Second-year players highlight breakout candidates
Who will be this year’s Ezekiel Elliot or Maxx Williams? Here are five candidates to bust loose in the Big Ten this year.
Jabrill Peppers, DB (Michigan)
Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not true. The former 5-star recruit was on many breakout lists last year as a true freshman at Michigan. But he redshirted after just three games because of a leg injury. Now, back and healthy, the hype has returned to Ann Arbor. Peppers made the switch to safety, which will allow his 6-1, 205-pound frame to be maximized. There’s even talk that he’ll have an impact as a ball carrier not only on special teams, but on offense, as well. His size and speed made him the nation’s top athlete in the 2014 class. The New Jersey product had his choice to go to any school in the country and committed to former U of M coach Brady Hoke. He could’ve gone through the same process again after Hoke was fired this offseason, but elected to lead Jim Harbaugh’s group. Reports out of camp are that Peppers and Harbaugh are cut from the same mold. And in case you haven’t noticed, both have some lofty expectations this year.
Johnnie Dixon, WR (Ohio State)
Speaking of highly touted freshman, Johnnie Dixon also saw his rookie campaign come to an early close. The speedster came in as the Buckeyes’ top-rated offensive recruit in the 2014 class, but knee injuries derailed his first college season. No offense in the country has more weapons than Ohio State. Heisman candidates Ezekiel Elliot and whoever starts at quarterback will be lead the opposing scouting report. The talent of the Buckeye backfield should open up the playmaking ability of the wideouts. The versatile Jalin Marshall, who has been working to become a true outside receiver, and Michael Thomas are the two established targets. But the one-game suspension to Marshall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson should warrant increased reps for Dixon, which is the most important thing for him in the non-conference slate. A guy with Dixon’s quickness should have no problem emerging as a slot threat in Urban Meyer’s offense. Another weapon…exactly what the Buckeyes need.
Corey Clement, RB (Wisconsin)
He isn’t Melvin Gordon. He isn’t Montee Ball, either. He certainly isn’t Ron Dayne, John Clay or James White. But Corey Clement finds himself in the same position as the great Badger backs that paved the way before him. And as his predecessors found out, running behind a Badger O-line isn’t a bad thing. Clement will be taking over Gordon’s job after he gashed the nation for 2,587 yards on 343 carries. It’s somewhat amazing that Clement even got 147 carries last year with the workload Gordon handled as the feature back. But Clement did take advantage of his usage by ripping off 6.5 yards per carry as a sophomore. That’s probably why he said at Big Ten Media Days that he was shooting for no less than 2,000 yards on the ground. He’s easily the most established player on this list, but his production is still bound to spike without a Heisman candidate getting the majority of the work. With Paul Chryst back in Madison, the blueprint for the Badgers shouldn’t see much change. Joel Stave is still not the most reliable option for Wisconsin to move the chains. As usual, it’s the guy behind him.
Malik McDowell, DT (Michigan State)
The Sparty faithful was overjoyed with the offseason news that second-team All-American Shilique Calhoun was returning for his senior year. Perhaps none should’ve been celebrating quite like Malik McDowell. Now a sophomore, the 6-6, 285-pound defensive tackle will form a frightening duo alongside Calhoun. The former 5-star recruit made an immediate impact as a freshman, but didn’t start until Michigan State’s Cotton Bowl victory. Even though McDowell did plenty to live up to expectations — he was an All-Big Ten freshman — he said he’s a different player than he was last year. He told the Detroit Free Press that defensive line coach Ron Burton, offensive line coach Mark Staten and first-team All-American center Jack Allen were the three people that helped him improve the most. McDowell is literally surrounded by All-Americans every day he steps on to the practice field. It’s only a matter of time before he joins the club.
De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR/KR (Nebraska)
It might be unfair to truly call De’Mornay Pierson-El a breakout candidate. After all, he was named second-team All-American for his exploits as a true freshman kick returner. The aspect of Pierson-El’s game we haven’t seen all of yet is his receiving. He’s already one of the conference’s most electric players, but he’s raw as a wideout. He was a dual-threat high school quarterback in addition to a devastating special teams threat. Some of his inexperience at the position showed in critical moments last year. Two red zone fumbles against Minnesota masked a then-career best 87 receiving yards. He still has some fine-tuning to do to become an every-down option, but without Kenny Bell this year, Pierson-El should see plenty of action in Danny Langsford’s offense. Between he and human highlight reel Jordan Westerkamp, the Huskers shouldn’t lack excitement on the outside in 2015.