Big Ten Football: 6 Sleepers Who Will Shock the Conference in 2014
Everything is new again in the Big Ten in 2014—from the division names (East and West now) to the makeup of the divisions and even the membership of the conference itself. So, 2014 could bring a lot of surprises to those who live and breathe Big Ten football.
With the inclusion of Rutgers and Maryland, the B1G will get its first introduction to East Coast football, if you will. Add in the spice of a new recruiting class, plus a lot of talent headed off to the NFL, and there are plenty of opportunities for new names to take giant steps forward.
Sleepers played a big role in the Big Ten last season, with names like Jeremy Langford (Michigan State) and Steve Hull (Illinois) playing big roles despite very little attention paid to them in the offseason.
Just who those players will be in 2014 could be a mystery to some, but spring football has given us a few indications as to some who might shock everyone.
Let's find out who the biggest sleepers in the Big Ten will be this season (in no particular order).
Chikwe Obasih (DE, Wisconsin)
The vibe around Wisconsin's spring practice has been that the UW defense is very different than it was a season ago, specifically up front where speed has been a huge difference-maker for the Badgers.
“That defense right now ... appears to fly around and be very fast,” head coach Gary Andersen said, via Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal. “They’re playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. That’s exciting to see.”
Part of the reason Wisconsin has been playing with so much speed is redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih. He's seen an increasing role this spring, and at 6"2" and 245 pounds, Obasih is a very different defensive lineman than Wisconsin has been used to.
It appears the former 3-star recruit (according to 247sports' composite rankings) is competing for a role as a starting defensive end with fellow redshirt freshman Alec James.
Obasih's speed off the edge gives the Badgers a different look, and by season's end he could be a player a lot of people are talking about in the Big Ten.
Martize Barr (WR, Illinois)
Illinois' high-flying passing offense under offensive coordinator Bill Cubit lends itself to making stars out of quarterbacks and wide receivers. One name that sticks out as a potential star for 2014 is redshirt senior Martize Barr.
While the Illini had a few receivers with big numbers, Barr wasn't one of them—collecting 26 receptions for 246 yards and one touchdown. It put him fifth on the team in receptions and sixth in receiving yards last season.
Most of the big producers are gone, and that means Barr needs to step up as a leader for a very young position group. He also has a big experience advantage, and according to Cubit during the Big Ten teleconference, Barr has made drastic improvements over a season ago.
Don't be surprised to see Barr as one of the leading receivers on the Illini and one of the more explosive receivers in the league as well. As long as he's healthy, Barr could be a sleeper for All-Big Ten honors at wide receiver.
Darron Lee (LB, Ohio State)
It isn't too often that a linebacker at Ohio State goes under the radar, but that's exactly the case with Darron Lee. Of course, that's easy to do when you played quarterback and safety in high school and were a 3-star recruit at a position full of 4 and 5-star recruits.
However, since putting on some weight since last year, Lee has vaulted himself into playing a ton of reps with the No. 1 defense this spring. He's certainly drawn the attention of head coach Urban Meyer, and when you do that, the chances of seeing the field increase dramatically.
Lee isn't the first, second or even third name most people were talking about coming into this spring, and he may not even start, depending on who fits where. But don't sleep on Lee's ability to be a major contributor in 2014 either.
Reggie Love (WR, Wisconsin)
Wisconsin has a major hole or three to fill at wide receiver, so someone has to step up and become a playmaker for this team. Look no further than a name that has been buried on the depth chart, a player who has spent more time in the training room than on the field—Reggie Love.
The sophomore wide receiver hasn't had a lot of luck on the injury front in his early days at Wisconsin, but when he's on the field, Love is one of the guys that stands out—it doesn't hurt that he's 6'3" and 210 pounds.
Now it's about using that combination of height and weight to his advantage when he's on the field. Love has played football for just three years total entering this season, which makes him an interesting prospect to watch.
He redshirted last season to both get healthy and catch up mentally with the game. That extra study and practice time, plus his restored health, could make him a major player for the Badgers in 2014. There may not be a more talented, although raw, wide receiver on the UW roster right now. If and when Love puts it together, he could scare many opposing defenses.
Gary Wooten (LB, Penn State)
Gary Wooten came to Penn State as a 3-star linebacker according the 247Sports composite, and as the No. 55-ranked outside linebacker, he wasn't a much talked about recruit for "Linebacker U" either.
However, Wooten managed to see the field from time to time as a true freshman, recording six tackles in 10 games played—that's a good way to get your feet wet, but by no means a harbinger of greatness to come.
Then along came a new coaching staff, and Wooten's name has suddenly become a focus of their conversation. Wooten has gone from good to a blossoming prospect that could challenge for major minutes with the change in staff and perspective.
A good day on Saturday in the spring game will also go a long way toward making Wooten into a known quantity outside the world of Happy Valley and the coaching staff's offices.
Reggie Spearman (LB, Iowa)
Iowa has built up their own strong tradition at linebacker, and with three seniors gone to the NFL there's a wide-open hole for someone to become the next star LB for the Hawkeyes.
After 2013 there's no doubt that many in Hawkeyeland are looking to one name to be that guy, and that's sophomore Reggie Spearman. It's not hard to see why, considering he finished with a double digit total in tackles (10) behind three starters who rarely came off the field.
Spearman showcased a big upside and some strong athletic ability as a freshman, and enters this spring as a starting outside linebacker, according to the depth chart published at the start of spring courtesy of Quad City Times.
Going from freshman with upside to a player known conference-wide is not an easy task at linebacker, but Spearman possesses the tools to do just that.