with the rest of his defense floundering, Bosa totaled 4.5 tackles for loss and generally looked like the unit's best player. He put it all together in his team's three biggest games, which puts him way ahead of the curve for a true rising sophomore.
Ranked the No. 37 overall player and No. 4 strong-side defensive end on last cycle's 247Sports composite, the pedigree is certainly there. At 6'6'', 275 pounds, so are the measurables. And if the last three games of 2013 are any indication, he seems to have turned a corner mechanically.
Before he even turns 20 years old, Bosa might be the best defender in the conference.
Class: Freshman (RS)
Jon Reschke fits the bill of a great MSU inside linebacker, all the way down to his Max Bullough-esque lineage. His father was a Spartans lineman in the '80s, and Jon followed his footsteps to East Lansing.
Like Bullough, Reschke was also 4-star recruit coming out of high school, though Reschke actually graded out much higher on the 247Sports composite. He was the top-ranked player in the Spartans' 2013 class, the No. 186 overall player and the ninth-ranked inside linebacker.
Reschke's composite grade of .9194 is the highest for an MSU linebacker since Chris Norman in 2009. Neither Norman nor Bullough redshirted like Reschke did, but both linebackers were already consistent starters and quality players by their second year out of high school.
With a big hole to fill up the middle of Pat Narduzzi's defense, it wouldn't be a shock to see Reschke step in and become one of the league's top tacklers. He has all physical tools one could ask for, and spending a year behind Bullough—along with Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth—should have him well-prepared to put in the work.