Yarina: My top 5 Big Ten football breakout players

This time of year, it’s always fun to look at the rosters and try to pick out the conference’s breakout stars. A year ago, if you had your eye on, say, Venric Mark, Allen Robinson, Jake Ryan or Ryan Shazier, you hit it out of the park. It’s time to go out on a limb and offer my top five candidates for who will go from an under-the-radar player to a household name in 2013.

1. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin – Perhaps a lame pick, because if the fleet-footed running back’s nine-carry, 219-yard effort in the Big Ten title game doesn’t qualify as a “breakout,” what does? Still, Gordon was the Badgers’ No. 3 back last year, behind Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball and James White, and finished with 621 rushing yards and four total scores. Splitting time with White, a senior, it’s possible Gordon could triple his rushing yards and touchdowns this fall. Remember, he averaged a ridiculous 10 yards per carry last year.

2. Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan – Tight ends are the new thing in football, and Funchess is the prototypical athletic target who can present mismatches against any defense. At 6-5, 228 pounds, and with the ability to go up and pluck the ball out of the air, the Michigan sophomore is a coach’s, offensive coordinator’s and quarterback’s best friend – particularly in the red zone. It comes as no surprise that five of Funchess’ 15 receptions last year went for six points. Touchdowns are hard to predict, but Funchess should only see his total increase with Devin Gardner under center for a full season.

3. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State – Calhoun is the perfect breakout candidate. He has so much working in his favor, from a maturing athletic frame (240 pounds up to 255) to playing on a defense loaded with playmakers to being under the tutelage of respected defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Calhoun may not have Will Gholston’s head-turning body – who does? – however he can rush the passer (5 QB hurries last year tied for team high) and has the ability to be a more consistent player than Gholston.

4. Imani Cross, RB, Nebraska – A touchdown poacher late last season, Cross has worked on becoming a more complete back and could be in store for a Carlos Hyde-like season. He’ll have to battle stud Ameer Abudllah and others for carries, but he’s already proven he can be a huge weapon on limited totes. This is a back who Tim Beck and Bo Pelini trusted with red zone and goal-line carries as a true freshman, so he figures to get plenty of opportunities to finish off drives created by Abdullah, Taylor Martinez, Kenny Bell and the rest of Nebraska’s prolific unit.

5. Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue – Purdue is no stranger to standout defensive ends, and Russell, as many have predicted, is the next in line. A rising junior, fresh off a season in which he posted 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, Russell is a prime candidate to become a household name this fall. It won’t be easy, though, as the Texas product and the rest of the Purdue defense no longer have stud DT Kawann Short around to soak up so much of the offense’s attention. No matter, Russell has the size and speed to terrorize quarterbacks off the edge.

About Brent Yarina BTN.com web editor Brent Yarina covers football and men’s basketball for BTN.com. He writes the popular uniform feature “Clothes Call,” which also focuses on the latest cosmetic changes across Big Ten arenas and stadiums. Read all of his work here. You can subscribe to Yarina’s RSS feed and follow him on Twitter @BTNBrentYarina.

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12 Comments

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buci01 on 5/21/2013 @ 1:35pm EDT Said:

Hello Sir, Apparently you lost your way somehow and could not find Your way to Columbus, Ohio. I believe that at least two of the Student-Athletes could be on your list, if you aren’t Anti Ohio State. On the defensive side of the football there is , Adolphus Washington and on the offensive side of the ball there is , Nick Vannett. Thank You. Have Fairh. Go Bucks !!!!

Tony on 5/21/2013 @ 1:49pm EDT Said:

Good thing Ohio State is already loaded, because the Big Ten is shaping up to actually be kind of strong this year. I can’t wait for B1G football to start again!!!!!

Ed Crawford on 5/21/2013 @ 3:08pm EDT Said:

I know Iowa had a bad year last year. If they can keep most of the talent healthy, in class, and out of jail, they could be much better than just beating Minnesota, Mich.st. and northern Illinois.
They need to get aggressive and unpredictable and find a mean streak. If that happens, look-out big ten!

scott s on 5/21/2013 @ 3:30pm EDT Said:

oh boy did someones feelings get hurt because for once there was no ohio players on some kind a pole??? remember ohio doesnt need a break out player there are all so damn good thats why??????? not. but thats the way everybody in the big ten is saying about ohio. it makes me sick.

Christian on 5/21/2013 @ 4:03pm EDT Said:

Really showing a highlight of Imani Cross when they are down by 40+ with under a minute in the game? Lmao.

Craig on 5/21/2013 @ 4:25pm EDT Said:

As if Purdue doesn’t have enough issues you put one of their players on a list like this. If that isn’t the kiss of death I don’t know what is.

Boo Little on 5/21/2013 @ 4:30pm EDT Said:

Scott….you are funny….”cause no ohio players on some kind a pole???” Really?? Nice spelling and use of words….LMAO….by the way…it’s Ohio STATE….OR “THE” Ohio St. Buckeyes!!!! GO BUCKS!!!

djuanego on 5/21/2013 @ 5:18pm EDT Said:

Imani doesn’t posses the break away speed yet. But I’ve had my eye on melvin Gordon. If James wasn’t coming back id take him pretty high in my league.

bob jones on 5/21/2013 @ 7:59pm EDT Said:

By the way, despite being in exceptional condition and extremely strong coming in as a true freshman last year, Imani Cross has dropped about 15 pounds so he can be a bigger all around threat and not just a goal line guy. Impressive young man, nice pick.

Will Edwards on 5/21/2013 @ 8:01pm EDT Said:

Scott S = Michigan Man

Dakota on 5/22/2013 @ 12:09pm EDT Said:

@ Scott S – This is the Big Ten Network site, not the MAC network. That might ease your confusion regarding why there was no Ohio players listed. On a separate note, Little surprised that no Ohio State player were there ;D

Tim Harb on 5/23/2013 @ 12:03am EDT Said:

I like Cross but if you watch his run he has a few things to learn. He hasn’t done much with his foort work like he needs too. You can tell he not getting his knees up or anything. I will admit that I will miss Burkehead this year.

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