1 Freshman to Watch for on Every Big Ten Football Team in 2014
There will be plenty of Big Ten teams eager to make a run at a conference championship in 2014 and secure the likely resulting berth in the College Football Playoff. In order to make those dreams a reality, programs certainly need great coaching and steady on-field leadership from the upperclassmen.
Moving a team from good to championship-caliber greatness often requires some unexpected contributions from unexpected placed—like the freshmen.
Here, we'll take a look at each Big Ten football program and identify a first-year player (usually meaning true or redshirt freshmen) who can truly make a difference for his team.
Andre Boggs, WR/CB, Rutgers
Dre Boggs, part of the class of 2014, is actually entering his second year following his high school graduation. After spending 2013 at Avon Old Farms School prep academy (for academic reasons), Boggs is now a year older and physically more mature than his fellow freshmen.
Boggs should also benefit from his semi-early enrollment at Rutgers (enrolling in the summer to take part in some summer camps and workout sessions). Boggs even told Dan Duggan of NJ.com that he doesn't "consider myself a freshman."
But will he play like a freshman? Is he ready to take on some of the best defenses in the nation each and every week?
"I'm more than ready. I was born ready," Boggs said later in the same NJ.com interview. His speed and athleticism make him one of the stars of Rutgers' recruiting class of 2014.
What else could make him a star? His ability to play either wide receiver or corner—or perhaps even both.
Austin Hudson, S, Wisconsin
There's no question about Wisconsin's ability to score points in bunches. The Badgers defense, on the other hand, often flies under the radar when compared to the abilities of the offense.
Perhaps that philosophy carries over to the recruiting realm as well.
Austin Hudson wasn't particularly touted as a recruit, ranked just 272nd by 247Sports.com among recruits from the state of Florida. The 3-star's national ranking was somewhere in the mid-1,800s and even among safeties, he rose no higher than 172nd. Still, we believe there's reason to keep an eye on this promising true freshman.
First, the Badgers sorely need some production from the safety position. Wisconsin isn't returning a single starter at safety as Tanner McEvoy moves back to the quarterback position after spending 2013 in the defensive secondary. Hudson enrolled early and participated in spring practices, and if Hudson learns his role quickly, don't be surprised if he's in the backfield come September.
After all, Gary Andersen doesn't have any qualms about playing true freshmen. Sojourn Shelton played his true freshman 2013 season at corner for the Badgers and accumulated 31 tackles, five pass breakups, a forced fumble and four interceptions.
Derrick Willies, WR, Iowa
Derrick Willies, a redshirt freshman wideout, has impressed early in 2014. After a dominating performance in Iowa's spring game, Hawkeyes fans are eagerly awaiting his appearance on the field against some real competition this fall.
What makes Willies' entrance so exciting is the very real possibility that he could add something Iowa has seemingly lacked for quite some time: A true threat at wide receiver capable of taking on any defensive secondary the Big Ten can throw his way.
Willies, an Illinois native, selected Iowa over Iowa State and a handful of MAC and FCS programs. Perhaps Kirk Ferentz has found himself another diamond in the rough with this 3-star prospect. Despite being relatively unheralded out of high school, Willies has shown glimpses of brilliance in practices and cmaps leading up to his debut season.
If Willies can deliver some big catches in big situations, it may be just the ingredient Iowa has been missing in its recipe for success in the Big Ten.
Corey Clements, OL, Purdue
Corey Clements is joining a team in disarray. Purdue was particularly terrible in 2013, winning just one game all season, and that was by six points against a 1-11 FCS team with it's lone win against a Division II program. We're betting Darrell Hazell never thought he'd land on the hot seat quite this fast in West Lafayette.
Still, programs don't resurrect themselves overnight. One excellent place to start on the long road back to Big Ten relevance for Purdue is the offensive line.
Hazell likes a physical style of football, and Corey Clements seems to be the perfect fit for such a philosophy. The gargantuan 6'8", 340-pound behemoth will be tasked with providing some added space for a struggling offense to try to move the football downfield.
We're not sure if Clements is instantly going to emerge as a game-changer for Purdue; 340 pounds is pretty big, even for the Big Ten. But don't expect this JUCO transfer to spend his first season on the bench.
It might not be able to support him anyway.
Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois
Okay, first things first: Jihad Ward isn't technically a freshman. He's actually a junior. But as one of the nation's top 2014 JUCO transfers, this fall will mark his first FBS season.
His junior year, which could be considered his "freshman" campaign at Illinois, is one that could easily be a breakout season not only for Ward, but for the Illini as well. Ward is just one of five JUCO stars who will make their debut at Illinois this season. Head coach Tim Beckman is obviously aware that another abysmal performance will all but guarantee his firing at season's end.
With Illinois finishing the 2013 season with the 112th-ranked total defense in the nation, adding an athlete like Ward can't hurt. In fact, Ward, a 6'6", 285-pound defensive tackle, has more than enough strength to plug more than a few holes in the middle of the defensive line.
With Big Ten opponents aware of Illinois' struggles against the run (118th in rush defense in 2013), Ward will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays in his "big time" college football season in 2014.
Garrett Dickerson, ATH, Northwestern
When Northwestern fans hear the name Dickerson, they immediately think of returning junior wide receiver Cameron Dickerson, who had some impressive impact plays during his sophomore year in 2013.
But there will be another Dickerson added to Northwestern's roster in 2014: Cameron's younger brother, Garrett.
Garrett, a 4-star, do-it-all athlete received a whopping 23 scholarship offers from programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Florida State, South Carolina, Stanford and Georgia Tech. But he chose Northwestern, thanks in large part, we assume, to his brother.
Garrett is arguably one of the best recruits in the history of Northwestern football. His wide-raging skill set fits in beautifully with Pat Fitzgerald's offense, and you can expect to see Garrett on the field this fall in all sorts of formations.
Despite being mainly a defensive end and tight end in high school, Garrett will likely be part of the Wildcats' unconventional offensive backfield in 2014. Running, catching and, who knows, maybe even throwing a few footballs are all likely on his to-do list this season.
Maybe, just maybe, with the addition of a guy like Garrett Dickerson this year, Northwestern will be able to turn a few more of those close losses in 2013 into close wins in 2014.
Demetrius Cooper, DE, Michigan State
Demetrius Cooper was once a highly-touted defensive prospect out of Chicago. That was before suffering a devastating knee injury during his junior year of high school. After missing his entire senior season, most of the once-high interest in him from some of the Big Ten's top programs all but vanished.
All except that of Michigan State.
"That's one of the schools that really stayed with me, they knew I was hurt and they were like we're going to stick with you, we're not the type of school to just walk away," Cooper told MLive.com's Kyle Austin.
Only Iowa State and North Carolina State joined MSU on Cooper's list of offers from the "Power Five" conferences. Other programs that had once shown a strong interest in Cooper simply cut all communication with him after his injury.
Recalling his recruiting process with Michigan, Cooper told MLive.com, "[Michigan] just stopped talking to me. I'd call them and they'd say, 'Who is this?'"
Not Michigan State. Cooper rewarded MSU's dedication to him by signing on with the Spartans.
After redshirting in 2013, Cooper is ready to take his place among one of the nation's premiere defensive units. During his redshirt season, Cooper added 40 pounds. But just how good can he be despite not playing a snap of football in nearly three years?
Good enough to be No. 2 on the depth chart behind Shilique Calhoun, one of the nation's top returning defensive ends. It's a safe bet we'll see Cooper this fall, and if MSU's defensive recruiting history tells us anything, it's that Spartans fans can expect good things.
Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
Freshmen offensive linemen are rare. Freshmen offensive linemen that can make an impact are rarer still. Damian Prince could be one of the rarest.
You think of freshmen, 18 or 19-year-olds, as fresh-faced, slightly smaller and much more inexperienced versions of their upperclass teammates.
Prince, however, isn't your typical freshman. The District Heights, Maryland, prospect was the No. 1 player coming out of Maryland in the class of 2014 and the No. 2 offensive tackle and No. 27 overall recruit nationally.
The top Maryland signee from the class of 2014, the Terrapins are clearly upgrading the level of the offensive line for the move to the Big Ten. Prince is a great start and should raise some eyebrows in the Terps' new conference.
Joe Keels, DL, Nebraska
Joe Keels, from Wisconsin, began his collegiate career at Highland Community College in Kansas. But now that he's making the move to the bright lights of the FBS, we'll include him in our list of "freshmen" players ready to make an impact.
Nebraska has a history of turning some of the top JUCO prospects into household names (think Randy Gregory). Can Bo Pelini and his staff do that again with Keels? He was ranked as the No. 1 JUCO defensive tackle transfer in the class of 2014, and he's one of the overall top 30.
Many expected Keels to eventually wind up at Wisconsin, but he instead decided on Nebraska for the 2014 season. The Cornhuskers could use a fresh influx of talent on defense after a rocky start to 2013. With Keels' ability to plug holes and shed blocks, we're expecting a modest improvement up front at the very minimum.
Dominique Booth, WR, Indiana
Indiana doesn't really need any more weapons on offense, but the Hoosiers will get one in Dominique Booth.
With all of the passing that goes on in Bloomington, you can't have too many top-flight receivers, and Booth has all the tools needed to become just that. With the Hoosiers needing to fill a few holes in the receiving corps for 2014, Booth might just get his chance to make some big contributions early in his collegiate career.
This 4-star prospect turned down offers from Alabama, Florida State, Michigan State and Texas A&M to play for his home-state Hoosiers—possibly because head coach Kevin Wilson is always eager to use talent, even if it comes in the form of a 6'0", 195-pound freshman with good speed and superglue-lined hands.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan is the No. 1-rated linebacker from the class of 2014. A decade or two ago, that wouldn't mean much more than expectations for a few years down the road. Today, however, top-flight recruits like McMillan are expected to compete for a roster spot from day one—especially when that recruit is joining a defense that had its fair share of problems in the prior campaign.
Given Ohio State's performance in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game and the 2014 Orange Bowl, it wouldn't be surprising to see McMillan competing for a starting slot during fall camp.
With returning starters Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant anchoring the linebacking corps, McMillan will be an excellent addition to the grouping. Still, he has to replace the amazing defensive production of Ryan Shazier—no easy task for anyone, no matter how touted he was coming out of high school.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota
Minnesota returns running back David Cobb for 2014 after he put up over 1,200 yards for a program that wasn't all that bad in the rushing department last season (fifth in the Big Ten). That might lead some to believe that Jeff Jones, a 4-star recruit from Minneapolis and the nation's No. 11 running back, won't be urgently needed this season.
But consider this: Jones earned MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game on the heels of a superb senior prep season that earned him offers from Florida, Missouri, Michigan State and even run-happy Wisconsin. All of a sudden, it appears as if head coach Jerry Kill has an electric one-two punch in Cobb and Jones for 2014.
With ample questions still remaining about the quarterback situation at Minnesota, the Golden Gophers are likely to lean heavily on the running game this fall—and the Gophers were already a run-first kind of team.
With the upward trajectory of the program in mind, Kill is likely eager to capitalize both on the momentum and the boost Jones, the best recruit of the Kill era, can provide right away.
Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State
New Penn State head coach James Franklin probably had a list of things he needed to have in place before he could ready his team to make a little noise in the Big Ten during his first year on the sidelines. Standout quarterback? Check. Strong offensive line? Getting there. Capable running backs? Looking pretty good. Strong wide receivers? Uh oh.
Penn State, with the departure of Allen Robinson, suddenly had a big hole to fill for 2014. Robinson had nearly 100 receptions in 2013, and no other Penn State receiver topped 30.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, Franklin had his list in hand when he went shopping during recruiting season. The addition of Chris Godwin provides quarterback Christian Hackenberg with a fellow underclassman to target in a big way right from Week 1 of the season.
Godwin, a 6'2", 205-pound receiver is quick, but he also plays with a physical edge that should make him a weekly featured wideout against some tough Big Ten defenses.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
There is no freshman in 2014, or in recent memory, that has created as much buzz as Michigan's Jabrill Peppers is today.
Michigan hasn't exactly been performing like Michigan as of late, and Wolverines fans are hopeful that Peppers can provide that much-needed spark to propel the program back into the realm of relevancy in the Big Ten championship hunt. Michigan's only win over the last half of 2013 came against struggling Northwestern in three overtimes—and Michigan needed a miracle running clock, final-second field goal just to get the opportunity.
Brady Hoke and staff then had to sit and watch as Mark Dantonio up at Michigan State began to make some recruiting noise of his own, signing a big in-state name like Malik McDowell.
But as great as any Michigan native in the class of 2014 is, none really compares to Peppers, a 5-star corner out of New Jersey.
Peppers is clearly the kind of prospect Michigan needs: very highly touted, overflowing with potential, ready to play now, all while fitting into a roster position at which Michigan needs to improve.
Of all the potential impact freshmen we'll see in the 2014 season, none may have a bigger impact in the Big Ten than Michigan's Jabrill Peppers.
Note: All recruiting rankings are from our friends at 247Sports.com, unless otherwise noted.
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