Christian Hackenberg among Big Ten breakout players for 2014


We're a long way from the start of the 2014 college football season (not that we're counting, but it's 78 days away), but that doesn't mean we can't start going in-depth about what we think will happen this fall.

To that end, we're going to pick 10 players who will go from well-known in their leagues (actually, in some cases, it might even be little-known in their leagues) to well-known nationally this season -- the top 10 breakout players in each league, as it were.

Today, we look at the Big Ten's top 10 breakout candidates -- 10 players everyone will know about when November rolls around. We'll look at the SEC on Wednesday.

10. CB Desmond King, Iowa

Particulars: 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: He started 12 games as a true freshman last season and made a big impact, finishing with 69 tackles and eight pass breakups. He already is quite good in run support, and the next step is to show a bit better ball skills this fall. Iowa has a legit chance to win the Big Ten West Division, and King will be the best player in what should be a solid secondary.

9. CB Jeremiah Johnson, Maryland

Particulars: 5-11, 195, senior.
Buzz: Johnson might have been Maryland's most talented defender when he was lost to a broken toe in the opener last season; he returned in late November, but only was able to play in one game then. He lacks elite speed, but he has good quickness, tremendous instincts and a great work ethic; he also has the fearlessness and tenacity to be one of the top cover corners in the Big Ten. Johnson had 43 tackles and eight pass breakups as a sophomore in 2012, and he should play at an all-conference level this fall.

8. RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

Particulars: 6-0, 225, sophomore.
Buzz: Elliott, who is from St. Louis, will head into fall camp atop the depth chart at Carlos Hyde's old spot. Elliott has a nice size/speed combination and looked good during the spring. Elliott was one of the best high school sprinters in Missouri and has better straight-line speed than Hyde. What might slow Elliott, though, is that the Buckeyes have enough talent and depth to use a tailback-by-committee approach. Still, he looks to be the best of the candidates, though rushing for 1,000 yards is far from a given: Last season, Hyde became the first running back ever to rush for 1,000 yards for coach Urban Meyer.

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7. CB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Particulars: 6-1, 210, freshman.
Buzz: Highly touted true freshman corners often make an immediate impact -- just look at last season, with Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III -- and Peppers is as highly touted as they come: He was the consensus No. 3 recruit nationally. Peppers, from New Jersey, has excellent size and can run: He's the New Jersey state champ in the 100 meters (10.55 seconds) and 200 (21.13 seconds) meters. While he joins a Michigan secondary that returns three starters, including both corners, Peppers has the highest upside of any of them and will play -- and make an impact -- this fall.

6. DE Theiren Cockran, Minnesota

Particulars: 6-6, 238, junior.
Buzz: His high school coach at Homestead (Fla.) High was Bobby McCray, the father of the former NFL defensive end of the same name. Like the younger McCray, Cockran is a lanky guy who is productive as a pass rusher -- and everyone loves a productive pass rusher. Cockran has a large wingspan, and while he lacks bulk and strength, he had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season and should get into double-digits in sacks and the high teens in TFLs this season. The Big Ten has a number of good defensive ends, but we have a feeling Cockran will do his best to make sure he's not overlooked this fall.

5. TE Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State

Particulars: 6-5, 255, senior.
Buzz: He has just 35 receptions in his career, but he should be one of the top tight ends nationally this fall. The guy is a great athlete -- he owns a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and can bench press 225 pounds 33 times -- and he started to figure things out last season, when he had 26 receptions and averaged 17.9 yards per catch. Meyer's version of the spread makes varied use of the tight end, and Heuerman is athletic enough to line up wide, as a "regular" tight end, in the slot and even in the backfield as a sort of H-back. Ohio State has a lot of offensive weapons and Heuerman won't get as many touches as he would on some other teams, but don't let what likely will be less-than-overwhelming stats fool you: The guy can play. He is from the same hometown, Naples, Fla., as former Buckeyes RB Carlos Hyde. His dad, Paul, played basketball at Michigan and his brother, Mike, is a tight end at Notre Dame.

4. WR/TE Devin Funchess, Michigan

Particulars: 6-5, 230, junior.
Buzz: Unlike like archrival Ohio State, Michigan doesn't have a lot of offensive weapons, and Funchess should get more touches as a result. He was named the Big Ten's tight end of the year last season, but seems likely to play more wide receiver this fall. As a tight end, his size is average but his athleticism is off the charts; as a wide receiver, his size is off the charts but his athleticism is somewhat average. Michigan is hoping his size leads to a lot of mismatches on the outside; in addition, his athleticism can be put to good use in a variety of ways, which means it is up to new coordinator Doug Nussmeier to feature Funchess. Funchess has the speed to get deep, and while he can add bulk and strength and become a better blocker, his pass-catching ability already has caught scouts' eyes.

3. DE Frank Clark, Michigan

Particulars: 6-2, 270, senior.
Buzz: He's going to be overshadowed at his position in the Big Ten by Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory, but Clark is an intriguing talent. He played a multitude of positions at perennial prep power Cleveland Glenville and was recruited by most schools at either wide receiver or linebacker. Michigan signed him in 2011 to play linebacker; he was 6-2 and 210 pounds at the time. He remains raw when it comes to technique, but his athleticism is extremely appealing. He had five sacks last season and should hit double digits in that category this fall. That athleticism will be a huge selling point to NFL teams.

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2. CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State

Particulars: 6-1, 183, junior.
Buzz: Waynes is a Wisconsin native who was relatively lightly recruited out of high school -- sort of like Darqueze Dennard, last season's star cornerback (and eventual first-round pick) for the Spartans. Waynes will take over Dennard's role as the star in the secondary. He has excellent size and good speed. Waynes isn't as polished as Dennard -- well, not yet, anyway. He barely played as a redshirt freshman in 2012, then emerged as a solid complementary corner last fall. This fall, look for him to be the Big Ten's best corner and to show up on some All-America lists.

1. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

Particulars: 6-4, 220, sophomore.
Buzz: He was the best true freshman quarterback in the nation last season. Assuming he makes the jump normally associated with true rising-star players between their first and second seasons, he should be one of the top five quarterbacks, regardless of class, this fall, which would set him up for a mega-hyped 2015 season. That jump would've been a given with Bill O'Brien as coach, but the coaching change gives us a little pause. Still, Hackenberg is a special talent with all the needed physical gifts. The biggest question with Penn State's passing attack: Who will replace Allen Robinson as the go-to receiver? It seems likely that it will be sophomore Geno Lewis (6-1, 201), who could've been on this list, too.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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