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With fall camps underway across the board, the hype for opening night is full speed ahead. The first weekend for the Big Ten East features inter-conference bouts between Minnesota and Ohio State on Thursday, September 2nd. Also, Penn State travels to Madison on September 4th to play some badger ball with Wisconsin. This matchup will be a crucial contest that could weigh heavily in conference standings come November.
Week two features a PAC-12 road trip to the Midwest as the Buckeyes welcome the Oregon Ducks to Columbus. Also, the Michigan Wolverines host Washington in a “Maize Out” to see if the Huskies have any bite in their barks. The Big Ten can get off to a hot start and really put a wrench in the CFP hopes for the PAC-12.
We can’t forget the week three showdown where Auburn heads to Happy Valley either. This will be a game that both the SEC and Big Ten would like to see their conference counterpart come away with a victory. Just talking about these matchups gets the juices flowing for me.
Now that we’ve set the stage for the 2021 season, let’s take a look at some players who will be the real “make or break” guys for their squads:
Indiana Hoosiers: WR Ty Fryfogle
As long as Michael Penix Jr. can stay healthy, Fryfogle should have a massive season. Just peeking at his numbers with his QB1 and then without him, it’s night and day. For example, Fryfogle had a three-game stretch that put him on the map where he had 25 catches, 560 yards and six TDs.
He can bail out Indiana’s offense by himself, with the ability to go up and make contested grabs in double coverage on third and long situations. It was almost poetry in motion watching the connection that he and Penix Jr. had last season on downfield tosses. Even with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in the conference, there’s still an opportunity for Fryfogle to make All-Big Ten First Team. I understand it is easy to argue Penix Jr. being the make-or-break guy here, but what I saw from Fryfogle was phenomenal.
Maryland Terrapins: WR Rakim Jarrett
Head coach Mike Locksley being able to keep Jarrett in-state was only the first step, and now he needs him to be “the guy.” They don’t just hand out five stars to everybody, and Jarrett was certainly worthy of that ranking in the 2020 class. His open-field prowess to be more than just a pass-catcher is invaluable.
Taulia Tagovailoa needs to have a sure-fire safety net to help him grow. Jarrett is good enough to beat most, if not all press coverage, and show his eyes and numbers to receive the ball. If I’m Locksley, I’m getting him going underneath and allowing him to get the ball early and often. There’s no reason he couldn’t lead the whole conference in yards after catch.
Michigan Wolverines: RB Blake Corum
What was expected to be an electric freshman campaign for Corum turned out to be the exact opposite. He averaged only 3.0 yards per carry last season and his longest run was only 15 yards. Corum probably never had a game in high school where he didn’t have at least one 20 yard carry, so the struggles for him were unexpected. No need to panic, though.
Now that Zach Charbonnet is off to UCLA, that leaves only Hassan Haskins in front of him in the pecking order. Haskins is strictly a runner, which opens up plenty of opportunities in long-yardage situations or passing downs. Corum will get every opportunity to showcase his abilities for the Wolverines, but he absolutely has to come up big. If he doesn’t, the chants for true freshman Donovan Edwards will come in hot and heavy.
One of the most important pieces to Corum’s development may come from his new running backs coach. The Wolverines hired one of their all-time greats in Mike Hart, who has been really productive on Indiana’s staff as of late. Maybe Michigan can get the best out of their running backs with a great former player, just as their rival has done with Brian Hartline propelling the Buckeye wideout room into the upper echelon.
Michigan State Spartans: RB Connor Heyward
This pick more reflects heavily on the flow of the game, but also what Heyward can bring to the table. He’s an absolute unit at 230 lbs. and always has a tendency to fall forward. What I love about him is how he can become even more effective as the weather elements factor in, or as the game goes along.
Look at Sparty’s only two wins from last season and you’ll notice why I tabbed Heyward as the X-factor. In arguably their greatest win over #8 Northwestern, Heyward carried the ball 24 times for 96 yards. His only other double-digit carry game was against Michigan, as he recorded 13 carries. The bottom line is if Michigan State is in tight games, or playing with the lead, Heyward’s value becomes exponentially higher.
One key thing we’ve learned from their camp so far is that he is also lining up at tight end and H-back. This could mean an expanded role in the blocking and pass-catching game as well.
Ohio State Buckeyes: TE Jeremy Ruckert
If there’s one thing I know about Ruckert, it’s that the man has ice in his veins. His go-to move when he finds the end zone is to always show that with his forearm. Not only is he cold-blooded, but he can push his clutch meter into the red.
Ruckert has made remarkable catches in key moments, just like his one-handed TD grab against Wisconsin to spark the comeback in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game. He poses a problem to anybody trying to cover him because he has the size at 6’5” 253 lbs. and has the speed to run. It’s hard to cover a guy who could run around a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, with solid route running and strong paws to muscle defenders.
The catch here is that since Tom Herman’s departure from the program, post-2015 CFP Title, they haven’t used the tight ends the same. Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman used to be staples in short-yardage situations for that Buckeye team, en route to a championship. With the loaded receiver room sure to get a ton of attention from the defense, Ruckert should be getting at least five targets per game as not only is he a stud pass catcher, but he can run and drag defenders with him.
Penn State Nittany Lions: QB Sean Clifford
The quarterback position is arguably the most important piece in all of sports, and Penn State has been plagued by bad play for seemingly forever. I can’t recall a game in the game that Penn State has won in the last decade that the quarterback was lacking. From 2016 to 2018, under Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions were a national force due to an electric offense.
Clifford has spurts of play that are very eye-opening, but it’s hard to remember the good when he’s had a lot of bad. He needs to simply take care of the football, whether it be through the air or when attempting to run. There are so many playmakers in State College for him to distribute the ball to that in all actuality, he’s going to just be the messenger. Even if he can provide the offense with 24 points per game, the Nittany Lions could be 10 game-winners in 2021.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: WR Bo Melton
There’s no secret that the Scarlet Knights love to go to #18, and that’s Melton. He’s absolutely fearless and not afraid to go up top, or over the middle into the teeth of the defense. It’s not a cakewalk getting him to the ground either, as a ton or his yards came after the catch, making people miss in space.
If he can put it all together next season as he did in a strong three-game stretch last year, watch out. Against Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan, Melton had 19 catches for 345 yards, and three receiving scores. He can flat-out play and should be getting 10 targets per game next season.