Yarina: My top 5 Big Ten football breakout players

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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