This offseason, the Big Ten waved goodbye to many of the conference’s premier performers from the 2014 season—most notably future high NFL draft picks such as Brandon Scherff, Randy Gregory, Melvin Gordon and Trae Waynes.
Luckily, the league is welcoming back plenty of established big-name players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Connor Cook, JT Barrett, Shilique Calhoun and Briean Boddy-Calhoun to help make up for the loss of star power.
The conference is also home to some up-and-coming players who seem to be primed to have breakthrough campaigns this fall. Here’s a look at five players who are poised to become some of the league’s biggest breakout stars of 2015.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
When Christian Hackenberg first arrived in Happy Valley during the 2013 offseason, many Nittany Lions fans anointed him as a potential savior of a program that was still recovering from the tumultuous fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
In a time when many premier recruits were crossing the Nittany Lions off their list of considerations, Hackenberg decided to buck the trend. The blue-chip 5-star recruit pledged his services to Bill O’Brien, even though he knew about the harsh sanctions the program was facing for the foreseeable future.
In his first season playing in O’Brien’s pro-style offensive system, Hackenberg displayed tremendous potential, as he threw for over 2,900 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, O’Brien decided to leave Penn State to coach the Houston Texans following his quarterback’s freshman campaign.
Hackenberg’s second season turned out to be somewhat of a sophomore slump. He regressed and struggled to find his consistency behind an inexperienced offensive line.
Still, it’s clear that the 6’4’’, 234-pound junior possesses all the physical tools to develop into one of college football’s top passers as well as one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2016 NFL draft class.
Not only does the strong-armed signal-caller now have a year of experience playing in offensive coordinator John Donovan’s system, Hackenberg also has plenty of dangerous weapons at his disposal such as receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, TE Kyle Carter and RB Akeel Lynch.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a program that seems to produce a new star running back on a yearly basis. Over the last five years, four backs—Melvin Gordon, James White, Montee Ball and John Clay—have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a season: It was Gordon, though, who was the true star of the bunch.
Last year, the explosive playmaker rewrote many of the program’s rushing records, when he ran for over 2,500 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
The 2014 Heisman runner-up leaves some mighty big shoes to fill in the Badger backfield. But luckily, Corey Clement looks like he has what it takes to become Wisconsin’s next highly productive workhorse rusher.
Though he was overshadowed by Gordon over the past two seasons, Clement still showed flashes of brilliance when he had the ball in his hands. This past season, the 5’11’’, 217-pound junior carried the ball just 147 times, yet he very nearly came close to breaking the 1,000-yard rushing mark, as he averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry.
Clement may not be as elusive or explosive as Gordon, but he should have no trouble filling in for the departed star. He should be one of the top challengers for the Big Ten rushing title in 2015.
Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense is loaded with established upperclassmen such as LB Joshua Perry—the team’s leading tackler in 2014, DE Joey Bosa, DT Adolphus Washington and safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. However, the real Buckeye defender to watch out for in 2015 is sophomore LB Darron Lee.
In his debut campaign in 2014, Lee was one of the most productive freshman defenders in the country. He totaled 81 tackles, including 7.5 sacks, 54 solo stops and 16.5 tackles for loss.
Although he didn’t receive the same level of national attention as his more heralded teammates Perry, Bosa and Bell; Lee proved that he has what it takes to be a difference-making defender on a championship-caliber team.
The 6’2’’, 228-pound strongside ‘backer possesses outstanding instincts, intelligence and diagnosis skills.
Lee is a true ball-hawk who should be a worthy challenger to Perry for the team lead in tackles in 2015.
Desmond King, CB, Iowa
That’s the number of interceptions that Desmond King totaled during his decorated high school career in Detroit. It’s a Michigan state record.
Unfortunately, King hasn’t been able to accumulate the same type of prolific interception total at the collegiate level. During his two seasons at Iowa, the 5’11’’, 200-pound corner has managed to pick off just three passes, all of which came during the 2014 season.
Though King hasn’t lit up the stat sheet like he did in high school, he has shown the cover skills that you look for in a potential lock-down No. 1 CB.
The two-year starter has been the stabilizing force of Iowa’s secondary since breaking into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2013. His consistency in coverage is a big reason why the Hawkeyes ranked second in the Big Ten in pass defense this past season.
King may not be mentioned among college football’s elite cornerbacks before the start of the 2015 season. However, if he continues on his current upswing trajectory as a junior, he should finally begin to garner the type of recognition his talent warrants.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Jabrill Peppers arrived at Michigan last offseason as the crown jewel of the Wolverines’ 2014 recruiting class. The All-American 5-star recruit from Paramus Catholic High School (NJ) was projected to be an instant impact player in his first season.
Unfortunately, a leg injury he sustained in late September ultimately ended up sidelining the former blue-chip prospect for the entire season.
After sitting on the sidelines and watching his team struggle through a forgettable five-win 2014 campaign, Peppers surely has to be itching to get back out on the field and prove to new coach Jim Harbaugh what he’s really capable of.
The 6’1’’, 202-pound safety is an elite athlete who has the type of speed to fly around and make plays all over the field. Not only is Peppers one of the fastest players in college football, he’s also one of the sport’s most instinctive playmakers.
The speedy safety should emerge as one of the league’s top defensive backs in 2015.