Sean Merriman, BTN.com web editor, August 21, 2014
Our BTN Summer Bus Tour is officially in the books. After visiting 14 Big Ten schools in 17 days, BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart received plenty of insight and got an inside look into what to expect in the upcoming 2014 college football season.
One of the biggest takeaways from the tour is that we should expect to see several impact freshman in the Big Ten this season.
With Dienhart's help, as well as some of the top Big Ten football media minds, here is a look at my preseason Big Ten all-freshman team.
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Quarterback: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. With the recent news that Braxton Miller will miss the entire 2014 season after re-injuring his shoulder, it looks like Barrett will be looked upon to lead the Buckeyes' offense this year. This dual-threat signal caller was one of the top-ranked quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2012.
Dienhart on Barrett – "Yes, the kid has a fat scrapbook and was an Urban Meyer recruit who can run the spread-option offense. But he never has taken a snap. And he?ll be working behind a line with four new starters."
Running Back: Justin Jackson, Northwestern. When star running back Venric Mark announced his decision to transfer, the question became: who will step up now in the Wildcats' backfield? Look for it to be Jackson, a talented four-star recruit with plenty of high expectations this season.
Dienhart on Jackson – "Fitzgerald said before practice he thinks freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault will figure in. Jackson is versatile; Vault may be the fastest back."
Wide Receiver: Derrick Willies, Iowa. This is a guy who received plenty of high praise throughout the spring, and the Hawkeyes hope that will carry over into the fall. At 6-4, 210 pounds, Willies has the size and speed to be a big-play target for quarterback Jake Rudock.
Dienhart on Willies – "It is the young guys who intrigue me. Guys like Derrick Willies, Matt VandeBerg and Derrick Mitchell. At 6-4, Willies is an inviting target, but he was out today. I?m told he has impressed in camp."
Wide Receiver: Freddy Canteen, Michigan. Canteen is another guy who received high praise throughout spring ball and is expected to make a big impact. The duo of Canteen and Devin Funchess could be special for Doug Nussmeier's offense.
Dienhart on Canteen – "Freddy Canteen looks like he has picked up where he left off in the spring. He has some speed this corps has lacked in recent seasons."
Wide Receiver: Dominique Booth, Indiana. Booth is a big-play receiver who is expected to make an instant impact in Bloomington. He was a mega recruit, committing to the Hoosiers over offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Texas A&M. Don't be surprised to see this guy put up huge numbers in Kevin Wilson's run-and-gun offense.
Dienhart on Booth – "Wideout Dominique Booth arrived early from high school and took part in spring drills. And, he impressed. Booth looks good at 6-1, 200 pounds. This is a wideout corps that needs some fortification with Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes gone."
Tight End: Mike Gesicki, Penn State. Gesicki adds depth to the best tight end group in the Big Ten, if not throughout the entire country. With the recent injury to sophomore Adam Brenneman, Gesicki could be looked at to play an even bigger role.
Dienhart on Gesicki – "No. 88 doesn?t look like a freshman. He just adds depth to an already deep spot. I have to think we?ll see lots of two-tight sets."
Offensive Line: Mason Cole, Michigan. While Michigan has struggled on the offensive line as of late, this is a program that traditionally produces some of the top linemen in the conference. Cole, who stands at 6-5, 292 pounds and plays with a mean streak, could be the next big name on campus.
Dienhart on Cole – "True freshman OT Mason Cole stands out. He arrived early and went through spring drills. He is 6-5, 292 and will be heavier and stronger. He could be a very good one."
Offensive Line: Andrew Nelson, Penn State. After graduating the top two right tackles on the depth chart last season, Nelson is the favorite to be the starter in 2014. At 6-5, 305 pounds, this guy has great size, and being a redshirt, he had the chance to learn from upper classmen last season.
Dienhart on Nelson – "Center Angelo Mangiro and right tackle Andrew Nelson have impressed, according to the staff. Depth is dicey, so these guys need to stay healthy."
Offensive Line: Derwin Gray, Maryland. The 6-5, 300-pound Gray was a big recruit for the Terps. If Maryland is going to compete in the Big Ten, it is going to have the meet the size, physicality and athleticism of opposing teams up front. Gray will certainly help that cause.
Dienhart on Gray – "A 6-5, 300-pound true freshman, Gray looks like an upperclassman and was more than holding his own vs. vets."
Offensive Line: Sean Welsh, Iowa. A 6-3, 285-pound redshirt freshman, Welsh will be the only starter on the Hawkeyes' offensive line with no experience. That speaks volumes as to what Kirk Ferentz and o-line coach Brian Ferentz expect of this kid.
Dienhart on Welsh – "Sean Welsh and Jordan Walsh are the guards. The starters are very solid. This is a physical, scrappy group, much like the persona of unit coach Brian Ferentz."
Offensive Line: Michael Deiter, Wisconsin. Deiter enrolled early at Wisconsin and has made a great impression on Gary Andersen and the Badgers' coaching staff. He will begin the season as a rotational player. That's impressive for a freshman in a program that is known for pumping out NFL offensive linemen on a yearly basis.
Dienhart on Deiter – "The offensive line looks good. No shock there. The Badgers expect seven true freshmen to play this fall: running back Taiwan Deal, offensive linemen Michael Deiter and receivers Krenwick Sanders, Natrell Jamerson and George Rushing and safeties Lubern Figaro and Austin Hudson."
Defensive Line: Malik McDowell, Michigan State. A huge recruit coming out of high school, McDowell already has the look of a college senior. He is simply too talented and physically gifted to keep off the field this season. This kid has the chance to be a special player.
Dienhart on McDowell – " I really wanted to see touted true freshman Malik McDowell. And he didn?t disappoint as he settles into tackle. The guy is huge, but he lacked consistency."
Defensive Line: Alec James, Wisconsin. It's very possible we could see two freshman defensive ends on the Badgers' d-line this season. James, who stands at 6-3, 259 pounds, is a talented rush end who could be an elite player if he develops in run support. He certainly has the natural talent, size and strength to do so.
Dienhart on James – "Alec James also is pushing for a spot at end. He can bring the heat off the edge."
Defensive Line: Chikwe Obasih, Wisconsin. When talking about quick, explosive pass rushers, this guy certainly fits the mold. He will play a huge role in the Badgers' revamped front seven. Could he be the program's next J.J. Watt? It's possible. At 6-2, 268 pounds, he certainly passes the eye test.
Dienhart on Obasih – "The front seven of this 3-4 defense was of keen interest, as all are new starters. End Chikwe Obasih is impressive. Fast and explosive."
Defensive Line: Gelen Robinson, Purdue. The son of the Big Dog and the younger brother of GRIII, Robinson has plenty of big expectations heading into his freshman season. Purdue needs more talent to fill out its defensive front seven, and Robinson could be just the answer they are looking for.
Dienhart on Robinson –"Gelen Robinson, son of Glenn, is making noise but has a ways to go. He began camp at linebacker but moved to end, his high school position."
Linebacker: RaeKwon McMillan, Ohio State. One of the top recruits in the Big Ten, McMillan enrolled early at Ohio State and should be an instant impact player as a true freshman. This guy has the potential to be the next great linebacker at Ohio State.
Dienhart on McMillan – "The linebackers ran well on this day. I really like this group. Fast, athletic, quick. Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry are known commodities. But I?m more excited about youngsters like Raekwon McMillian and Darron Lee."
Linebacker: Jon Reschke, Michigan State. Reschke is a talented kid who is in the mold of former MSU All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. Look for this kid to make his presence felt on what already is a very talented Michigan State defense.
Dienhart on Reschke – "I was interested to watch the linebackers with Max Bullough and Denicos Allen gone. Pat Narduzzi really likes Jon Reschke."
Linebacker: Courtney Love, Nebraska. Does his skill match his name? Everything points to yes. With several injuries to the Huskers defense, Love could be an immediate contributor.
Dienhart on Love – "Redshirt freshman Courtney Love has impressed on the weak side. Speed and athletic ability are the norms."
Cornerback: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan. Peppers has already made a name for himself as one of the most hyped freshmen in the nation. The Charles Woodson comparisons are flying around Ann Arbor, but can the skilled newcomer live up to the expectations? We shall see.
Dienhart on Peppers – "Touted by some as the nation?s top corner, Peppers should have a just-add-water impact in some role (nickel back) in the secondary. He also could help as a return man with his dynamic game-breaking speed."
Cornerback: Craig James, Minnesota. James was a late addition to the Gophers' class, but head coach Jerry Kill has raved about this kid, saying "I can tell you that right now. He's different. He's a difference maker."
Dienhart on James – "The secondary will the strength of the defense. No doubt. True freshman CB Craig James is coming on and is expected to play. The staff likes the kid."
Safety: Lubern Figaro, Wisconsin. Figaro has wowed coaches since arriving in Madison as a true freshman. As it stands right now, he should be the Badgers' starting free safety when they take the field against LSU in that much-anticipated Week 1 showdown.
Dienhart on Figaro – "Freshman S Lubern Figaro is turning heads. We didn?t get to see much, but he looks the part and reportedly can hit and run."
Safety: Montae Nicholson, Michigan State. It is no secret that Michigan State is loaded in the defensive secondary. However, Nicholson may be too good to keep off the field. How good? According to DC Pat Narduzzi, Nicholson is the "most physical DB" on the Spartans' roster. That's some high praise from a guy who knows how to evaluate defensive backs.
Dienhart on Nicholson – "Narduzzi has his guys playing aggressively, as tough man defense is the norm. You need to be athletic and strong. These guys are. And it?s their skill and style that sets the tone for this defense."