CFB Recruiting: 10 Under-the-Radar Recruits Who Could Star in the Big Ten
Every year, underrated recruits turn into college football stars. It's not just 5-stars and 4-stars who wind up having terrific careers on the gridiron.
That's perhaps even more the case in the Big Ten.
The conference doesn't normally enjoy the same status as the SEC in the recruiting rankings (other than Ohio State, of course), but there are still plenty of quality programs that know how to lure the best players to fit their systems.
Last year's crop of talent is the perfect example.
As mentioned in last week's list of the underrated recruits in the SEC, 23 of the most impactful players from a season ago—selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft or named first-team All-Americans—were 3-star prospects or lower.
So, who are the candidates to do the same in 2021?
To be considered under-the-radar, a recruit needed to be outside of the 247Sports Composite Top 247 rankings. You can still be a 4-star recruit and fit that distinction, but many of these are not. Still, each player's upside is obvious from film evaluation or his offer sheets.
These are players who will be the future of the conference. Let's take a look at who could be the next Jonathan Taylor or Tyler Biadasz.
Tommy Akingbesote, Maryland Defensive Tackle
The on-field returns the Maryland Terrapins are getting early in the season are a promising sign for second-year head coach Mike Locksley.
After coming from Alabama, where he thrived as the offensive coordinator under coach Nick Saban, Locksley got a second shot at rebuilding the Terrapins after not being retained as the interim head coach in 2015 following Randy Edsall's firing.
This is just Locksley's second full-time head-coaching stint after a failed run at New Mexico, and his recruiting in the Washington D.C. area and the surrounding states is making a difference. Getting quaterback Taulia Tagovailoa to transfer from Alabama could be a big deal too.
One of this year's major recruiting victories is Tommy Akingbesote, a 6'4", 270-pound athletic defensive lineman from Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
He elected to try to stay close to home rather than go somewhere like Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M or Boston College.
The nation's No. 262-ranked overall player was coveted by many programs because of his size and athleticism and his ceiling. He could add weight and play inside, but his athleticism—along with his basketball pedigree—lends itself to staying on the outside of the line.
Once he develops in a strength and conditioning program and finds a home along the defensive front, he could be a top-notch player. The Terrapins need difference-makers on that side of the ball, and Akingbesote will fit that description down the road.
Alijah Clark, Rutgers Cornerback
Rutgers is just 2-4, but the strides the Scarlet Knights are making in the first year of Greg Schiano's second stint as head coach are evident.
This program was the laughingstock of the Big Ten for much of the past decade, but it beat Michigan State in the season opener. Rutgers then hung with Indiana for a while before being hammered by Ohio State. It gave Illinois a scare and lost to Michigan in Week 12 in three overtimes before beating Purdue on Saturday.
Much like Locksley, Schiano must win over the top prospects in New Jersey and the surrounding areas as he battles programs like Boston College and Maryland for players.
One of the biggest wins in this recruiting cycle is Alijah Clark. The 6'2", 180-pound defensive back from Camden, New Jersey, had offers from all over the place, including Miami, Boston College and Maryland, but committed to the Scarlet Knights in February.
Clark is a big-time athlete who is a difference-maker and could start right away. He's the No. 289 overall player and the second-best recruit in Rutgers' No. 38-ranked class.
It's a good bet that he will wind up at Rutgers.
"I always see Rutgers everywhere—on the back of cars—and I see people wearing the gear," Clark told NJ.com's Todderick Hunt. "So, I always thought, One day I'm going to be the face of Rutgers and make sure I'm known for being that guy."
Cooper DeJean, Iowa Athlete
Head coach Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes normally don't have issues keeping the players they want at home, though they sometimes battle with the Iowa State Cyclones for the top in-state recruits.
A prospect who can do it all in this year's class is Cooper DeJean, and he will play his collegiate career in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes have recruited the 6'2", 195-pound athlete as a safety, but he could project to a lot of different spots. DeJean is a dominant high school quarterback for state champion Battle Creek-Ida Grove High School.
According to 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons, DeJean has "best kid on the playground" skills. No matter what he does, he excels. He plays basketball and is such an exceptional athlete that you have to believe that once he finds a positional home, he's going to thrive in college.
DeJean will probably wind up as a safety or linebacker, but he could be a force with the ball in his hands at receiver. That versatility will be an exciting weapon for Ferentz to develop. Still, DeJean is underappreciated as a prospect, ranked No. 414 overall in the composite rankings.
A low composite ranking like that won't help the nation's No. 23-ranked class, but 247Sports considers DeJean the nation's eighth-best safety and the No. 145 player overall.
247Sports recruiting analyst Allen Trieu discussed DeJean with the Des Moines Register's Cody Goodwin in October:
"The way that we view recruits has changed over the years.There's former quarterbacks and running backs all over the NFL, playing different positions. So we look a lot more at athleticism and competitive drive.
"For him, there's something innate about making plays. In both sports, he has a knack for getting it done. That's something that players either have or they don't. He has the ability to turn it on when the lights are on. He makes plays and wins games."
Betting against a leader like DeJean is unwise. He will shine soon.
Gabe Ervin, Nebraska Running Back
Year 3 of Scott Frost's Nebraska rebuilding project is going about like the couple of seasons before: extremely disappointing.
At this point, there hasn't been any evidence that Frost's star will continue to rise in Lincoln the way it did when he led UCF to a national championship in 2017.
Nebraska has been able to lure prospects to its program, however, and could eventually turn a corner. The Cornhuskers have the nation's 18th-ranked recruiting class. That haul is highlighted by tight end Thomas Fidone, offensive tackle Teddy Prochazka and linebacker Randolph Kpai.
And the class' depth and talent could make it Frost's best one yet.
One of those guys is running back Gabe Ervin, a do-it-all prospect from one of the best high school programs in the Atlanta area in Buford High School, which churns out all-star Division I talent each year as one of the best 6A programs in the state.
"I'm hoping to become the best version of myself on and off the field and to just get an advantage and an early start," Ervin told Husker247's Mike Schaefer.
At 6'0", 200 pounds, he has the size to be an every-down running back, and though he is the No. 665 overall player in the composite rankings, he is much better than that.
When you consider the Huskers' top three rushers this year are non-running backs, Ervin is going to have the opportunity to come in and seize the starting gig. It's going to be interesting to see just what type of impact he can have early.
Audric Estime, Michigan State Running Back
Another program in desperate need of a quality running back is head coach Mel Tucker's Michigan State Spartans, who were expecting Elijah Collins (1.8 rushing yards per attempt in 2020) to build on his terrific redshirt freshman season.
Jordon Simmons, Connor Heyward and Collins all have potential, but Tucker is looking for a back with the "It" factor. He has one committed in Audric Estime.
The 6'1½", 215-pound bruiser is a 4-star prospect but is the No. 343-rated player overall. His upside, with the potential to be elite, makes him better than that.
His size, physicality and the way he hits the hole separate him from other players in his class. This is a guy who is capable of starting several seasons for the top programs in the country. For the Spartans, he could jump-start the rebuild.
But Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is coming after him hard.
NJ.com's Todderick Hunt wrote last week that Estime's commitment to the Spartans is on "shaky ground." In other words, this is shaping up to be a classic battle between two programs needing Estime's services.
The Montvale, New Jersey, product is one of the top players in Tucker's No. 41-ranked class, and the first-year head coach desperately needs recruiting wins if he is going to bring the Spartans back to the heyday of former coach Mark Dantonio.
Deacon Hill, Wisconsin Quarterback
As a redshirt freshman making his first set of starts for a proud program, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz surprised everybody by just how exceptional he looked through the first couple of games. Then came Week 12's loss against Northwestern.
Still, Mertz's upside is obvious, and he looks to have the Badgers' starting signal-caller spot locked down for the future.
That will give incoming freshman Deacon Hill time to develop. The 2021 commit is a 6'3", 230-pound, strong-armed signal-caller from Santa Barbara High School in California, and once he gets in a college weight room and sheds some bad weight, he's going to be a force.
His 247Sports profile says he "might have the strongest arm in the '21 class" and is a "pure thrower who can change speeds and throws with timing and anticipation."
That's the kind of upside programs are looking for in a quarterback, especially when they aren't necessarily needing someone who can step right in and play right away. Hill is a terrific player with a lot of potential, despite being ranked 472nd overall in the nation and the No. 22nd pro-style passer in the 247Sports composite.
His strong showings at the Under Armour Camp and Elite 11 Regional helped him earn a fourth star on 247Sports, which ranks him as the No. 14 pro-style passer.
"We hinted at this year ago that Hill could be a candidate to move up over the course of the next year as he got more Friday night action," 247sports national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman told Badger247's Evan Flood. "... Frankly, the one thing that kept him down early was lack of experience, but he's now shown what he can do when given full control of the offense and the upside is off the charts."
That's an exciting prospect for Badgers head coach Paul Chryst.
Jaydon Hood, Michigan Linebacker
Things have fallen apart for the Michigan Wolverines (2-4) this year, and with the future of head coach Jim Harbaugh up in the air, it's worth watching the recruiting class, which is No. 9 in the nation.
One of the players who would be a possible all-conference performer is 6'1", 212-pound linebacker Jaydon Hood of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida.
Hood told 247Sports' Sam Webb in October that he hoped to take visits to Minnesota, Mississippi State and possibly Alabama, but the pandemic has thrown a wrench into those plans. That may wind up working in the Wolverines' favor by keeping the Under Armour All-American on board.
Though Hood was selected to play in that prestigious game, he's still ranked just 309th in the nation in the 247Sports composite despite being a 4-star prospect.
He is a three-sport high school athlete who is an accomplished track and wrestling star, and his strength should serve him well as an anchor on the second level of the defense.
Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown needs impact players across the board for his 88th-ranked unit, and Hood should be able to pack on another 10 pounds of muscle and be a force. He's a terrific, sure tackler and has the speed in space to play sideline to sideline.
While he would just be one of several All-American linebackers for the Wolverines, he could be the jewel of the class if he ends up becoming a Golden Gopher or heads to Starkville.
Michigan will have to work to keep him, but if it does, he could be a star in the Big Ten.
Jaylen Johnson, Ohio State Safety
The Ohio State Buckeyes are in need of impact defensive backs to replenish a backfield that regularly sends elite players to the NFL.
They have several guys who fit that bill in the highly ranked 2021 recruiting class, but La Salle High School safety Jaylen Johnson isn't one of them. The 6'1", 200-pound defender could prove he should be, though.
Johnson is the nation's No. 401 overall recruit, and he plays in the same defensive backfield as former Ohio State commitment Devonta Smith, who flipped from the Buckeyes to Alabama and made the SEC list of most underrated recruits last week.
Johnson had 20 scholarship offers from teams such as Ohio State, Penn State, Kentucky, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia before pledging to the Buckeyes. Unlike Smith, he hasn't flipped to the SEC.
Instead, he will head to Columbus, where he could develop into a multiyear starter for head coach Ryan Day and help the Buckeyes compete for national championships. As much talk as there is about Johnson helping the defensive backfield, though, he may wind up closer to the line of scrimmage.
Birm of Letterman Row believes Johnson is being recruited for the "Bullet" position at Ohio State, which is a fast, aggressive linebacker spot that plays sideline to sideline. That position is a hybrid that can cover receivers and tight ends, rush the passer and must be a sure tackler in space.
From a developmental standpoint, it suggests Johnson's upside is much higher than the 3-star ranking he'll bring with him to the Big Ten's best program.
Watch for him to be a big-time playmaker down the road.
Athan Kaliakmanis, Minnesota Quarterback
Tanner Morgan's time with the Minnesota Golden Gophers is coming to an end soon, and head coach P.J. Fleck will need a captain to help row that boat in the future.
He has that in quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, a 6'4", 190-pound 4-star prospect from Antioch, Illinois, who is the nation's No. 318 overall player in the 247Sports composite rankings. 247Sports itself has him as the nation's 10th-rated dual-threat quarterback, though.
Once Kaliakmanis develops his body and adds weight, it's going to be exciting to see him on the field.
National recruiting analyst Allen Trieu compared him to Texas A&M signal-caller Kellen Mond on Kaliakmanis' 247Sports profile and noted he "shows the arm talent to make all the necessary throws."
His athleticism combined with his release and arm strength make him one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in the country, and it's why schools like Boston College, Iowa, Tennessee and others tried to lure him to their programs.
Kaliakmanis should get the opportunity to learn under Morgan for at least a year, as Morgan is not ready to head to the NFL.
In a neat story by the Chicago Tribune's George Castle, Kaliakmanis discussed helping at his father's pizza restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, and that work ethic is probably a trait that will help him at the next level. He also has a practice mate in his household.
"I'm extremely blessed to have a brother who is a wide receiver," Kaliakmanis said of his brother, Dino, who will be joining him with the Golden Gophers. "We practice throwing balls out on the street. He runs routes. And I'll throw him some bad balls on purpose. He'll also come after me rushing so I can practice getting the ball off quickly."
The brothers hope to be part of Fleck's budding program and a big part of a future conference championship.
Christian Veilleux, Penn State Quarterback
What's happening at Penn State is unprecedented for the proud program. Never before have the Nittany Lions started the season winless after five games. They are now 1-5 after Saturday's win at Michigan.
Much like the Wolverines, they hope reinforcements are on the way.
One of the players PSU needs to be a difference-maker is 3-star Christian Veilleux. Early in the recruiting process, several programs wanted the 6'3½", 201-pound quarterback. Clemson, Tennessee, Duke, Arizona State, Boston College, Michigan and LSU were among those to extend early offers.
Though the No. 437 overall recruit is on the smallish side, his height and frame should allow for him to grow a lot and add weight. He is an Ontario, Canada, native who played this past year at The Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.
Veilleux told Rivals.com's Ryan Snyder the 2021 class isn't panicking about the Lions' awful season:
"Everybody is pretty chill about the situation. We have our group chat and stay in touch with each other everyday. We've all talked about it, and obviously want to see them do better, but we also like the challenge that's ahead of us. Everyone is still super high on Penn State and we're all excited to make an impact there as soon as possible. Honestly, I get the impression that our class loves Penn State now more than ever. Everyone is all-in."
That's big news for Penn State, which loves Veilleux's ability to make all the throws with a nice touch and quick release. It doesn't appear as though incumbent Sean Clifford is in danger of losing his job, but Veilleux has a good shot of earning the gig after he leaves.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.