Big Ten Football: Freshmen Who Will Explode in 2016
The start of the college football season is officially fewer than two months away and buzz is already building for another exciting year.
That rings especially true in the Big Ten, which will return several top stars and prominent teams in 2016.
But while we're already aware of the likes of J.T. Barrett, Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis and Desmond King, the coming season will bring a new crop of players for fans to get to know. And with the conference adding some of the nation's top recruiting classes this past year, many of the league's new stars will likely come in the form of true freshmen.
With that in mind, here are some new names you need to know in the Big Ten for 2016.
Some you may have already heard of, while others you're less familiar with, but by season's end, don't be surprised when these freshmen who are ready to explode make their impacts felt.
Ohio State Defensive End Nick Bosa
In All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, Ohio State finds itself forced to replace a two-time Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and the third overall pick in this past April's NFL draft.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, head coach Urban Meyer landed the perfect replacement for the 2014 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 5-star prospect Nick Bosa, Joey's little brother and the top-ranked defensive end in the 2016 class.
"Nick Bosa is an automatic," Meyer said on national signing day of prospective impact players in the Buckeyes' fourth-ranked 2016 class.
With defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard each returning to Columbus, look for the younger Bosa to begin his college career primarily serving as a rush specialist in third-down packages. But by season's end, don't be surprised if he cracks the starting lineup, just like his older brother did in his breakout season with the Buckeyes three years ago.
Minnesota Linebacker Carter Coughlin
The top-ranked player in the state of Minnesota, Carter Coughlin opted to stay at home when choosing where he'd be spending his college career.
Now, the Golden Gophers find themselves with a U.S. Army All-American who should stand out on the field sooner rather than later in his college career.
"He runs awfully well, he plays physical," Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys told Big Ten Network (via the school's YouTube channel) on signing day. "He'll definitely help us."
Linebacker isn't necessarily a position of immediate need at Minnesota, with upperclassmen Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin and Jack Lynn all in the fold. But with his talent, it will be tough to keep the 4-star Coughlin off the field, be it as a specialist or, eventually, a starting role in 2016.
Maryland Wide Receiver Tino Ellis
However, one player who opted to stay at home and remain with the Terrapins was 4-star wideout Tino Ellis, who never wavered in his commitment following the in-season firing of head coach Randy Edsall and the subsequent departure of interim coach Mike Locksley.
"I chose the school because of the school. I didn't follow any coaches there or any players. That was the reason I mainly stuck with Maryland," Ellis said on signing day, per the Washington Post's Brandon Parker. "I want to build a relationship. They feel like I'm loyal, and I've got trust. That was the main thing I wanted to focus on."
It would hardly be a surprise to see Ellis, who caught a game-long pass of 51 yards in the Under Armour All-American Game, crack a Terrapins receiver rotation which already returns Levern Jacobs, D.J. Moore and Taivon Jacobs. For any team coming off a 3-9 season like the Terrapins are, playing time should be readily available, and Ellis could be just the talent infusion needed as Maryland begins its reboot under Durkin.
Michigan Defensive Tackle Rashan Gary
Between satellite camps, signing-day extravaganzas and spring-practice excursions to Florida, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has made no shortage of splashes on the recruiting trail since arriving in Ann Arbor 18 months ago.
But perhaps the biggest splash Harbaugh has made—both literally and figuratively—has come in the form of securing a commitment from 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the top-ranked player at any position in the 2016 class.
Whether it's as a defensive tackle, defensive end or hybrid role in defensive coordinator Don Brown's system, the 6'5", 293-pounder will play early and often in his college career. The Wolverines coaches have already made as much clear, apparently well-aware that his impact on the field could be even louder than the noise they made landing him off of it.
As Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison explained to MLive's Nick Baumgardner:
It's like the NFL. A freshman is just like a rookie. And you play the best players. It doesn't matter. So when practice starts they'll all go in there together and they're all the same. Whether a kid's a fourth-year player or a freshman, the best players play. Whoever can help us win. We're very, very excited about [Gary] coming in.
Nebraska Defensive Back Lamar Jackson
Head coach Mike Riley's debut season at Nebraska could have been considered underwhelming, with the Cornhuskers compiling a 5-7 regular-season record before ending the year on a high note with a win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Off the field, Riley managed to carry that momentum all the way through signing day, with Nebraska laying claim to the nation's 25th-ranked class despite enduring turnover from the previous regime and coming off a losing season.
The crown jewel of the class comes in the form of 4-star prospect Lamar Jackson, the nation's fifth-ranked safety who could very well find himself playing cornerback at the start of his college career. Regardless of the position he's playing, the 6'3", 205-pounder expects to be on the field right away in 2016, something he's said was a deciding factor in him landing at Lincoln, despite Nebraska's uneven 2015 calendar year.
"Coaches, they're telling me that I got a chance to go in there and play right away," Jackson said, per the Lincoln Journal Star's Brian Christopherson. "That's my biggest thing, too, when committing. It was like, 'Coach, I know who I am. I got to be on the field.' That's my love for the game. I can't just watch it.'"
Michigan State Defensive End Josh King
With Shilique Calhoun headed to the NFL, Malik McDowell finds himself prepared to serve as the new anchor of Michigan State's defensive line.
So who will fill McDowell's spot of the young up-and-comer in the Spartans front four? 2016 signee Josh King could very well be the man for the job after the Darien, Illinois, native opted to spend his college career at Michigan State over the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and USC.
"The first day I step on campus, I plan on making a major impact—major," King told MLive's Mike Griffith upon committing last summer. "And if it's possible, take a starting spot.''
On a roster as deep as Michigan State's, that's often easier said than done. But like McDowell did as a freshman two years ago, it would hardly be a surprise to see King crack the rotation as a true freshman, as the nation's sixth-ranked defensive end simply has too much talent to keep off the field.
Ohio State Wide Receiver Austin Mack
Since arriving at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer has held on to a tradition of marking his freshmen with black stripes, only removing the decals from their helmets once the first-year player has proved his worth to the program.
In the first four years of Meyer's tenure, no freshman had his black stripe removed before the first day of fall camp.
Then Austin Mack came along.
"Austin Mack is going to play next year," Meyer said of the early enrollee this past spring. "It's two days and I know it's too early to say that, which I have a tendency to overevaluate guys and get too excited about them, but he's doing fantastic."
With the Buckeyes losing Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller to the NFL, playing time should be readily available in the coming year for Mack, a 4-star wideout by way of Fort Wayne, Indiana. As evidenced by his accelerated development, the 6'2", 205-pounder has already developed a chemistry with Barrett, which both has and should continue to serve him well throughout his debut campaign.
Penn State Running Back Miles Sanders
When it came to true freshmen in the Big Ten in 2015, perhaps none was more impressive than Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who tallied 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns in his debut season.
As far as the Nittany Lions backfield is concerned, the rich will only be getting richer in the coming year with the signing of 5-star prospect Miles Sanders—the top-ranked running back in the 2016 class.
"If you look around college football right now and you look in the NFL, you need multiple backs. You're going to need three backs that you can depend on," Penn State head coach James Franklin said on signing day. "You look at the programs like Penn State, they're going to go out and sign significant players at the same position every single year. And you have to embrace competition."
Whether Barkley and Sanders ultimately become competitors with one another or an unstoppable two-headed monster unlike any other in the conference still remains to be seen. But with his talent, Sanders will find himself on the field in one fashion or another, just as Barkley did last season in what was his breakthrough year.
Wisconsin Athlete A.J. Taylor
Between the emergence of Alex Erickson and a two-headed running back attack featuring Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, Paul Chryst showed the ability to get the ball into the hands of multiple playmakers throughout his first season as Wisconsin's head coach.
Now with 4-star prospect A.J. Taylor on campus, Chryst finds himself with a new toy to play with on the Badgers offense, as the nation's 14th-ranked athlete should provide an added dimension of versatility that Wisconsin didn't have at its disposal a year ago.
"He can do a lot of things for you, whether if that's as a returner, whether that's as a running back or as a receiver," Badgers receivers coach Ted Gilmore said on signing day, per Jake Kocorowski of Bucky's 5th Quarter. "In saying that, I think that will give him a chance to play as a freshman."
Whether it's replacing the departed Erickson as the Z receiver or mixing in with Ogunbowale, Deal and Corey Clement in the backfield, look for Chryst to find creative ways to get the ball in the hands of his newest weapon. The second-year Wisconsin coach has already showed a propensity for doing just that, but he's yet to possess a talent like Taylor, who is capable of affecting a game in so many different roles.
Michigan Running Back Kareem Walker
After committing to Ohio State at halftime of the national title game in January 2015, Kareem Walker ultimately reopened his recruitment before landing with the Buckeyes' rival Michigan as the latest member of Harbaugh's New Jersey pipeline.
In doing so, the 4-star running back simply saw a better fit in Ann Arbor, anticipating readily available playing time in his debut season.
"Oh, I'm playing," Walker said of his outlook for his freshman season on signing day. "I just gotta learn the playbook. But I'm not riding the bench. I came here to be great. I didn't come here to sit on the bench."
While the Wolverines return leading rusher De'Veon Smith, as well as backups Drake Johnson and Ty Isaac, Walker may just possess the highest upside of any back on the Michigan roster. Already on campus as an early enrollee, the Garden State product has gotten a head start on his college career and is determined to make good on his goal of being "great" sooner rather than later.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.