2019 Big Ten Breakout Stars
College football can create stars quickly. After all, we only have 12 regular season games with these teams and most players will only shine for a couple of seasons before moving on to the NFL or other professional endeavors. Players like Dwayne Haskins (now with the Washington Redskins) and Rondale Moore burst onto the scene last season and there are undoubtedly another crop of players set to become household names by the time the calendar turns to December. Read on to find out which guys I believe have the best chance at “breaking out” in the Big Ten in 2019.
Wan’Dale Robinson – Wide Receiver – Nebraska
From Rondale to Wan’Dale. The first selection is someone that Husker fans are hoping has an impact resembling the one Rondale Moore had a season ago. Wan’Dale Robinson is a true freshman from Kentucky that is an all-purpose weapon being listed as a wide receiver. Robinson is just shy of six feet tall but he is lightning quick and elusive and it was clear in high school that he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters spoke about Robinson in the spring: “We’re not going to tell everybody he’s going to be an All-American, be the Heisman trophy winner but he has the capabilities of being special.”
I don’t expect Robinson to put up quite the numbers that Rondale Moore did but I do believe he will see time as a receiver, running back and returner and I think he significantly raises the ceiling of the Nebraska offense.
Kwity Paye – Defensive Line – Michigan
The Michigan Wolverines have to replace quite a bit on the defensive side of the ball, particularly on the line. They are counting on junior Kwity Paye to be a star in his first season as a starter. Paye is a former running back that has grown from 228 to 272 pounds and defensive coordinator Don Brown thinks Paye can play all four positions in the defensive front. Paye started in four games last season when Rashan Gary was injured but the focus will now be on him. The junior has only two sacks in his career. I don’t think eight sacks with ten to 12 tackles for loss is entirely out of the question. If he lives up to the potential his physical frame and speed suggests, the NFL could come calling. I would bet on an All-Big Ten season as a leader on the rebuilt Michigan defense.
Jake Ferguson – TE – Wisconsin
The Wisconsin Badgers have a firmly established offensive identity: have a terrific offensive line, find a stud running back, pound the ball down opponent’s throats, repeat. The offensive line this season is rebuilt and very inexperienced but talented. The stud running back is Jonathan Taylor and he is as good as Wisconsin has had in recent memory. A good passing game can take Wisconsin from solid to West favorite and if that is to come to fruition, Jake Ferguson will be a key part of it. The redshirt sophomore was terrific in 2018. Despite poor quarterback play, Ferguson had 36 catches for 456 yards and Rotoworld ranked him as the fourth best tight end in the country. Ferguson is a big target and will serve as the safety valve for whomever winds up at quarterback for Wisconsin. While I do not think the Badgers will suddenly develop a stellar passing attack, I do think Ferguson will lead the team in receptions, have an All-Big Ten season and do well enough to head to the NFL after the 2019 season.
Chris Olave – WR – Ohio State
The Ohio State were loaded at wide receiver in 2018. Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon are now gone and the Buckeyes will be turning to a new crop of players to lead their passing game. K.J. Hill is likely the number one pass catcher but he is more of an H-back than a true wide receiver. I think the number one wide receiver ends up being sophomore Chris Olave. He only had five catches heading into the game against Michigan but he exploded against the Wolverines as he blocked a punt and caught a pair of touchdowns. He followed that up with 79 yards receiving against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. Olave is 6’1” with a good frame and excellent speed.
George Karlaftis – DL – Purdue
The Purdue Boilermakers had an explosive freshman star in 2018 (Rondale Moore). While I do not believe that defensive lineman George Karlaftis, a native of Greece that played in the Hoosier State in high school, will have the impact Moore did last season it is very possible he becomes a household name as early as this season. Purdue returns Kai Higgins, Giovanni Reviere, Anthony Watts and standout Lorenzo Neal so the defensive line is in a good spot but Jeff Brohm believes Karlaftis will play early. “He is an outstanding talent up front that came in, enrolled early, had a great spring for us. Was probably our best player on defense all spring.” With early games against Nevada, TCU and Vanderbilt, Karlaftis will not be flying under the radar for long.
Other Names I Considered:
Michael Penix Jr. (QB – Indiana) – Peyton Ramsey is the presumed starter for the Hoosiers but I believe Penix will end up being QB1 and lead a resurgent offense under a new offensive coordinator.
Anthony McFarland (RB – Maryland) – McFarland is probably too established to be in this article so I held him out but I am expecting an All-Big Ten season from one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons.
Isaiah Bowser (RB – Northwestern) – Jeremy Larkin being forced to retire from football early in the 2018 season could have derailed the Wildcats already struggling rushing attack. However, Bowser stepped in and showed out. Now with Hunter Johnson as his quarterback, exceeding the 866 yards he amassed last year should be expected.
Blake Gallagher (LB – Northwestern) – Do you know who led the Big Ten in tackles in 2018? If I told you it was a Northwestern linebacker, I am sure you would have guessed Paddy Fisher (I definitely did). The answer was actually junior Blake Gallagher. The Will linebacker for the Wildcats is overlooked but he had 127 tackles in 2018 and should be an All-Big Ten performer in 2019.
A.J. Epenesa (DE – Iowa) – The Hawkeyes rotate defensive ends so Epenesa did not play a whole lot of snaps last season but he still managed to tie for the conference lead in sacks (10.5). He’s disruptive, has the perfect frame and has a high motor. While he is already well-known by Iowa opponents and fans, I think his name becomes a nationally recognized one in 2019 and that he ends up being a first round pick in the next NFL Draft.
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