Big Ten Football: 10 Players to Watch in Spring Practice

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIMarch 3, 2014

Big Ten Football: 10 Players to Watch in Spring Practice

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    With college football's spring practice season kicking off, the Big Ten Conference will hold several battles to replace stars for the 2014 season.

    Ohio State will bring in the league's top recruiting class, headlined by two early enrollees Raekwon McMillan and Curtis Samuel.

    While Michigan's top recruit, Jabrill Peppers, won't be in Ann Arbor until the fall, the Wolverines will still hold several intriguing battles leading up to their spring game.

    Click on for breakdowns of those battles and 10 Big Ten players to keep an eye on this spring.

QB Shane Morris, Michigan

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    At this time last year, there was no quarterback controversy in Ann Arbor.

    Devin Gardner was firmly entrenched at the position and expected to lead the Wolverines into Big Ten Title contention.

    However, a rough season for the junior ended early in injury, opening the door for backup and 2013 blue-chip recruit Shane Morris to step up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

    He was good but not great in the bowl loss to Kansas State, but he was good enough to open up a battle.

    It appears as though Gardner will be full-go during the spring, but depending on how he and Morris look, Michigan's prospectus could change for 2014.

LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The highest-rated early enrollee from the Big Ten's 2014 recruiting class, Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, will be one of the league's main attractions in the spring.

    The Buckeyes will be replacing All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier, and they have plenty of talent at the position.

    However, McMillan could still come in and play immediately. He won't be taking Shazier's slot on the depth chart, as he's expected to play on the inside. However, he sees himself as the potential leader in the center of the defense, per Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com:

    The last three, four years, they haven’t had that guy in the middle who can run the whole show on defense.

    I have a good chance to start, but it’s all going to be wasted if I don’t put in the work right now. I can’t be out on the field if I don’t really know what’s going on out there.

    McMillan is one to keep an eye on, as he could end up having an enormous impact right away.

QB C.J. Beathard, Iowa

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    The quarterback situation at Iowa is a bit puzzling going into 2014 spring practice.

    Jake Rudock was solid as a sophomore last year, leading Iowa to an 8-5 record and Outback Bowl berth, tallying 2,383 passing yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

    However, knee injuries late in the season sidelined the Hawkeye starter and opened the door for backup C.J. Beathard. Beathard was impressive at times in relief of Rudock, which sparked some suggestions that he could earn the starting job next year.

    As Marc Morehouse of The Gazette reported, head coach Kirk Ferentz addressed the issue on signing day, saying he has confidence in both signal-callers:

    The good news to me is right now we have confidence in both those guys, they both have proven that we can win games with them, put them out there as starters and win games with them. That being said, C.J. still has some catching up to do. Jake has really accelerated.

    We’ll let them both compete. It’s only fair to both of them that the best guys start. . . . I expect both those guys to play better next year and compete even harder, so that is going to be a good thing for our football team.

    Beathard's development will be the biggest key to that battle.

WR Curtis Samuel, Ohio State

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    One of the most interesting prospects from Ohio State's strong 2014 recruiting class is Curtis Samuel, a 4-star early enrollee from Brooklyn.

    The speedster was the top prospect in the state of New York and will bring some great versatility to the Buckeyes' offense.

    The OSU coaching staff has already had a chance to see Samuel firsthand, so they had plenty of praise for the newcomer on signing day, per Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com:

    Meyer referred to Samuel on National Signing Day as being "electric fast." Running backs coach Stan Drayton called him "a very dynamic player."

    "He brings speed to our backfield that I don't believe we've had since I've been here," Drayton said.

    The Buckeyes have been stockpiling offensive talent over the last few recruiting classes, but Samuel might be too talented to keep off the field.

S Demetrious Cox, Michigan State

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The Michigan State defense was one of the best in the nation last year, but it'll lose some of its top individual players.

    Safety Isaiah Lewis is gone from the secondary, as is Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard. 

    One player who could step up and earn some playing time next year is redshirt sophomore Demetrious Cox. He entered last season with high hopes but only played sparingly, tallying just six tackles.

    Mike Griffith of MLive.com tabbed Cox as one of the top four players for the Spartans who have yet to seize their potential going into this spring session.

    MSU will need to find new playmakers on its defense, and Cox could be one of them.

RB Derrick Green, Michigan

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    With Fitzgerald Toussaint out, the running back position will be passed on to Derrick Green at Michigan.

    The former 247Sports composite 5-star was decent as a freshman, netting 265 yards and two touchdowns in a backup role.

    The ground game was putrid at times in Ann Arbor, and it will largely be up to Green (and the offensive line) to make sure that isn't the case yet again in 2014.

    Green is a bruising back, but he has started the spring in much better shape this season, down 13 pounds from his 240-pound measurement last year, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.

    If he can find a little bit of added quickness to go with his powerful style, he could join the conversation as one of the Big Ten's best backs next year.

QB Johnny Stanton, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Nebraska shuffled its way through three quarterbacks last year, but two of the three—Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellogg III—are gone.

    That will leave Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the only experienced signal-caller on the roster.

    He tallied 1,168 total yards and 11 touchdowns last year, but he doesn't necessarily have the starting job sewn up going forward. While many, including the Lincoln Journal Star's Steven Sipple, believe Armstrong will claim the job.

    However, he'll be challenged by redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, who sat out last year after joining the Huskers as a 4-star recruit.

    The former Elite 11 finalist is one to keep an eye on this spring.

WR De'Andre Thompkins, Penn State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The Penn State offense will be set at quarterback next year with returning sophomore starter Christian Hackenberg.

    Behind 2013's Freshman of the Year will be a trio of proven running backs, but the biggest question mark will be on the outside.

    Top receiver and Biletnikoff Award finalist Allen Robinson bolted to the NFL after amassing 1,432 receiving yards a year ago, leaving PSU without a single receiver who notched more than 400 yards last year.

    PSU planned accordingly with its recruiting class, pulling in several skilled receivers. Early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins will have an inside track on a starting role.

QB D.J. Gillins, Wisconsin

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Wisconsin starting quarterback Joel Stave had a solid season leading Wisconsin to a 9-4 record, but his starting status is still in question going into 2014.

    He'll be challenged by a pair of highly-touted prospects: Bart Houston and D.J. Gillins.

    Gillins is the most athletic of the bunch and will be the one to watch after enrolling early from the 2014 class.

    As Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal reported, Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is looking forward to seeing what Gillins can do firsthand:

    What you see on tape is a real athletic, raw quarterback. He’s not real refined in his skill set right now, but he can run and extend plays. There’s a lot of developmental work to do with D.J., but he’s hungry and he’s intelligent. I can’t wait to start working with him hands-on March 7.

    D.J. doesn’t see himself as a dual-threat (quarterback). He’s a drop-back passer that can run. That’s the kind of guy we’re looking for: a drop-back passer that can run. That’s why he’s here. He’s a drop-back passer that can move and extend plays. He can run.

    If Gillins is as good as advertised, he could challenge Stave and Houston for the lead role in Madison.

WR Drake Harris, Michigan

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    Credit: 247Sports

    While Michigan waits for the arrival of top recruit Jabrill Peppers, it can feast its eyes on another highly-touted playmaker, 4-star receiver Drake Harris.

    The Wolverines have an opening in their receiving corps with the departure of leading receiver Jeremy Gallon, who tallied 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns.

    With the recent injury to tight end Jake Butt, UM was left with just one seriously productive receiver returning for the start of 2014: tight end Devin Funchess.

    An injury sidelined Harris during his senior season, but he is still in great position to earn early playing time at the collegiate level after enrolling early, per Baumgardner.

    "Physically, he's improved,” head coach Brady Hoke told Baumgardner. “He's doing more and more. I know we ran (Tuesday) and he's feeling more towards 100 percent all the time. We're hoping he'll be ready for the start of spring."