MSU’s Randle, UM’s Black among Big Ten breakout candidates
A look at football players in the Big Ten this spring who are poised to have standout seasons this fall:
Indiana: WR Nick Westbrook, junior. Westbrook emerged as one of the Hoosiers’ top offensive playmakers two years ago. Last year, he tore an ACL on the first play of the season and received a medical redshirt. Expect Westbrook to reassert himself in what’s become a crowded and talented receiving corps.
Maryland: WR Taivon Jacobs, senior. Jacobs steps into the featured receiver’s role with the departure of possible first-round draft pick DJ Moore. Jacobs started all 12 games last year and ranked second behind Moore with 47 catches for 553 yards and five touchdowns.
Michigan: WR Tarik Black, sophomore. He caught 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in three games as a freshman in 2017 before a broken foot ended his season. Black was back this spring and drew sparkling reviews from teammates and coaches.
Michigan State: LB Brandon Randle, sophomore. Randle is competing with Tyriq Thompson to replace Chris Frey in the starting lineup. Randle impressed as a defensive end in passing situations last year. He’ll excel blitzing once he gets more comfortable playing linebacker full-time.
Ohio State: WR Austin Mack, junior. The junior was the fifth-leading receiver last year with 24 catches for 343 yards and two TDs. He caught a huge 27-yard pass from Dwayne Haskins Jr. against Michigan and stood out in the Cotton Bowl with three catches for 56 yards against Southern California.
Penn State: LB Micah Parsons, freshman. The Nittany Lions’ highest-rated recruit in more than a decade, Parsons will wear No. 11 — the number made famous in Happy Valley 20 years ago by two-time first-team All-American LaVar Arrington. Parsons made eight tackles in the spring game and left coaches and teammates wondering how good he’ll be when he’s totally in sync with the defense.
Rutgers: WR Bo Melton, sophomore. He fought through a back injury last season and played in just five games. Now he looks like the Scarlet Knights’ top big-play threat. Arthur Sitkowski connected with Melton five times for 187 yards and three TDs in the spring game.
Illinois: OL Vederian Lowe, sophomore. Lowe was among four true freshmen who saw action on the offensive line last season, and they took their lumps. A knee injury delayed Lowe’s development, but he still started seven games at tackle. The 6-foot-5 Lowe has lost nearly 30 pounds in hopes of getting down to 310.
Iowa: DE A.J. Epenesa, sophomore. Epenesa, the rare five-star recruit to land at Iowa, was used on passing downs as a freshman even though the Hawkeyes were very deep along the line. Epenesa responded with 4.5 sacks. Iowa should have one of the top defensive lines in the country, so double-teaming Epenesa will be a risk.
Minnesota: RB Mohamed Ibrahim, redshirt freshman. Ibrahim was the Gophers’ 2017 offensive scout team player of the year, and he’ll complement Rodney Smith after Shannon Brooks was ruled out for the season with a leg injury. Ibrahim rushed 19 times for 104 yards in the spring game.
Nebraska: QB Adrian Martinez, freshman. One of Scott Frost’s first acts at Nebraska was getting Martinez to flip his verbal commitment from Tennessee and enroll in January. The four-star recruit is a perfect fit for Frost’s offense. A strong performance in the spring game did nothing to tamp down the hype surrounding Martinez.
Northwestern: RB Jeremy Larkin, sophomore. Larkin averaged 6 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman backing up four-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson. Larkin finished with 503 yards rushing and five touchdowns. He also averaged better than 10 yards on his 11 catches.
Purdue: WR Isaac Zico, senior. He played in 11 games and finished with six receptions for 34 yards and a TD. The Boilermakers lost their second- and third-leading receivers, so Zico will be given every opportunity to make an impact.
Wisconsin: DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, sophomore. The Badgers lost three senior defensive ends, and Loudermilk’s upside is huge. He’s a Kansas native who played eight-man football in high school. As a backup last season, the 6-foot-7, 297-pounder had 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 11 games.