Dienhart: Top freshmen to watch in 2017

Dienhart: Top freshmen to watch in 2017

Trying to forecast which true freshmen will impact each fall is often a dicey proposition. No one is too sure which newbies really are developmentally and mentally ready to make a significant contribution their first season on campus after leaving high school.

But after canvassing those who cover the league and talking to other experts, here is a good estimation as to which true freshman from each school not only figures to play—but impact–in 2017.

Illinois: WR Ricky Smalling. He could be a playmaker for an offense that has a lot of questions. One of the biggest: Who will throw passes to Smalling and the other Illini wideouts? The 6-1, 195-pound Chicago-area prospect caught 230 passes in his prep career. He has the size to work over the middle and the speed to stretch the field.

Indiana: S Juwan Burgess. The gem of the Hoosiers class, the 5-11, 185-pound Tampa native was committed to USC. But he flipped to Indiana. It helped that Burgess was a prep teammate of Thomas Allen, whose dad is IU coach Tom Allen. Burgess is a dynamic athlete whose skills should get him on the field sooner rather than later, even though the Hoosiers have a loaded secondary.

Iowa: DE A.J. Epenesa. A Hawkeye legacy, the 6-5, 240-pound Edwardsville, Ill., native is one of the most touted recruits that Kirk Ferentz ever has inked. Epenesa could provide a much-needed pass-rushing push for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz has played just four true freshmen in the trenches since 2007: OT Bryan Bulaga (2007); DE Christian Ballard (2007); OL James Daniels (2015); DT Cedric Lattimore (2016). Epenesa should join that group.

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Maryland: S Markquese Bell. The 6-2, 200-pound Bell is good at tracking the ball and likes to hit. The New Jersey native has potential to be a rangy ball hawk. Also, keep an eye on RB Anthony McFarland on the other end, although he’s behind some good backs on this roster.

Michigan: WRs Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones. The Wolverines may be impacted by true freshmen as much as any Big Ten team. The 6-2, 190-pound Peoples-Jones and the 6-4, 208-pound Black were early enrollees who wowed in the spring. Both wide receivers will be counted on, and Peoples-Jones, a Detroit native, has the higher ceiling. But Black, from Connecticut, just keeps getting better. Also, keep an eye on DT Aubrey Solomon and Donovan Jeter. And J’Marrick Woods could carve out a niche in the secondary.

Michigan State: TE Matt Dotson. The 6-5, 235-pound Cincinnati product could help fill a big hole at tight end after the departures of Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles. Dotson possesses the size and skill to see plenty of snaps this fall for an offense that is tight end-friendly

Minnesota: CB Adam Beck. The 6-2, 184-pound Texan is a rangy cover man who is built like a safety. Originally a Texas Tech commitment, Beck should help a Gopher secondary that suffered some significant attrition after 2016, including the likes of Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick.

Nebraska: WR Tyjon Lindsay. The 5-9, 160-pound Las Vegas product was a big-time recruit who originally committed to Ohio State. Lindsay could be a playmaker for a unit that has just two of the top eight leaders in receptions back. And he could benefit from a move in offensive philosophy, as the Huskers will have a more West Coast look with new QB Tanner Lee.

Northwestern: WR Kyric McGowan. The Wildcats need playmakers at wideout with 2016 Big Ten Receiver of the Year Austin Carr departed and Solomon Vault out for the season. The speedy 6-1, 180-pound McGowan from Georgia could be an elixir to an offense that will need to stretch defenses and open running lanes for running back Justin Jackson.

Ohio State: DBs Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. The Buckeyes suffered big attrition in the secondary after Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore all declared for the draft. Okudah and Wade both arrived early and began to impress in spring drills. The 6-2, 197-pound Okudah was one of the top recruits in the nation, a five-star prospect who can run and hit. The 6-2, 175-pound Wade also is a five-star talent who excels in coverage. The Florida native has the instincts and talent to impact now.

Penn State: CB Lamont Wade. James Franklin has done a great job recruiting. And Wade is one of the top catches during his tenure in State College. The in-state product plays with the swagger of a senior. And he plays bigger than his 5-9, 190-pound frame. Wade’s development is even more vital with the loss of star corner John Reid to a knee injury in the spring. Look for Wade to be the No. 3 corner.

Purdue: WR Tyler Hamilton. The 5-9, 160-pound South Carolina native is known for his speed, which is in short supply in West Lafayette. He arrived in time for spring drills, which helped hasten his development. It’s no secret that the Boilermakers are in dire need of help at receiver. Hamilton, who reportedly had offers from Clemson, West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas, could fill a key role.

Rutgers: WR Bo Melton. Chris Ash’s second team could see double-digit true freshmen see the field this fall. The 6-0, 180-pound Melton will be one of them. He had myriad offers, including from the likes of Michigan, Oregon and Ohio State. His father played at Rutgers, so the pull for Melton was natural. His playmaking skills are needed for an offense that struggled often in 2016.

Wisconsin: RB Jonathan Taylor. A small number of true freshmen figure to impact in Madison this season. And Taylor should be one of them for an offense that lost stud back Corey Clement. But it’s a crowded backfield, as Pitt transfer Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal already are in the mix. Other true freshmen to watch are WR Cade Green and QB Jack Coan, if something happens to Alex Hornibrook.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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