During every college football season, players come seemingly out of nowhere to surprise and make key contributions for their team.
With the Purdue Boilermakers looking to improve on a 5-7 season and return to postseason play in 2010 after a two-year absence, here are the top five candidates to post breakout seasons in West Lafayette this fall.
1. Justin Siller, junior wide receiver
Siller is technically listed as a QB/RB/WR on the Purdue roster and returns to the Boilermakers after a one-year absence.
The Detroit native, who saw limited time at both quarterback and running back during the 2008 year (including a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award after his first start under center), should see most of his action at receiver in 2010.
"It's nice when you can throw to a receiver 6'3", 225 who can run 4.4s around the field," quarterback Robert Marve told me with a smile. "He's a great talent."
Head coach Danny Hope agreed, calling Siller "one of the better athletes on our football team, exceptionally athletic for his size. Hard to tackle: he can make you miss.
"He's a heck of a football player. It's a huge shot in the arm for our football team to be getting Justin Siller back...I expect him to impact a lot of football games this year."
2. Gerald Gooden, junior defensive end
Gooden started every game a season ago (so his talents aren't a mystery to Purdue fans), but the junior captain is poised for a monster year in 2010.
Gooden will benefit immeasurably from opposing teams' focus on All-American candidate Ryan Kerrigan, his partner at defensive end, and could end up posting similar numbers to those of his more recognized teammate.
"He had a really good offseason," Kerrigan said of his fellow defensive end. "I think he's going to have a breakout season. We've got a chance to be very good up front."
Gooden tied for third on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2009: don't be surprised if he threatens to double that number for the Boilers, thanks to likely double-teams of Kerrigan on the opposite end of the line.
3. Al-Terek McBurse, sophomore running back
McBurse did more damage as a kick returner than in the backfield as a true freshman, most notably taking a kickoff all the way back against Indiana in the season finale.
However, with incumbent tailback Ralph Bolden tearing his ACL during spring practice, McBurse will likely become the go-to guy for Purdue's ground game in 2010.
Hope has plenty of confidence in McBurse as Bolden's replacement. "He's fast. He has good speed, probably can run 4.5, a little over 200 pounds, a great receiver out of the backfield.
"He can make you miss. He's an excellent ball-carrier. So we like Al-Terek McBurse. We think we can win with him. He's a talented player."
McBurse may not have to crack 1,000 yards for the Boilermakers to succeed this year, but he at least has to hit on enough big plays to take some of the pressure off Marve and the passing game.
The guess here is that he will...and then some.
4. Albert Evans, junior safety
Heading into 2010, Evans has more experience than any other member of Purdue's defensive backfield.
Of course, with the Boilermakers graduating both starting safeties and both starting cornerbacks, that's not saying very much.
Now that it's his turn to step in and play every down, Evans has the potential to emerge as one of the Boilers' leaders on defense, maybe even develop into a bona fide star.
"Albert is a guy that's shown promise," said Kerrigan when I asked him about defensive players that could surprise this year. "He's a physical player: he's not afraid to come downhill and lay the wood on somebody. That's crucial from a safety position."
I saw flashes of Evans' talent as the nickel back playing with four seniors last season; expect major strides from the playmaking safety now that he's an upperclassman himself.
5. O.J. Ross, freshman wide receiver
And Ross has more than his fair share.
"He may be the fastest football player on our football team," Hope said of the 5'10" true freshman wideout from Florida.
Keith Smith was willing to go further than that.
"He's the fastest guy I've been around," Smith said. "He's by far the fastest guy on the team.
"He ran like a 4.32 at the Nike combine in Florida. He's gonna be a great guy to have...he's definitely going to play for us."
Purdue has plenty of options at wideout (Hope said, "we may be as talented at receiver as we've been in many years, maybe decades"), but look for the lightning-quick Ross to get his share of touches...
...and to make the most of them.
Charlton Williams and Josh Johnson, cornerbacks ("You're gonna be so astonished," Smith said of the Boilers' newest DBs. "They've gotten so much better.")
Gary Bush and Antavian Edison, wide receivers (Hope referenced both players from Florida specifically as he talked about Purdue's overall improvement in team speed. Smith said that Bush has "probably made the best strides of all: he's become a complete receiver in the last year.")
Brandon Taylor, defensive tackle (With presumed starter Kevin Pamphile out for the season's first month, Taylor could make his presence felt on the D-line. There's some football in the young man's bloodlines: you might have heard of his dad, Lawrence.)
For more Purdue football coverage from Bleacher Report writer Tim Cary, follow him on Twitter at @TimCary.
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