Now that the 2012 season is in the books, it's time to start gazing forward and identify some potential breakout performers for 2013.
We could come up with a long list of such players in the Big Ten but are limiting ourselves to five on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who can take that next step into greatness next season, much as Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, Northwestern's Venric Mark, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Braxton Miller and Penn State's Allen Robinson did in 2012. Players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list, since we're focusing on guys who can make the leap.
Let's begin with five players to watch on the offensive side of the ball in 2013 (in alphabetical order):
Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge: It's safe to say that no one involved in the Spartans' passing game had a great 2012. At least that makes the possibility of a 2013 breakout even higher. Burbridge seems like one member of that group who could make a big jump up. A true freshman last season who was slowed at the start of the year by an injury, he showed signs of his ability in games like his 134-yard receiving day against Indiana. He also caught a touchdown pass in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over TCU. Burbridge should benefit from an offseason of coaching. All he needs is someone to consistently throw him the ball next fall.
Michigan QB Devin Gardner: Sure, this one is pretty obvious. Gardner put up some big numbers down the stretch once he became the Wolverines' starting quarterback, beginning with the Nov. 3 Minnesota game. The outlook could be even brighter for him in 2013, after he has a full offseason to practice solely at quarterback and Al Borges can design a more passing-friendly offense without Denard Robinson around. Michigan's young offensive line will have to hold up, and its running backs will have to give Gardner more support than they provided last season. But if some up-and-coming receivers can join Jeremy Gallon as playmakers, Gardner could make a run at Big Ten offensive player of the year honors.
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Gordon showed flashes of his potential during the regular season as a redshirt freshman and then erupted for 206 rushing yards on only nine carries in the Big Ten championship game win over Nebraska. With Montee Ball gone, Gordon has an excellent shot at being the every-down back for the Badgers instead of just a change-of-pace guy used on jet sweeps. Wisconsin coaches and players have said the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Gordon has more natural talent than any recent back to come through Madison, including the record-setting Ball. He'll have to live up to high expectations and adjust to a new offense, but he has as much potential for a breakout 2013 as any offensive skill player.
Ohio State RB Jordan Hall: The word in the preseason was that Hall would be Urban Meyer's Percy Harvin-type, do-everything back for the Buckeyes. Unfortunately, Hall was hampered most of the season by injuries and played in only three games. When he did play, he was productive, with 87 rushing yards against Cal and 105 versus UAB. He's expected to get a medical redshirt and be back in 2013. Carlos Hyde emerged as the team's top running back and will be hard to unseat in 2013 if he does not opt to go to the NFL early. But a healthy Hall could give Meyer's offense a lot more options.
Indiana QB Tre Roberson: The Hoosiers' sophomore quarterback looked well on his way to big things in 2012 before a broken leg ended his season during the second game. He had run for 114 yards and two touchdowns against UMass before the injury, and he threw for 280 yards in the opener. The IU offense became a high-powered one under first-year coordinator Seth Littrell, even with two inexperienced quarterbacks (Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld) succeeding Roberson. It will be a good competition between the three this offseason. But Roberson has more running ability than the other two, which will give Indiana a new dimension. With receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes all back, the Hoosiers could have the best passing game in the Big Ten.