Each year college football produces a new list of previously unheralded names and unexpected accomplishments. Not many expected quarterback Trace McSorley to rewrite the Penn State record books last year. Who expected a fullback (Khalid Hill) to lead Michigan’s potent offense in touchdowns? How many casual Big Ten fans knew of Indiana tackling machine Tegray Scales even midway through the season?
The 2017 season will be no different. It’s hard to say exactly where the next wave of surprises will emerge, but sifting through last year’s stats and sorting out what the fall might hold provides a better picture of some of the Big Ten players who have a chance to catch our attention before the year’s end. For discussion’s sake, let’s take a stab at some of the East Division players who could jump onto the national radar if everything breaks right for them this year. Don’t be surprised if…
Indiana’s Rashard Fant leads the Big Ten in interceptions
Fant got a little overlooked in the pack of very talented cornerbacks at schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa last year. No one in the country, though, has more combined pass break-ups during the last two years than the Hoosiers’ returning senior. Fant said his biggest focus this spring was turning all those tipped ball into turnovers. He spent time running routes with the wide receivers and working on his hands. With a front seven that should have some talented pass-rushers in its second year under Tom Allen, Fant may have a lot of chances to reap the benefits of his work on the Jugs machine.
Michigan’s Devin Bush Jr. has more TFLs than Jabrill Peppers did in 2016
The explosive sophomore is one of a host of new names that will be vying for a chance to shine on Michigan’s young defense. Bush showed the ability to shoot through the line of scrimmage during the Wolverines’ spring game while lined up next to veteran linebacker Mike McCray. Don Brown’s defense is designed to help players like Bush get into the backfield. Peppers took advantage last year with 16 tackles for loss. While it will take many hands to replace the Heisman finalists’ impact, Bush could go a long way in providing big plays on defense.
Maryland’s Ty Johnson leads the league in touchdowns
As a team, the Terps scored a middle-of-the-pack 44 touchdown last season and Johnson, despite his penchant for big runs, was responsible for only seven of those. That number seems too low for a guy who averaged nearly 10 yards each time he carried the ball, so it’s not too much of a stretch to expect him to make progress this year. It will take 20-plus trips to the end zone to land at the top of the conference in that category in 2017. With a creative offense breaking in a new quarterback, Johnson should be able to get the opportunities he needs to at least get himself into contention with the likes of Saquon Barkley (who will have to share scoring opportunities with Penn State’s passing attack) and Justin Jackson at Northwestern.
Michigan State’s Trishton Jackson catches 65 passes
The Spartans are running low on experience in the passing game this fall. Jackson’s five receptions as a rookie last year puts him second on the list of returning receivers behind Felton Davis. By his coaches’ account, Jackson had a breakout spring while growing into a new role within the offense. Michigan State has had success in plucking go-to targets out of its ranks in the past (Tony Lippett in 2014, Aaron Burbridge in 2015). If quarterback Brian Lewerke decides that Jackson is going to be his guy, the Spartans may end up calling his number frequently to try to generate some downfield momentum on offense this season.