BTN.com staff, BTN.com staff, December 17, 2014
As we await the Big Ten's record-tying 10 bowl games, BTN.com asked a beat writer from every team to participate in a five-part 2014 regular-season recap.
Today, it's time for Part III, the most improved player for all 14 teams.
See what Big Ten beat writers said below.
Quarterback Reilly O'Toole. A career backup, he finally got his chance the second half of his final season. Leading the team to wins in the final two games, made it bowl eligible. His running in the finale (147 yards) should give Louisiana Tech something to think about.
Antonio Allen. The sophomore safety played in seven games in 2013 before a season-ending knee injury sidelined him. In 2014, he led the team with 74 tackles. Allen also had 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions. He?ll be the cornerstone of a defense that?s striving to get better.
Sophomore cornerback Greg Mabin came out of nowhere this season to lock down a starting spot. The 6-2, 195-pounder had scholarship offers from Jacksonville State, Tulane and Iowa. He came in as a wide receiver, was switched to defensive back, kind of wanted to go back to receiver, but stuck it out and was a positive for Iowa this year. He finished with 52 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups.
Outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue. He finished the season with a team-high 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.
Center Jack Miller. After being benched halfway through 2013, Miller regained the starting center job and held it all season, guiding a line that improved as the year progressed. He was voted U-M's offensive lineman of the year.
Lawrence Thomas. Tony Lippett also nearly wins this category, but Thomas finally got past injuries and a stacked depth chart to make a difference at defensive tackle. Stardom is possible as a senior.
Sophomore offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig, who helped pave the way for David Cobb to rush for 1,548 yards.
Sophomore defensive tackle Maliek Collins went from an unknown commodity in the Big Ten, to a guy that opposing offensive coordinators had to game plan around. Collins' play in 2014 has several NFL scouts looking at him for the future.
Cornerback Nick VanHoose excelled but missed the final two games with an injury - one of nine DBs lost over the course of the season.
On a young team, there are plenty of candidates for this one, including running back Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Darron Lee, H-back Jalin Marshall and basically the entire offensive line. I'm going with senior and three-year starting receiver Devin Smith, who had 100-yard receiving games against both Michigan State and Wisconsin and has raised his play to the point that he should worry Alabama.
DT Anthony Zettel. The former defensive end was just part of the rotation last year, but moving inside proved to be the right call for the freakish athlete who tied for a team-high three interceptions. Zettel's 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks and five pass breakups speak volumes about the type of game-changing player he is.
You could go with Appleby here, whose future appears to be bright. But wide receiver Danny Anthrop developed into a go-to guy on offense. He had 38 receptions for 616 yards and four touchdowns. The Appleby-Anthrop combo should be popular in 2015.
It could be Gary Nova, but wide receiver Leonte Carroo took an even bigger step forward. Carroo was good in big spots in 2013 – eight of his nine touchdowns came in the fourth quarter or overtime – but he developed into a consistent 1,000-yard weapon without losing any of his flare for the big play (conference-best 19.7 yards per catch).
Junior cornerback Darius Hillary has quietly had a very sound season. The second-team All-Big Ten pick didn't even come into the season as Wisconsin's No. 1 cornerback, but roughly mid-way through the year, started shining. Hillary held Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs without a catch when he covered him. Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo had just two receptions against Hillary. He's only had one interception the past two seasons, but opponents shy away from throwing in his direction because his technique and coverage have been so solid.