Its B1G Week here among the network of sites. We’ll be bringing you the best and most hard hitting conference draft previews you can find anywhere. Yesterday Mike Loyko at NEPD kicked off the coverage with the best senior prospects in the conference.
Many of those players you’ll see repeated here because the middle to bottom of the Big 10 has fallen off some and some of these guys, despite being talented, were still unknown. So without further ado here are the B1G Sleepers.
By BBD Staff Writer Eric Samulski
Terry Hawthorne- CB
6’0” 190 Senior
Illinois started off the season on fire last year, but hit a brick wall when they got into the heart of their Big Ten schedule. If they’re going to step up their level of competition next year, they’re going to need their top players to make big plays. Last year Terry Hawthorne added himself to that list of stars. A dynamic playmaker with 4.4 speed, Hawthorne was named Freshman All-Big Ten after appearing in 12 games back in 2009 and earning a starting spot by the end of the season. A foot injury derailed his 2010 season, causing him to miss the first four games and never quite finding his groove. Last season, Hawthorne got himself back on track, making eleven starts, compiling 60 tackles, five for a loss, a team-high three picks, and ending the season tied for the Big Ten lead in passes defended. His playmaking abilities and open field elusiveness also allowed him to take over as the Illini punt returner midway through the season.
Playing multiple positions is nothing new for Hawthorne, who was a WR in High school and also punted, netting a 44.8-yard average. His high school accomplishments also allowed him to be named Parade All-American, a USA Today All-American and their top-ranked WR. Rivals.com listed him as the 58th best player in the country and, as a former WR, he understands routes and has the hands to make plays on the ball. With his size, that could allow him to emerge as a potential starting corner in the NFL.
Stephen Houston- RB
6’0” 225 pound RS Junior
Indiana doesn’t have a lot of talent on offense, but they do have Stephen Houston. A Junior College transfer in his first year as a starter, Houston showed real talent as a runner, racking up 802 yards and eight touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry. However, 711 of those yards came after week 5 when he won the starting job; averaging 88.9 yard per game as the Hoosier starter. He has the size to hold up under a heavy workload and the athleticism to make the first guy miss. He’s not going to trick anybody into thinking he is a true home run threat, but he has good hands out of the backfield and proved his mettle against good competition, totaling 135 yards on 19 carries against Wisconsin.
Without any other legitimate weapons the Hoosiers will go to Houston early and often next year. Another good season will start to make people take him seriously as a legitimate ball carrier. He’s not going to be a lead back in the NFL, but his skillset compares favorably to 6’0” 230-pound Toby Gerhart, who had his name called in the 2nd round. Even without that kind of profile, Houston could be a solid short yardage backup in the league.
James Vandenberg- QB
6’3” 215 pound Senior
Vandenberg was placed firmly in the starters role after serving as Ricky Stanzi’s back-up in 2010 and quickly continued the tradition of steady, cerebral quarterbacks at Iowa. Starting all thirteen games, he completed 58.7% of his passes, throwing for 3,022 yards and 25 TDs with only seven INTs. Like most Iowa quarterbacks, Vandenberg is fundamentally sound. The most prolific passer in Iowa state HS history, holding 12 different passing records, Vandenberg sells the play-fake well and throws a consistent football. He’s not going to wow anybody with his arm strength, but he can throw the ball across the field, and he has displayed solid touch on deep passes. He has some mechanical flaws to iron out with his footwork, but he shows a good understanding of angles and rarely puts his wide receivers in a bad position.
A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that Vandenberg clearly has his head on straight; a quality that many people loved about Kirk Cousins this offseason. Vandenberg is an Academic All-American and has been named to the Leadership Group three straight years. He’s a guy that doesn’t seem to let anybody football situation rattle him. However, that’s only partly due to his intelligence. He’s also a big game hunter in the offseason. On his Twitter account he posted a photo of him a bear he shot. Yes he shot a freaking bear and is likely not a guy is not going to be afraid of NFL defenders.
Kenny Demens- ILB
6’1” 250 pound RS Senior
After finding it hard to land consistent playing time in Rich Rodriguez’s 3-3-5 system Demens really flourished in Greg Mattison’s pro-style defense. A stout linebacker with average speed, Demens was lost in Rodriguez’s scheme, which stressed athleticism in its second level of defense. Possessing good technique and intelligence, Demens was able to use his instincts for play recognition to find the ball carrier on a consistent basis last season. He totaled 94 tackles, leading the Wolverines and earning him a 2nd team All- Big Ten nod despite starting the season as a reserve.
However, Demens has always had talent. He was the country’s #22 LB coming out of high school and the 8th ranked player in the state of Michigan. Despite not earning consistent playing time early on, Demens has been a special teams leading since his red-shirt freshman season and has improved his overall game each fall. He’s still better in run support than he is against the pass, but his solid technique, good instincts and ability on special teams with make him a commodity in the middle rounds of the draft. Learning Mattison’s system and terminology will also help his transition to the NFL where he figures to be an inside linebacker in any scheme.
Anthony Rashad White- DT
6’2” 320 pound Senior
Meet the replacement for Jerel Worthy. At 6’2” 320 with solid athleticism, White has a chance to be a true breakout player in 2012. Although he’s never been a full time starter, he has made plays when called upon. Nowhere was this more evident than during the bowl game against Georgia where he blocked the FG to seal the win. In fact, he stepped up during the entire bowl game, notching seven tackles and three for a loss.
A JUCO transfer after his freshman year, he now knows the system and will be given his first chance to start at Nose Tackle. He gets good penetration with that athleticism and quick first step and can move a pile with his size. He’s shown enough burst to assume he can play as a 4-3 DT, but his size also indicates 3-4 value so he’s scheme versatile. With Michigan State getting better White will try and break a trend of defensive lineman who fail to transition to becoming stars in the NFL level.
MarQueis Gray- QB
The Big 10 might be the conference with the most dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. However, despite all the publicity that Denard Robinson from Michigan and Taylor Martinez from Nebraska get, and the emergence of Kain Colter from Northwestern, Gray might actually have the best chance of making an impact in the NFL at the quarterback position. The number three ranked dual threat QB coming out of high school and the number one player in the state of Indiana, Gray had a quarterback pedigree before being asked to shift positions during his freshman year. Although he did see some snaps at quarterback, the Gophers began to transition him more to wide receiver, despite showing flashes of talent under center, like when he went 5-6 for 51 yards and a TD against Ohio State. However, by his sophomore year, Gray played almost exclusively at WR, tallying 587 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year the Gophers flopped Gray again and this time it seems like it’s for good. At 6’4” 240 pounds with 4.5 speed, Gray has the size and athleticism that scouts are beginning to appreciate at the quarterback position. Mix that in with his running ability and he becomes a very intriguing prospect. He has a strong arm and has made some highlight real throws. However, he also possesses poor mechanics and often throws off balance. If his mechanics can continue to improve, his athleticism, size and arm strength make him a good project at the QB position. In a league that saw Tannehill go #8 overall, anything is possible.
Daimion Stafford- FS
6’1” 205 Pound Junior
Nebraska hangs their hat on defense and the Black Shirts have had a real resurgence in recent years. A 2010 JUCO transfer, Stafford has joined that club and made an immediate impact at the division one level. In his first game with the Huskers he came up in run support and absolutely unloaded on an unassuming Tennessee-Chattanooga runningback, separating him from the ball. It was a simple play, but one that showed exactly what Stafford was capable of. He’s a strong, physical player who doesn’t back down from many challenges. The third leading tackler on the Huskers in his first season, he possesses good closing speed, recognizes the play quickly, and hits like a truck.
While many college safeties tend to specialize in one area of defense, Stafford also excels in the passing game. He led Nebraska in pass breakups with 10 and picked off five passes the year before at Chaffey Junior College. He has the athleticism and the hands to finish the job. The only knock on him seems to be that his generous listing of 6’1” 205 pounds makes him on the smaller side for a safety. Still, there is room in the league for skill and athleticism.
Kyle Prater- WR
6’5” 190 Pound RS Sophomore
It’s hard to name a guy a sleeper when he’s barely stepped foot on a college football field, but this is the perfect combination of talent and the right opportunity. Prater was heavily recruited out of high school and chose to add his skills to the mix at USC. When he failed to find the field, Prater started looking for greener pastures and found a place at Northwestern near his Chicago hometown.
A five star recruit, Prater was heavily recruited out of high school for his size and solid hands, but he battled injuries early at USC and was quickly passed up by other talented players. At 6’5” 190 pounds, Prater has exceptional size for a wide receiver, which will be an asset for many different reasons at Northwestern. For one, the Northwestern offense is rather wide open and they like to take shots down field. Since they tend to fall behind in most games, this means they throw often. A 6’5” target it likely to win a lot of jump balls and Cain Colter isn’t afraid to throw them. Second, Prater could become a favorite target for Colter, who creates a lot of broken plays because he likes to buy time with his legs. If the two of them can get on the same page then Prater’s natural talent and unique situation might catch some NFL eyes. Perennial powerhouses like USC often stockpile their rosters with talent, so being passed by some of their other highly recruited targets doesn’t mean Prater is any less talented.
Jordan Hall- RB
5’9” 200 Pound Senior
Under-utilized last season and not a prototypical lead back, Hall was never much of a factor under Jim Tressell. He was a fourth string runningback for much of last year and only saw value on return units before that. However, he always found his way onto the field because he has incredible open field agility. He was the team’s main returner last year, averaging 26.3 yards on kickoff returners. Despite only getting 100 carries, he was also the team’s 5th leading receiver, showing soft hands and slipperiness out of the backfield that was aided by his short stature.
Then, when Urban Meyer was hired on to run the Ohio State program, Hall’s value got an injection of new life. Meyer’s spread offense makes the most out of athletes with electric open field ability. Hall fits the bill. He might not be as dynamic a playmaker as Percy Harvin was, but it’s easy to see him being used in a similar fashion: as a runner on tosses or sweeps where he can get to the outside and as a receiver both lined up out wide and out of the backfield. At 200 pounds, he doesn’t have the bulk to be a feature back, but he can certainly take a few hits. If defenders can find him to lay a helmet on him.
Michael Mauti- ILB
6’2” 240 Pound RS- Senior
This choice is the one that could blow up in my face the most spectacularly. Once thought of as the next in line at “Linebacker U,” Mauti has had two of his last three campaigns ended early with torn ACLs. The only small silver lining is that it wasn’t a repeat injury, so Mauti can still believe in a full recovery on both knees. It might zap him of some of his explosiveness, but it should have no effect on his intelligence and fundamentally sound tackling.
Coming back from his first injury, Mauti was able to still collect 67 tackles in only seven starts, good enough for fifth on the team. As he started getting back into shape, the rust wore off and his natural athleticism took over. He played more snaps in the last four games of the season and totaled career highs in two of those games. He’s adept at recognizing a play and shedding blocks to get after the ball-carrier. If he can come back and play at even 75% this season, it will go a long way towards showing NFL team that he can possibly regain some of his old explosiveness. Even if he’s not as quick as he was before the injuries, he has the size to stick as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 system where he would have to cover less ground.
Ricardo Allen- CB
5’9” 180 Pound Junior
The Big Ten perennially puts out good cornerbacks. In recent years Leon Hall, Justin King, Tracy Porter, Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements and Chris Gamble are a few of the Big Ten corners to make the transition. Ricardo Allen might end up the season as the top one. He’s not only a solid pass defender, but he’s also good in run support, showing solid tackling form and instincts. Last year he made 81 tackles, three for a loss, broke up for passes and picked off another three in his first year as a full-time starter.
At 5’9” 180 pounds, he doesn’t have the ideal height for an NFL corner, but he’s proven to be pesky to shake in coverage. After forcing his way on the field as a freshman and earning second team Freshman All-American, Allen has proven that he has the skills to make up for his size. He might be a nickel corner at best in the NFL, but with most teams going to three and four WR sets, he could still be an asset.
Mike Taylor- OLB
6’2” 225 Pound Senior
Wisconsin plays defense. No matter what sport, Wisconsin plays defense. In the last few years Wisconsin has produced many talented defensive players: Jim Leonhard, DeAndre Levy, O’Brien Schofield and JJ Watt the most recent. They’re well coached and fundamentally sound. Mike Taylor could be the next name on that list.
Named First Team All-Big Ten in 2011, Taylor was a full-time starter and totaled 150 tackles, nine for a loss, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. In fact, it was his second year in a row with multiple picks, proving that he can defend the pass as well. Running a 4.6 40, he doesn’t have ideal sideline-to-sideline speed, but he makes up for it by being relentless in pursuit and wrapping up his tackles. He’s also a leader on the defense, which usually signifies a type of dedication and study that can make good NFL players. He might have to start his career out on special teams, but there is a place in the NFL for fundamentally sound tacklers with a nose for the ball.