The Big Ten put a wrap on spring football last weekend, with Iowa and Minnesota playing the final spring games in the conference. Now, the long offseason begins. But, honestly, this is when players get better—not from September to December.
Here’s a look at the players who exceled this spring, giving them plenty of mojo entering the key summer period.
WR Chris Fields, Ohio State, Sr. Time and again, he made plays all spring to earn himself a starting spot in the fall alongside Philly Brown—another spring stud–and Devin Smith. The inconsistency that dogged Fields last year is gone. Time for this Buckeye passing game to emerge.
WR Mike Jensen, Northwestern, Sr. He unofficially was tabbed the MVP of spring ball by Pat Fitzgerald. The four-year member of NU’s Leadership Council had a productive spring in the wide receiver spot previously occupied by graduated senior Demetrius Fields. Jensen is a possession-type who will play a key role in what should be a standout Wildcat receiving corps.
TE Jake Long, Nebraska, Sr. The former walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., saw action the last two years behind standouts Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton. In the spring, Long showed he’s ready to be the No. 1 man.
OL Ty Howle, Penn State, Sr. Losing All-Big Ten center Matt Stankiewitch hurts. But Howle eased those fears with a strong spring to lock up the pivot spot on what should be a strong Nittany Lions line. The guy is smart and tough.
OL Corey Lewis, Illinois, Sr. He solidified a starting spot at tackle, being named most improved player this spring for a Fighting Illini line that has a lot to prove. It’s impressive stuff when you consider this was Lewis’ first spring practice since tearing an ACL in 2010. The sixth-year senior has endured five knee surgeries.
OL Robert Kugler, Purdue, So. Last spring, he was moved from tight end to offensive line. He subsequently started the last half of 2012 at guard as a redshirt freshman. This spring, Kugler has emerged as the Boilermakers’ top center—and top offensive lineman. His intensity and passion are unmatched—and he’s a smart player whose father is an o-line coach by trade and who is the new head coach at UTEP.
OL Fou Fonoti, Michigan State, Sr. The big right tackle is back from a foot injury suffered after two games in 2012 that ended the ex-JC transfer’s season. And he looks ready to go. Fonoti also must be a leader for a veteran unit that welcomes back seven players with starting experience for what should be one of the Big Ten’s best lines.
OL Jake Cotton, Nebraska, Jr. The other four starting spots will be filled by fifth-year seniors. Cotton will man the other, assuming command at a guard slot after a strong spring. Growing up as the son of Huskers offensive line coach Barney Cotton no doubt has helped Jake’s development.
QB Devin Gardner, Michigan, Jr. He was thrust into the starting lineup last season after an injury to Denard Robinson. And Gardner showed promise. This spring, he took the next step in his development as a leader. It will be fun to see how the Wolverine offense looks with a more seasoned Gardner at the helm.
RB Riley Bullough, Michigan State, Fr. A linebacker by trade, will the 230-pound Bullough stay at running back? Or will an incoming freshman take the job? He looked good this spring, giving the Spartans the between-the-tackles production Mark Dantonio wants. The younger brother of MSU linebacker Max, Riley is a bruiser.
RB Donovonn Young, Illinois, Jr. A physical back, Young ran for 86 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. New coordinator Bill Cubit has installed a north-south ground game that fits Young’s most physical style. He must help this moribund attack improve.
RB Jack Hoffman, Nebraska. I know there already are two running backs on this list. But, hey, I had to find a spot for the little guy on this team after that impressive 69-yard touchdown jaunt in the spring game. The 7-year-old has some nice wheels!
Here’s the TD run again:
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DL Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State, So. The disruptive Calhoun stepped in for William Gholston at an end spot this spring and turned some heads, though coordinator Pat Narduzzi says Calhoun is capable of much more. It will be fun to watch him and new tackle Lawrence Thomas, a former fullback, work up front for what should be the Big Ten’s best defense.
DL Adolphus Washington, Ohio State, So. He arrived last year as part of a much ballyhooed group of defensive line recruits. Now, Washington may be emerging as the star of the group for a unit that lost all four starters. The guy had four—count ‘em FOUR—sacks in the spring game.
DL Carl Davis, Iowa, Jr. The tackle showed flashes last season and continued to grow this spring, notching three sacks and knocking down two passes in the spring game. The Hawkeyes need the mammoth Davis to continue to dominate in the fall for a defense that needs playmakers. Iowa finished last in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss.
DL Ryan Russell, Purdue, Jr. The big fella is on the precipice of breaking out as the Boilermakers’ next great defensive end. Russell had a sack, forced fumble and broken up pass in Purdue’s spring game, showing a burst to go with his ample size and strength.
LB Nyeem Wartman, Penn State, Fr. He almost was a contributor last season until injury struck in the non-conference, forcing him to redshirt. Now, Wartman looks to have earned a starting spot along with Glenn Carson and Mike Hull with his speed, smarts and athletic ability.
LB James Ross, Michigan, So. The Wolverines were left scrambling a bit with an injury to Jake Ryan. But Ross emerged this spring. Ross, who had a team-high eight tackles in the spring game, lacks size but is the Wolverines’ quickest linebacker.
LB Curtis Grant, Ohio State, Jr. Urban Meyer said he is now “fully engaged.” That wasn’t the case last season. The uber-talented middle linebacker finally looks primed to capitalize on the ample skill he brought to campus as a five-star recruit. Grant had a team-high eight tackles in the spring game.
DB Josh Mitchell, Nebraska, Jr. He went from part-time starter to reliable playmaker at a corner spot. Keep an eye on this guy. Mitchell could be part of a strong Cornhusker secondary for a defense that has a lot to prove in 2013.
DB Derrick Wells, Minnesota, Jr. He played a big role in helping the Golden Gophers rank fourth in the Big Ten in pass defense last season as a safety. Wells made a seamless transition to cornerback this spring, as Minnesota looks to replace two starting corners.
DB Traveon Henry, Northwestern, So. The Wildcats know what they have in their other safety, Ibraheim Campbell. And, NU may now know what it has in the other. Henry played as a true freshman last season. This spring, he showed expanded knowledge to go with this impressive physical skills.
DB Trae Waynes, Michigan State, So. He quelled any fears about the departure of Johnny Adams, showing great instincts at cornerback this spring. Waynes gave a preview of his skills by excelling in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl after last season. He has a nice combination of size and speed.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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