10 B1G players who will outperform their 2020 numbers
Let’s be real, 2020 was a year we’d all like to forget.
But for some Big Ten football players, it was also a football season they wished would have gone better, as several stars from 2019 took a step back in the pandemic-shortened season.
Whether it was injury-related, a COVID-19 complication, a new coaching staff or just a random blip on the radar, one bad season doesn’t have to spoil a career, and 2021 can go a long way in proving that these players are closer to their potential of yesteryear than what played out in 2020.
Presented in alphabetical order, these are the 10 likeliest candidates for bounce-back seasons this year, determined to prove 2020 was just a fluke:
Tariq Castro-Fields, Penn State, CB
It’s fairly surprising that Castro-Fields is back in Happy Valley in 2021, considering 2020 was supposed to be a season where he showed NFL evaluators that he had the stuff to b a Day 2 NFL Draft selection. That was far from reality, however, as Castro-Fields was again nagged by injury and finished with just 6 tackles and no interceptions, necessitating a super senior season.
In 2021, Castro-Fields will be the leader of the secondary with Jaquan Brisker for the Lions. He’ll likely be tasked with guarding the best receiver, so it will be up to him to show that all of the blown assignments in 2020 were in fact a product of a banged-up lower body. He should lead the team in interceptions as he did in 2019.
Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State
Obviously, no one anticipated the type of season Penn State had in 2020, and there may have been no better symbol than the regression by Clifford. From being temporarily benched midseason, to his completion percentage still hovering around 60%, while his yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio all decreased, Penn State seemed likely to add a quarterback from the transfer portal this offseason.
Alas, Clifford made it through the spring as Penn State’s QB1, without any new additions, and the depth behind him even thinned. If anything, the job has never been more Clifford’s. With Jahan Dotson — arguably the Big Ten’s most explosive player — back, along with a healthy and experienced running back room and an above-average offensive line, if Clifford isn’t even better than he was in 2019, Franklin and new OC Mike Yurcich will have a lot of reflection to do about their decision to stick with the veteran.
Elijah Collins, Michigan State, RB
Collins returned to East Lansing in 2020 as the top returning running back in the Big Ten, looking to build off his ’19 season in which he ran for 988 yards. Instead, the Spartans’ ground game ran off a cliff, as Michigan State finished 13th in the conference, averaging just 91.7 yards a game. Collins rarely saw the field, recording double-digit carries just once last season, with his average per attempt sliced in half, dropping to a paltry 2.2 yards a carry.
Collins revealed this offseason that his lack of snaps and production were the result of some pretty serious COVID-19 complications, but he’s back, looking good as ever, particularly in Michigan State’s spring game. Collins’ season-long numbers might not reach the peak of 2019 because the Spartans have a 5-headed backfield this season that will split carries, but look for his average to creep much closer to 4.5 yards a carry.
Zach Harrison, Ohio State, DE
Harrison was supposed to be the next in a long line of stud defensive ends to flow through Columbus, following closely in the footsteps of Chase Young and the Bosa brothers. Unfortunately for the former 5-star recruit, Harrison didn’t have nearly as sensational of a 2020 sophomore season as Young had, finishing with just 14 tackles and 2 sacks.
Now with a normal offseason to train, 2021 could be the year we see Harrison take that leap as he works to become the next Ohio State first-round draft pick. Harrison definitely has the raw talent to be a guy that flirts with double-digit sacks in a season, it’s just a question of whether he can put it all together.
Peyton Hendershot, Indiana, TE
No doubt, 2020 was a smashing success for the Hoosiers — but not so much for their starting tight end. The year prior, Hendershot finished second on the team with 52 catches for 622 yards. Nearly every single one of his statistics took a nosedive in 2020 on a per-game basis, as he finished fourth on the team with 151 receiving yards, while seeing his yards per catch slashed nearly in half, going from 12.0 yards a catch to 6.6. He never recorded more than 40 receiving yards in a game last season, something he did 10 times in 2019.
Ty Fryfogle is back this season to carry the receiving load, but Hendershot must step up with the loss of target-leader Whop Philyor as Michael Penix Jr. returns to the field from his leg injury.
Brian Hightower, Illinois, WR
The former Miami wideout and 4-star recruit, Hightower debuted last season with the Illini and showed flashes of potential, but not nearly at the volume to be considered among the top receivers in the conference. For those good at math, his 11 catches in 6 games are less than 2 per game. When he did catch the ball, it was usually for chunk yardage, gaining 19.0 yards a reception while scoring 3 touchdowns.
With Josh Imatorbhebhe, one of Illinois’ all-time leading receivers, gone to the NFL, 2021 is the season for Hightower to make the jump and emerge as a serious and consistent downfield threat.
JJ Jefferson, Northwestern, WR
Jefferson was in the same kind of production territory as Hightower was in his first 2 seasons with the Wildcats in 2018 and ’19, averaging around 2 catches a game, peaking as high as 18.1 yards a reception in his freshman season, and scoring multiple touchdowns each year.
He was a 2020 opt-out, however, but 2021 could be the year his numbers bounce up, as Northwestern lacks an experienced explosive option that Jefferson could fill nicely as the Wildcats work in new transfer QB Ryan Hilinski. Jefferson won’t necessarily be among the top B1G receivers because of the type of offense Northwestern plays, but this year should see a significant jump in Jefferson’s statistics.
George Karlaftis, Purdue, DE
This is a play on Karlaftis appearing in just 3 games in 2020 due to injury, but playing at Purdue at a non-skill position, many may have forgotten or never heard of how good Karlaftis was in 2019 as a true freshman.
The AP First Team Freshman All-American tore through offensive lines, finishing with 17.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 12 games, 3rd and 11th in the Big Ten, respectively, in 2019. Last year in his limited snaps, he still finished atop the team leaderboard with 2 sacks, but a lack of health obviously left him out of the race for any of the other statistical categories across the Big Ten. With another full season under his belt in 2021, he’ll be regarded as one of the better players at his position.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska, QB
Thank goodness for his legs and his lengthy résumé as a starter, because otherwise Scott Frost didn’t have many reasons to keep trotting Martinez out as the Cornhuskers’ starting QB. Martinez’s yards per game, yards per attempt and touchdowns per game all were career lows in his 3-year career last season, as Nebraska could never get going.
While his completion percentage ticked upwards of 70% due to the limited types of passes Nebraska called for the veteran, Martinez was more effective with his legs than anything else. Wan’Dale Robinson has since transferred to Kentucky, so Nebraska must find a new No. 1 receiver, but without Luke McCaffrey breathing down Martinez’s neck, he should have a little more freedom to be relaxed, and hopefully find more success akin to his ’18 and ’19 seasons, which in turn will help the Cornhuskers move out of the bottom of the Big Ten West.
Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota
The 2019 season was the dream for PJ Fleck and the Gophers, as Morgan completed 66% of his passes with 30 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. Morgan ranked 4th in the country with 10.2 yards per attempt, as Minnesota finished 11-2.
There was expected to be some drop-off in 2020 with the loss of wide receiver Tyler Johnson, but with Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell in tow, Morgan was still expected to compete with the top numbers in the conference. Instead, Morgan completed less than 58% of passes at 7.5 yards a clip with only 7 touchdown to 5 interceptions. Bateman is off to the NFL, but Autman-Bell is one of the conference’s better receivers, and now with a second season under OC Mike Sanford Jr., Morgan should return to his 2019 form.