Before everyone rips this to shreds for their favorite players not being on here, I don’t apologize. I’m putting in five players on offense and five players on defense for you to watch out for in the Big Ten. Some of these will be obvious and some you’ll learn about during this read.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Starting on the offensive side of the ball, it’s clear where to start. Saquon Barkley could be the best offensive prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. You can consider me crazy or you can just believe in the hype. It’s real and he’s the real deal. He should have another strong campaign for Penn State. Essentially, his hype is real and many know his name, so why am I including him on this list?
He’ll be mentioned as one of the top players for the Big Ten and there’s a chance he’s a Heisman candidate. After 1,000 yards rushing as a freshman, Barkley barreled through his sophomore campaign. He finished the 2016 season with 1,496 rushing yards on 272 carries. Throughout his first two seasons at Happy Valley, he’s averaging an astounding 5.7 yards per carry and has 25 career rushing touchdowns. Expect him to pick up where he left off and be the best player in the Big Ten.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
If there could be a quarterback to represent the Big Ten, it would be J.T. Barrett. The Ohio State University quarterback always finds a way to impress on Saturdays. However, he’s already been criticized as a “system” quarterback and not a “pro-style” quarterback. Certainly, he’s not launching the ball for passing stats but he manages the game well.
Barrett doesn’t play selfish, he plays to win. His career record is 26-4 and the Buckeyes finished the 2016 season with an 11-2 record. Going into this season, he won’t have Curtis Samuel or Noah Brown. That won’t stop him from making things work with Dontre Wilson and Marcus Baugh. Let’s not forget the Buckeyes do run the ball well and Mike Weber will be a big focal point on offense. However, Barrett can run too.
Last year, the senior captain, ran for 845 yards and nine touchdowns. Throughout his career, he’s ran for almost 2,500 yards and 31 touchdowns. In my opinion, Barrett is the best quarterback in the Big Ten. Most fans know about him because of the times he wins late in games or he hurts your feelings with his 63% completion percentage. What about the fact that he helped lead the Big Ten and Ohio State to 24 first downs (on average) per game? The former Heisman trophy candidate shouldn’t be forgotten about, he should be on this list and I think he’ll excel beyond this list. See the 2018 NFL Draft.
Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
Moving back to the running game, Akrum Wadley is a man playing a kids game. In 2016, Wadley came into his own. Topping 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career, Wadley proved he could be an every down back for the Hawkeyes. By the way, the Hawkeyes run the ball a lot. Not the most in the Big Ten but 502 team carries was the total for this past season. Keep in mind, Wadley played behind Leshun Daniels Jr., who led the team with 213 carries.
Wadley only had 168 carries but still managed 1,081 yards for 6.4 YPC (yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. To top it off, Wadley can even catch passes out of the backfield. He was second on the team with 36 receptions, 315 yards and three touchdowns. Keep in mind, he played in all 13 games in 2016 but only played in 13 games between 2014 and 2015. There were some serious ball-security issues with Wadley. He looked to overcome it last year and we’re hoping it continues to improve, this season.
With Daniels in the NFL, Wadley can be the lead back and should see a vast majority of the carries. There will always be competition in the backfield, especially with James Butler transferring from Nevada. However, Wadley should win most of the snaps because of his elusive running style and ability to catch out of the backfield.
L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State
Moving along to the final running back on this list, L.J. Scott from Michigan State. My belief is that he’s due for a big season in East Lansing. From his freshman season to his sophomore season, there was almost a 40 carry increase (38 to be exact). Of course, those extra carries led to extra yards (295 yards).
Finishing the 2016 season just short of 1,000 yards, L.J. Scott will look to run the ball even more and breakout as one of the top backs in the Big Ten. Aside being one of the better tailbacks in the conference, he’ll also look to improve the Spartans dreaded 3-9 record.
One way for the junior running back to do that is by improving his touchdown total. He went from scoring 11 touchdowns in 2015 to only six touchdowns in 2016. There’s no question that losing Connor Cook and replacing it with a quarterback carousel, doesn’t favor anyone. However, Scott should be the lead back in an offense that only had 471 carries last year. He had 184 of those carries and should easily top 200 carries. He displays proper balance, lower body strength and patience, there’s no reason he doesn’t get used more. Changes need to happen in East Lansing and it starts by using L.J. Scott more in the backfield.
Malik Turner, WR, Illinois
Lastly in this preview of Big Ten offensive players is from Illinois. Malik Turner is a 6’3”/205 lb wide receiver who’s due for a breakout season. Last year was the best season of Turner’s college career and there’s no reason to believe he can’t top it this year.
Obviously, I could add players like Drew Wolitarsky, Jazz Peavy or Nick Westbrook to the list. However, Malik Turner is a bright spot in a really bad passing game. The Fighting Illini only completed 51.1% of their passes, which only trailed Rutgers for worst in the Big Ten. That didn’t stop Malik Turner, though. The junior wideout had 48 receptions, 712 yards and six touchdowns.
Vertically he’s gifted and over the middle of the field, he displays elusiveness and strong hands. Turner might benefit from his team being down but he’s long athlete and is fluid in space. He does a nice job of attacking the football in the air and has a strong catch point. With just an average quarterback, there’s no reason that he can’t have an above average senior season and breakout as one of the better wideouts in the Big Ten.