by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football  fans.
Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue  – Most Big Ten fans are probably familiar with Allen’s accomplishments last year, but he’s not quite a household name. Allen had a terrific freshman season, collecting 73 tackles, one sack, three interceptions and broke up four passes. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and returned two of his picks for touchdowns. The Boilermakers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last year, but with Allen’s emergence and three other starters returning, this could be one of the most improved defensive backfields in the conference.
Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin  – Borland was one of the Big Ten’s rising stars going into last year, but a shoulder injury prevented him from playing in 11 games. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009, after registering 54 tackles, five sacks and three fumble recoveries. Borland will move to middle linebacker from the outside this season, but Wisconsin could move him around to get more pressure on the quarterback on third downs or passing situations. As long as Borland and Mike Taylor can stay healthy, Wisconsin should have one of the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska  – Behind Burkhead, Roy Helu and quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska rushing attack ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 last season. Helu has finished his eligibility in Lincoln, which opens the door for Burkhead to assume the No. 1 role in the backfield. He has rushed for 1,297 yards and 10 scores over the last two years, along with 28 receptions for 238 yards and one touchdown. The junior also serves as Nebraska’s Wildcat quarterback. The Cornhuskers will likely use Aaron Green and Braylon Heard to spell Burkhead for a couple of carries per game, but the junior should finish the year as one of the Big Ten’s leading rushers.
Marcus Coker, RB, Iowa  – Injuries and a suspension to starter Adam Robinson opened the door for Coker to become Iowa’s No. 1 back at the end of 2010. Coker led Iowa to an Insight Bowl victory, gashing Missouri for 219 rushing yards and two scores. His final totals for the year were 622 yards and three scores. Robinson was dismissed from the team, which leaves Coker to be Iowa’s workhorse on the ground this year. The Hawkeyes return one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines returning, so the sophomore should have no trouble getting to 1,000 yards.
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State  – Gholston ranked as the No. 24 recruit in the 2010 Athlon Consensus 100 and didn’t disappoint in limited action last year, seeing action in 10 games and collecting 13 stops. The sophomore is ready to move into a starting role, and Michigan State needs the sophomore to become an impact player. Gholston will start at end and will be charged to lead a pass rush that has to be better in 2011. At 6-foot-7, Gholston has the size and length to be a nuisance to all Big Ten quarterbacks when they drop back to pass.
MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota  – Gray was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for former coach Tim Brewster, ranking as one of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects. Gray’s success at Minnesota has been limited so far. Adam Weber started the last two years at quarterback, which prompted Gray to see playing time as a receiver. He caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five scores last year and added 110 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Gray has thrown only 23 passes in his career, completing eight of those for 86 yards, a touchdown and one interception. Gray will need some time to adjust in his first year as the starting quarterback. However, his athleticism and playmaking ability should be a good fit for coordinator Matt Limegrover’s offense and should be a solid quarterback for Minnesota by the end of 2011.
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State  – All signs point to Mauti emerging as Penn State’s next star linebacker. Mauti suffered a torn ACL in fall practice before the 2009 season, but showed no ill-effects last year, collecting 67 tackles and two sacks. The junior is expected to move from outside linebacker to anchor middle this season. Mauti added weight and strength during the offseason to help with the move and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection.
Silas Redd, RB, Penn State  – Evan Royster was a solid player in his Penn State career, but there’s not many concerns about the running game with Redd stepping into his place this year. Redd served as the No. 2 back last season, rushing for 437 yards and two scores. His best performance came against Northwestern, rushing for 131 yards and one touchdown. Penn State’s offensive line struggled last season and loses its top player - guard Stefen Wisniewski. Although line play is a concern, Redd should be able to top 1,000 yards and push for All-Big Ten honors by the end of the year.
Craig Roh, DE, Michigan  – Improving the defense has to be priority No. 1 for new coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines were historically bad on defense last year, finishing last in the Big Ten in total, passing and scoring defense. Mattison was a solid coordinator during his tenure at Florida and should have this unit playing better by the end of 2011. The defensive line has potential to be solid, especially with senior Mike Martin anchoring the middle. Roh registered 43 tackles and two forced fumbles last year. Moving to a 4-3 scheme should help Roh become a bigger factor in the defense, which will allow the junior to compete for the team lead in sacks.
Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois  – Scheelhaase faced his shared of ups and downs last season, but closed out 2010 on a high note. He posted 13 of his 17 passing scores over the final seven games and posted a season-high 131 rushing yards against Fresno State. A light schedule certainly helped his production, but Scheelhaase settled into the starting role, and Illinois hopes that momentum carries over into 2011. The sophomore should continue to improve as a passer, while his emergence could allow Illinois to be a contender in the Big Ten Leaders Division.
John Simon, DT, Ohio State  – Simon is a name Big Ten fans are probably familiar with, but 2011 should be his breakout year on the national stage. He registered 41 tackles and three sacks last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Simon is one of Ohio State’s workout warriors in the weight room and his size and strength will be an asset to the line this year. The Buckeyes plan to move Simon around, using him at end and tackle. Ohio State returns only four starters on defense, but Simon is ready to become one of the leaders and a dominant force up front.
Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois  – With Corey Liuget off to the NFL, the Fighting Illini need a big year from Spence. As a redshirt freshman last season, he collected 45 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery and earned freshman All-American honors by the FWAA. Spence will see more attention from opposing offenses with Liuget gone, but the sophomore should contend for all-conference honors with an even better 2011 season.
Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska  – In his first year as a starter last season, Steinkuhler posted 46 tackles and 3.5 sacks, while earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. With Jared Crick getting most of the attention from offensive linemen and facing double teams, Steinkuhler should have an opportunity to become an even bigger factor this year. And Steinkuhler’s emergence should help relieve some of the pressure on Crick. Baker’s father, Dean, played at Nebraska and won the 1983 Outland and Lombardi Awards. The Cornhuskers own the Big Ten’s best defensive line, and Steinkuhler is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team all-conference selection. Don’t be surprised if Steinkuhler is a preseason All-American going into 2012.
Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State  – With DeVier Posey suspended for the first five games of 2011 and the loss of Dane Sanzenbacher to the NFL, the Buckeyes need to find a go-to target for quarterbacks Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller. Stoneburner caught 21 passes for 222 yards and two scores last year and figures to be an even bigger part of the gameplan this season. The Buckeyes are also hopeful Corey Brown will become a key contributor at receiver, but Stoneburner may end up leading the team in catches until Posey is back. The best friend of any quarterback is a tight end and with two inexperienced passers taking over, Stoneburner will have a significant role in the Ohio State offense.
Mike Trumpy, RB, Northwestern  – Although Dan Persa is expected to be 100 percent in his return from an Achilles tear, the Wildcats still need to improve the rushing attack in 2011. Trumpy showed signs of becoming Northwestern’s go-to back last season, rushing for 530 yards and four scores on 116 carries. The Wildcats don’t need 1,000 yards from the sophomore, but they need more consistency and success on the ground. If Trumpy picks up where he left off last year, rushing for 800 yards isn’t out of the question. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman receiver Christian Jones, who could be an instant impact player for Northwestern.
Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin  – Producing All-Big Ten linemen never seems to be an issue in Madison. The Badgers had one of college football’s top offensive lines last year, which led the way for the rushing attack to average 5.5 yards per carry and total 48 rushing scores. Left tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt have finished their eligibility, but the offensive line should remain one of the best in the nation. Wagner will switch from the right side to Carimi’s old spot at left tackle to protect the blind side for quarterback Russell Wilson. The junior could finish 2011 as one of the top tackles in college football.
Duwyce Wilson, WR, Indiana  – Damarlo Belcher is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers, but with Tandon Doss leaving early for the NFL, Indiana needs a new No. 2 target to emerge. Wilson caught 32 passes for 488 yards and three scores as a freshman last year. He also averaged 15.2 yards per reception and with Doss now suiting up for the Baltimore Ravens, should see his role expanded in 2011. The Hoosiers have to find a quarterback, but whether it’s Dusty Kiel or Edward Wright-Baker taking snaps, the quarterback has no shortage of talented weapons to throw to.
Other Big Ten Content:
Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011 
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions 
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team 
Top 25 Players of BCS Era 
Best Quarterback in the Big Ten? 
Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race? 
Illinois: A Sleeper Team?