Big Ten breakdown: The league's top newcomers for 2016
The Big Ten featured two of the top four Signing Day classes this past February, but only three of the top 20. Across the conference, though, first-year players are set to play this fall and we identify that newcomer we expect to make the biggest impact for all 14 teams in this Big Ten breakdown.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
With the graduation of 2015’s leading pass-catcher Geronimo Allison and another injury to Mike Dudek, wide receiver is a position that provides opportunity for a young player to step up. Thus far in fall camp that player has been Thieman. Thieman is not expected to start at the beginning of the season, but will play. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is a well-rounded wide receiver who comes from good coaching at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale and has looked very polished for a freshman.
Defensive coordinator Tom Allen has instituted the “Husky” position, basically a hybrid safety/linebacker, in his first season commanding the Hoosiers' defense. Ball has acclimated to that role immediately and could be the opening day starter. Allen describes that position as needing the coverage skills of a safety and the tackling skills of a linebacker. Ball was a two-star safety prospect out of Georgia who is now 6-foot and 209 pounds and has the perfect size, skill set combination Allen is looking for in that role.
Tight end is a position of need Iowa recruited successfully in the 2016 class. They landed three prospects at the position, the highest-rated of whom was Omaha three-star Noah Fant. Although it was expected Fant would need some time to physically develop into the position, he has already been running with the second team behind expected senior starter George Kittle. The health of junior tight end Jon Wisnieski could determine how much time Fant does get as a freshman, but it looks like he will see the field in year one.
Our pick for Maryland’s top impact newcomer was a player no one was discussing on Signing Day last February. That’s because the Terrapins did not officially add the JUCO transfer until late last month. Jackson signed with Florida in the 2014 class as a four-star prospect, but had to deal with legal issues before eventually transferring to Riverside Community College in California, where he played just one season. Despite only signing on with Maryland less than a month ago, Jackson has already made a huge impression in fall camp and could start at cornerback in the season opener.
Michigan fans will not have to wait to see 2016’s No. 1 prospect on the field in Michigan Stadium. The former five-star is expected to be the opening day starter, though not at defensive tackle, which is the position he was listed coming out of high school. It looks like the 6-foot-5, 290-pounder will begin his career as a Wolverine playing strongside defensive end, with last year’s starter at that position, Chris Wormley, kicking inside to defensive tackle. Gary’s quickness off the football was one of the reasons he was 2016’s No. 1 overall player, so the transition should not be too difficult.
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Corley did not know if he would be able to enroll early until days before the second semester started in East Lansing. Once he got confirmation of his ability to be an early high school graduate, Corley immediately committed to the Spartans and was off to start his college career. The buzz surrounding 2016’s No. 61 ranked prospect has built all off-season. Mark Dantonio is usually conservative with young players, but with Corley he has been clear on the expectation the freshman will see the field and be an impact player in the Spartans' offense.
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
The potential of Coughlin to contribute as a freshman was mentioned prominently when the Gophers signed their 2016 class last February. Now that fall camp has begun, that speculation is starting to turn into reality. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Coughlin had an early setback in camp when he injured a knee, but it appears he will be good to go for the start of the season and has been seeing some first- and second-team reps in camp at outside linebacker. His abilities as an edge rusher could see him getting time in third-down situations early in the season.
Jackson was the highest ranked of Nebraska’s four four-star prospects in the 2016 class. The Cornhuskers return both starting juniors at his position, but the word is the California native is just too talented to keep off the field in year one. Early in the season, he will likely see the most time in nickel or dime packages, but at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds he brings both unique size and a rare skill set to the defensive backfield that could help Nebraska immediately. Freshman running back Tre Bryant has also received strong early reviews and should contribute on special teams.
Campbell was Northwestern’s highest-rated signee in the 2016 class, and he has quickly lived up to his billing in fall camp. Junior Keith Watkins II was in line to take over for departing second team all-Big Ten cornerback Nick VanHoose at the starting cornerback position until he went down with an knee injury early in fall camp. That has opened a door for additional playing time for Campbell, who apparently has stepped up and responded. Whether he can play his way into a starting role at some point this season remains to be seen.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Incoming freshmen at Ohio State get a black stripe on their helmet, and they have to earn the right for it to be removed. Some talented freshmen are able to achieve that in fall camp, but in an unprecedented move head coach Urban Meyer removed Mack’s black stripe during spring ball. Fellow Rivals100 prospect Michael Jordan could end up starting on the offensive line and is certainly a consideration here, but with their top three receivers from 2015 gone and Mack’s sensational start, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native “will play this year,” according to Meyer.
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Running back Saquon Barkely was one of the Big Ten’s freshman sensations a year ago. The tailback position is now squarely his heading into the 2016 season, but when Barkley needs a breather, it looks like Sanders could be the first back off the bench to spell him, as long as the coaching staff can trust the former Rivals100 prospect with ball security early on. Offensive linemen Michal Menet and Connor McGovern are also making bids for playing time this fall, but Sanders appears to be the freshman most likely to impact for the Nittany Lions in 2016.
Larkin is not new to college football, but he is new to the Purdue program, signing with the Boilermakers out of City College of San Francisco last February as a two-star. Prior to his stint in JUCO, Larkin was a walk-on linebacker at Notre Dame. Now 6-foot-3 and 259 pounds, Larkin has reportedly overtaken former four-star Gelen Robinson at the rush end position and is in line to start the opener against Eastern Kentucky. Also keep an eye on freshman Navon Mosley, who has been splitting first-team safety reps despite the Boilermakers returning both starting safeties from last year.
RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS
New head coach Chris Ash took the black stripe tradition with him to Piscataway when he left Ohio State, and the first freshman to lose his black stripe during fall camp was Sneed, a three-star running back from Florida. Leading rusher Robert Martin returns and will be the primary ball carrier again for the Scarlet Knights, but with the buzz Sneed has created this summer he could potentially overtake No. 2 back Josh Hicks before too long. Another freshman, Dacoven Bailey, could also see time in the backfield as more of a change-of-pace or slot back type.
As the No. 137 player in the 2016 class, Taylor is Wisconsin’s highest-ranked incoming freshman, but his impact in year one was anything but assured. Now 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, Taylor was a high school running back whom the Badgers brought in to play their slot receiver position. After a couple weeks of fall camp, though, Taylor has acclimated to his new position well and is almost certain to play on offense while also providing return abilities on special teams. He, along with another four-star in defensive tackle Garrett Rand, look to be the two most impactful freshmen this year for the Badgers.