Ohio State’s Mike Weber has established himself as one of the nation’s top first-year players and a worthy successor to Ezekiel Elliott. Michigan’s Rashan Gary has lived up to his billing as the country’s No. 1 overall recruit.
Out of that spotlight, other young players have begun to emerge across the Big Ten. Here’s a look at the best true or redshirt freshmen on each of the 14 teams:
Illinois: Guard Darta Lee, a two-star recruit out of Texas, became the first true freshman to start a season opener on the Illini’s offensive line in at least 20 years. He was back in the starting lineup last week at Nebraska and has held onto the job for this week’s game against Purdue.
Indiana: Marcelino Ball has thrived in the hybrid linebacker-safety position called “husky” in new defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s system. The 17-year-old is third on the team with 27 tackles. He had eight tackles and an interception against Ball State and a season-high nine against Wake Forest.
Iowa: Defensive end Anthony Nelson, a redshirt freshman who flipped his commitment from Iowa State to Iowa a month before signing day in 2015, opened the season with a monster performance against Miami (Ohio), forcing two fumbles that led to touchdowns and recording 2.5 sacks. He had a season-high six tackles in the win at Rutgers.
Maryland: Running back Lorenzo Harrison is the first Terrapins freshman to score a touchdown in each of his first four games, including a 62-yarder against Purdue last week. A power back with breakaway speed, he leads the team in carries and TDs.
Michigan: Gary is meeting the high expectations that greeted him in Ann Arbor, having made 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack with four quarterback hurries on one of the nation’s best defensive lines. This is a big week for him . The New Jersey native plays at home-state Rutgers in Michigan’s first road game.
Michigan State: Donnie Corley had a magnificent four-catch, 88-yard game against Notre Dame that featured a one-handed touchdown grab. He’s become one of Tyler O’Connor’s top targets. Four of his 14 catches have gone for 20 yards or longer, and 10 have been for either a first down or touchdown.
Minnesota: Defensive end Tai’yon Devers had a big debut, with two sacks and two forced fumbles leading to touchdowns against Oregon State, and he has three of the Gophers’ nine sacks. Devers is only going to get better. He played just one year of high school football and one year at Georgia Prep Sports Academy before heading to college.
Nebraska: Caleb Lightbourn has carried the burden of replacing punter Sam Foltz, who was killed in a car crash in July. Lightbourn, who planned to redshirt this season, is averaging 39.3 yards on 17 punts and has put five kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Northwestern: Cornerback Trae Williams, who entered the starting lineup three games ago, made his first interception on Iowa’s final drive to secure the win in Iowa City last week. He also had seven tackles and two breakups in the win over Duke.
Ohio State: Weber is determined to create his own identity as the man who follows Elliott, now the NFL’s rushing leader for the Dallas Cowboys. Weber’s average of 123.8 yards a game is tops among freshman rushers, and his 7.3 yards a carry ranks third among players with at least 65 attempts.
Penn State: Cam Brown’s play has been a bright spot for a linebacker corps riddled with injuries. The true freshman followed a 10-tackle game against Michigan with nine more last week in his first career start against Minnesota.
Purdue: Linebacker Markus Bailey has 21 tackles, with nine coming against Cincinnati. He made his first interception on his third play of the game against Maryland last week.
Rutgers: Jawaun Harris has started the last three games at receiver and will see his role grow in the absence of star Janarion Grant, who is out for the season. Harris, the Big Ten leader in stolen bases last baseball season, flashed his speed in his first football game, catching a 75-yard touchdown pass to fuel a comeback win. Coach Chris Ash calls Harris “our next best version of Janarion.”
Wisconsin: Quarterback Alex Hornibrook relieved Bart Houston in the second half against Georgia State and led a comeback victory and started the next week on the road, and won, against a nationally ranked Michigan State.
This version clarifies that Anthony Nelson flipped his commitment from Iowa State to Iowa a month before signing day in 2015.
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