Big Ten Football: 10 Freshmen Who Will Steal a Starting Spot in Fall Camp
Spring football is all but over in the Big Ten with only Iowa, Michigan State and Rutgers left to put their teams out for the public to see. One thing most watch for in spring ball is how the youngsters are looking, and in 2014, there is no shortage of impressive players already on campus from the freshman class.
History tells us there will be plenty of freshmen who take off from their spring experiences and become starters once the games are for real. Last season, it was Christian Hackenberg (Penn State) and Sojourn Shelton (Wisconsin) to name just a couple of impressive performers.
Who are the Hackenbergs and Sheltons in the Big Ten this year? If spring is any indication, there are plenty of open opportunities for players on campus and those yet to start their collegiate journey.
Let's take a look at 10 freshmen who are likely to come out of fall camp as starters.
*All recruiting information courtesy 247Sports.com.
Freddy Canteen, Michigan
Multiple Big Ten schools are facing the prospects of replacing their star receiver from a season ago, and Michigan is no different than the others. Gone is Jeremy Gallon and his impressive season of 89 receptions for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Wolverines may have another gem on their hands in early enrollee Freddy Canteen. The 6'1", 170-pound receiver definitely caught the eye of head coach Brady Hoke this spring, and that's never a bad thing for a young player. Hoke told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press:
Overall, Freddy’s had a really good spring. He’s come in with a great maturity that you don’t see with a lot of guys that come in early … Part of that is his development at his school, his development at his home life. Freddy is very talented.
He hauled in the biggest passing highlight of Michigan's spring game catching a 44-yard bomb down the left sideline, and he has already worked in the slot and on the outside.
Add some more weight on his 6'1" frame over the summer, and Canteen should earn himself a starting spot at a position in need of playmakers.
Krenwick Sanders, Wisconsin
The hype over Krenwick Sanders, who the Badgers plucked out of Jesup, Georgia, as a 3-star prospect by the 247Sports' composite rankings, grew as his senior season went on.
So much so that Florida made Sanders one of its biggest priorities late in the game. Having a game with six receptions for 216 yards and six (yes, six) touchdowns will do that for you.
Like Michigan, the Badgers are facing life without their star receiver and there are plenty of spots to be had. Given a lackluster and injury-plagued spring by the guys already on campus, the incoming freshmen (all five of them) will be given plenty of chances to earn starting spots.
Sanders may be the most college-ready of all of the receivers coming in and the one with the most big-play potential as well. At 6'2", 195 pounds, Sanders also has the body to be an impact player the moment he steps on the UW campus in the summer.
If you're looking for a player to come out of nowhere to become a star, Sanders is a great bet to make one look really smart.
Derwin Gray, Maryland
While Damian Prince stole the show on national signing day, another Maryland product was actually more highly thought of by the recruiting services—Derwin Gray. He was the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle out of Fork Union Military Academy.
Sure, it was a prep school ranking, but Gray could come in as the more polished of the two prospects as well. Maryland also has some holes to fill at the guard positions despite a lot of depth everywhere else. Gray, who is 6'4" and 291 pounds, could be a fit on the inside come the fall.
Head coach Randy Edsall has turned the offensive line into perhaps the biggest strength of the Terps, and Gray will have a battle on his hands to become a starter.
With that being said, he's also got the talent to become a starter should they slide him inside.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer isn't afraid to play freshmen—which history has shown us. In 2014, there's no more talked about freshman than middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and for good reason.
He entered school early and is part of a battle for the starting spot at the MIKE position, as OSU calls middle linebacker. McMillan is competing with senior Curtis Grant for the starting spot, and no one came out the declared winner after 15 spring practices.
Meyer said of McMillan, via Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
He's in the rotation. He's going to play. Whether he's going to start depends on, you know him and Curtis are in a battle. Curtis had his best spring. He's earned that right. He's not a freshman anymore. He's gotta go play.
The fact Grant couldn't shake the freshman should speak volumes to the ability McMillan has. Give him a summer and fall camp to compete some more, and he could be a prime candidate for starting honors when OSU takes the field for its opener.
Melvin Holland, Jr., Minnesota
One could easily argue Minnesota was a passing game away from being a true Big Ten contender in 2013. Part of the issue was the rotating door at quarterback, but a large part was not having enough playmakers to catch anything the QBs were going to throw.
Minnesota looked to the 2014 recruiting class to help up the ante on that end, and the biggest prize in the passing game was Melvin Holland, Jr. out of Virginia. The 3-star wide receiver (according to the 247Sports' composite rankings) comes in with a lot of the physical tools needed to be successful, standing at 6'3" and 215 pounds even before he steps foot on the Minneapolis campus.
Last season's experience by Drew Wolitarsky as a true freshman could be a valuable thing for Holland, too. Considering few options showed themselves to be game-changing threats Holland comes into a situation ripe for the picking.
As long as Holland shows consistent route running and an ability to make plays on his own, he'll see plenty of action. Whether he starts or not is obviously up in the air, but you've got to like his chances considering his size and the need the Gophers have.
Michael Deiter, Wisconsin
There may not be a more experienced freshman entering fall camp than Wisconsin guard/center Michael Deiter, a former 3-star recruit, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. With both guard Dallas Lewallan and center Dan Voltz out this spring with injuries, Deiter took the majority of snaps all spring long.
He held his own and then some, earning praise from the coaching staff for his ability to step in to a starting role from Day 1 along the offensive line. Head coach Gary Andersen praised the work of Deiter in his post-spring press conference:
I think the offensive line as far as depth wise, you've got Michael (Deiter), you've got Ray (Ball), they came in, you've got Trent (Denlinger), those kids all grew and developed and took a number of snaps and definitely got themselves in a better spot than they would have been if we'd have had 14 or 15 healthy offensive lineman.
While both Lewallan and Voltz have the advantage of experience at their respective positions, both have proven to be injury prone. Deiter's experience this spring proves he's a capable option at either position.
Deiter may have an uphill battle to start come the Cowboys Classic against LSU, but given the inability of either Lewallan or Voltz to remain healthy, Deiter is the most likely candidate to take over at some point.
De'Andre Thompkins, Penn State
Penn State feels like a brand new program under head coach James Franklin, and it sort of is. At least there's a new lease on life at the wide receiver position with Allen Robinson off to the NFL.
That opened a spot for someone to come in and be the playmaker at wide receiver. Enter the early entrant and former 4-star recruit, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, De'Andre Thompkins.
It was a very good spring for the 5'11", 170-pound freshman. He showed his speed could be a valuable weapon for quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Now, the task is to take that 170-pound frame and put some weight on coming into the fall.
Thompkins' speed earned him the right to become a returner right out of the gate, but he's impressed enough with his work at receiver that earning a starting role at that spot isn't out of the question, either.
Demetrius Knox, Ohio State
Ohio State loses four starting offensive linemen from last season, and judging by the reaction of Meyer—there's plenty left to do for the guys already on campus.
So why is Knox, who isn't even on campus right now, on this list. Well, Meyer said it best himself following the spring game, via the school's athletic website:
Offensive line, we've got to really go, we gotta really go from here. I saw Jamarco Jones, Demetrius Knox is coming in, Brady Taylor. Those are three bodies that are going to be coming in in June and I look them right in the eye and said 'You're not red shirting; you're playing,' and that's hard for an offensive lineman, so we're gonna -- that's an area that we have got to get back to where we -- maybe not where we were, but close.
If that doesn't tell the whole story I don't know what will. Look for Knox to come in, work hard and let his talent win him the job.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
When you're drawing comparisons to a legend like Charles Woodson and you've got the coaching staff dreaming about where they'll play you before you step foot on campus, you're doing something right. That's exactly what has happened to incoming freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
The coaching staff wants him starting out at nickel back, but the 6'1", 205-pound freshman may have bigger plans in mind—and so may Hoke, especially.
Hoke said, via Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.
As you’re putting the depth (chart) down, you’re looking at your base packages, your sub packages and those things. You’re looking at maybe he’s the nickel, maybe he’s a safety or a corner. We’re looking to start him at the nickel position and see how he comes in and how he does.”
With many options available to him and a lot of competition happening in the Michigan secondary, Peppers is primed to come in and blow away the competition. It may take time to figure out exactly where he fits in the defense, but he's clearly on the right track with this coaching staff.
George Rushing, Wisconsin
Wisconsin has a history of taking 3-star players out of the state of Florida and turning them in to stars. Just look to James White or Shelton for recent examples of that happening. Up next may be 247Sports' composite 3-star wide receiver George Rushing out of Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Sure, we highlighted another incoming Badger receiver earlier, but that's how large the hole is that was left by Jared Abbrederis' graduation and move to the NFL.
The Badgers have been looking for another option opposite of Abbrederis for two years without success. Now, the team must find that same receiver and Abbrederis' replacement, too.
Judging by what took place this spring, there's no one that's locked up a single spot on the two-deep at all. So, why not look to the guys specifically recruited by head coach Gary Andersen and his staff?
Rushing was a bit of a late bloomer in the recruiting process, but at 6'1" and 195 pounds, he's got a good physical base to build off of. A look at Rushing's recruiting tape also shows a solid route runner, which is something the current group really struggled with.
If Rushing can show an ability to make things happen on his own with his route running and speed, look for him to earn every minute on the field possible.
*Andy Coppens is a national college football featured columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndyOnCFB.
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