Big Ten Football: Surprising Standouts of Spring Practice
Most every Big Ten school is in the thick of spring football practice right now, gearing up for a year of transition that welcomes Maryland and Rutgers to the league and the dawn of the College Football Playoff era.
These offseason practices are where most of the actual "coaching" takes place between staff and student, as opposed to the fall, where things are more gameplan- and season-specific. Now is when the players on the team make the most tangible improvement and emerge as surprising potential contributors.
At some of the conference's most intriguing schools—specifically Iowa and Michigan State—spring camp is only one or two days old, so no player has been able to fortify himself as a breakout performer quite yet. Those things will come in time.
At others, however, camp has been open long enough for certain players to break out and raise some eyebrows. With the spring game close around the corner, they have improved their stock and made their name worth keeping an eye on through the summer.
And that is what the spring is all about.
WR Freddy Canteen, Michigan
Much ink has been spilled about the competition this spring between quarterbacks Devin Gardner, Shane Morris and even Wilton Speight. But of just as much intrigue—and import—is whom the winner of that battle will be throwing passes to.
With Jeremy Gallon and Drew DiLeo from last year's team gone, early enrollee Freddy Canteen has made his name known during spring camp, impressing coaches and teammates in a bid for playing time.
"All you got to do is watch his film from [high school]," said head coach Brady Hoke, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. "His burst, the way that he comes off the line of scrimmage…he learns well, he listens well, and he truly has a passion for the game."
Gardner followed up to call Canteen a "really good player," making it sound more and more like the 6'1" true freshman from Elkton, Md., will have a meaningful role to play in the slot next season.
He was a top-300 player on the 247Sports composite.
DL Maliek Collins, Nebraska
According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Maliek Collins has reshaped his body this offseason, shedding 15 pounds from his 6'2" frame and dropping below 20 percent body fat.
Collins contributed as a rotation piece along the defensive line last season, but now, experienced as a true sophomore, he could be in line for an even bigger role. If his form this spring has been any indication, he appears to be ready for it.
Per McKewon, head coach Bo Pelini even compared his young lineman with two-time All-American Glenn Dorsey, who starred at LSU from 2004-07 and was selected No. 5 overall in the 2007 NFL draft.
"[Collins has] got that kind of ability," Pelini said. "He's got that kind of strength, but also great feet and great movement."
Whether it be at tackle, end or both, Collins is making a case to see first-team and late-game reps in the trenches next season. Given the occasional state of Nebraska's defensive line in 2013, his improvement might be just what the doctor ordered.
OLB Jesse Hayes, Wisconsin
Jesse Hayes is playing well enough in spring camp to force movement elsewhere on the depth chart. True sophomore Leon Jacobs has transitioned from outside to inside linebacker in part, at the very least, to help make room on the two-deep for Hayes to earn playing time.
Second-year head coach Gary Andersen had this to say on Hayes' spring performance, per Zach Heilprin of ESPN Wisconsin:
You look at our best guys and you sit back and we say, "Where's Jesse?" It is time for Jesse to step up and be the guy or at least be given the opportunity to be the guy. He kind of earned that right. If Jesse takes advantage of that, that'll be a good thing...
Vince Biegel is lining up ahead of him, but Hayes, who was recruited as a 3-star defensive end in the class of 2011, is coming on at his upright position and might have a role to play in replacing (essentially) every starter in the Badgers' front seven.
CB Alvin Hill, Maryland
Transitioning to the Big Ten in 2014—and plagued with a brutal first-year schedule—Maryland's defense might find itself undersized and overmatched in the trenches.
The best way to combat this is by stacking more bodies in the box, and the only way the Terps might be afforded that option is by trusting their cornerbacks in coverage.
Can they, then, really trust their cornerbacks in coverage?
Enter Alvin Hill.
Right from the first day of camp, Hill has emerged as a potential game-changer in the secondary. Head coach Randy Edsall had this to say on his late-blooming cornerback, per Pete Volk of Testudo Times:
I don't think it is what he has done in these practices. I think it is the work that he has put in since last year and since the end of the season. You can take a look at his body and he has changed his body. Not that it was bad before, but he is stronger. He is more knowledgeable of what is going on. He has really done some good things. It is not surprising because I have seen Alvin working out, doing stuff on his own. I have seen him in the film room. When you put in that time, when you put in the effort and you put in the work it shows up here on the field and that is exactly what he has done.
With nine starters returning on defense, Maryland has the depth and experience, courtesy of two straight injury-riddled seasons, to surprise some folks in the big, bad Midwest with its pluck.
Hill might be a big part of that equation.
OLB Darron Lee, Ohio State
Early enrollee Raekwon McMillan, a 5-star recruit and the top-rated inside linebacker in the class, has rightfully earned most of the hoopla this spring. He has looked great—even better than advertised—and is poised to make an impact in Year 1 with the Buckeyes this season.
But is that really a surprise?
No. Not really. Not at all, actually. And especially not compared with the breakout spring camp of redshirt freshman Darron Lee, who has emerged at outside linebacker after being recruited as a dual-threat quarterback and safety in 2013.
The guy that has stepped up, the guy that is playing 4-6 seconds, is a kid named Darron Lee. I have no idea what he's doing and he probably has no idea what he's doing, but I don't care. I want to make sure that culture is out there. You're not being graded on whether the kid knows what he's doing right now. Where you are being graded on is as a unit leader. And as a coach, it's whether you think a kid will play as hard as he absolutely can.
There's more to playing defense than running around like a chicken with your head cut off, but intensity and leadership from a young player is always a welcome sign. Lee is competing and has the long, lanky physique to eventually become a useful player on the edge.
TE Dolapo Macarthy, Purdue
Another year, another position change.
So is the apparent credo of Purdue's Dolapo Macarthy, who was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback in 2009 before eventually finding mild success as a receiver. He caught 28 passes for 252 yards as a sophomore in 2012, but things didn't click at the position last season, leading to a one-catch, six-yard campaign.
But now the athletic 6'5" target is being moved to tight end, where his flexibility and experience are being counted on to invigorate a woefully stale Purdue passing offense.
Here's how tight ends coach Gerad Parker described Macarthy's new role, per Mike Carmin of the Lafayette Journal and Courier:
You think about it, [offensive coordinator John] Shoop is a big proponent of having guys that can do multiple things within one personnel. It’s pretty special for us to call a two-tight end formation but have guys be spread out and be almost in a spread formation. He’s able to do that. It’s very hard for defenses to match up. We like that.