There probably could be a first round post looking back at the 2013 season for the Gophers and trying to ascertain who was the consensus break-out player this past fall. I think a fairly strong argument could be made for both David Cobb and Maxx Williams on offense and defensively names like Theiran Cockran and Eric Murray would have to be in the conversation.
Offensively we had two guys who went from contributing next to nothing in 2012 to leading the team in significant categories. David Cobb participated in five games in 2012, earning 1 carry for 8 yards. In 2013 Cobb earned the job as the man to carry the load on the ground. He finished with 237 carries, 1,202 yards and 7 rushing touchdowns; all were team leading stats. Maxx Williams literally did contribute nothing in 2012 but that was due to his redshirt season. In 2013 he led the Gophers in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Clearly both were breakout performances and these two have gone from being just a guy on the 2-deep to a couple of the most important play-makers we have on offense.
The question for today is who will be one of the next players who makes the leap to being not just a starter/contributor but to one of the guys who is counted upon to be a play-maker, a difference-maker and a guy who opposing defenses have to account for to some degree. I'll submit a few players who I think have a chance to be this year's breakout player, you tell me who I missed and why.
WR - Drew Wolitarsky
The Gopher passing game was last in the Big Ten last year. The ground game finished 5th but combined the offense was next to last in scoring and total yardage. This needs to change and it will have to start with the passing game. There are more questions than answers for the Gopher passing attack but one of the primary concerns is finding a receiver (or two) who can get open, be a reliable target for Mitch Leidner and who can make some plays. I believe the top candidate to be that guys is Wolitarsky.
We need a receiver who primarily is capable of getting himself open and then making the catch. Donovahn Jones has the potential to be a game-breaking receiver who has a few home runs this year, but I don't see him being a consistent force on the offense. Wolitarsky is going to be that possession receiver who runs clean routes, gets himself open in the 8-12 yard range and converts third downs to keep the offense moving.
Woli came on as the season progressed and was the team's leading receiver in the bowl game. He has continued to progress through spring practice and in my opinion is poised for a breakout sophomore season.
"Drew's had a great spring so far," Coach Jerry Kill said. "You don't realize he's 225 pounds and a very storng kid. As you play as a freshman, it's a learning curve, but you build some confidence up, and he's a really, really good football player."
After seeing no action in the first four games, Wolitarsky managed 15 catches, 259 yards and a touchdown in the final 9 games. His 4 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Texas Bowl were his biggest numbers of the season. I am expecting that this bowl game performance and strong spring are indications that Wolitarsky is going to have a much larger role in the offense in 2014. I'm guessing 35 catches, 600+ yards and 6 touchdowns. Are those record breaking numbers? No, but they would have led the 2013 Gophers by a long shot.
OL - Jonah Pirsig
This would be a sneakier break-out player because offensive linemen rarely stand out as impact players, especially to the untrained eye (like mine). Highly recruited out of high school, Pirsig redshirted in 2012, appeared in seven games last year as a freshman and was often talked about throughout spring practice as pushing two-year starter Josh Campion at RT.
I have been impressed with Campion as a tough, reliable and healthy starter at RT during his freshman and sophomore seasons. If Pirsig, who is two and a half years younger than Campion, were to come in and earn the RT job this fall; that would be saying something. That would be saying something about Pirsig's talent and development.
Currently this looks like it will be a position battle worth watching and if won by Pirsig, expect Campion to move to RG. But this may be a position of strength that turns into a position player who is pushing for end of season conference awards.
RB - Berkley Edwards
I hesitate to include a running back as a break-out player in 2014. Is Edwards capable of being such a player? Yes, I think so. But I also fully expect that David Cobb will be getting the lion's share of the carries and it is possible that Jeff Jones will be earning carries throughout the season as well. This makes opportunities more difficult for Edwards to be a break-out and impact player.
With that said I believe that Edwards is a unique talent with elite speed and the staff will find ways to get him the ball and give him the opportunity to make impact plays. His 33-yard TD run was probably the offensive highlight of the spring game and there were reports of break-away runs throughout the spring practices.
When Edwards gets a seem, if he can get to the sideline, he is going to run off huge chunks of yardage. If the staff doesn't find a way to utilize his talent then there is a problem. I don't see Edwards being the every-down back, nor do I see him being exclusively a third-down back. I think he'll be a guy who gets on the field every few plays, regardless of down. He'll be on the field in different locations in different sets. He'll be a guy who gets the ball in his hands to make big things happen.
Jeff Jones - the incoming true freshman is the highest ranked recruit we have seen commit to the Gophers in a very long time. Jones is incredibly talented and has a chance to earn carries right away as a true freshman. This is a position of relative strength that Jones will only strengthen. But I anticipate that he won't be rushed into playing early unless he is just "that good." If he is "that good" then he will immediately be the impact player who blows away everyone listed in this post. But he will still be a true-freshman playing against men who have spent three or four years adding strength and maturity. I expect he'll play and have a role with moments where we see just how good he is going to be.
Mitch Leidner - I'm not sure if he should count to be on this list. He'll be the starting QB and to really be a "break-out" player I think he'll have to have a very good season, particularly throwing the ball. A good season, a slightly better season isn't going to be enough to qualify here. That is how I'm defining it anyway, you may feel differently. I believe that Leidner will be fine, I am not anticipating he'll have a break-out season as one of the top 5 or 6 QBs in the conference.
Donovahn Jones - My most anticipated player of the 2014 season. I love his play-making ability and after another year to refine his technique and develop into a good/reliable receiver, Jones may end up being our best receiver. But I think his impact will be spread out with a big game here and there with games of relatively no impact in between.
Nate Wozniac - This guy is huge, he really stands out when on the field and should be an interesting weapon for the Gophers. Listed at 6-10 Wozniac is a match-up nightmare for opposing linebackers. Is he going to break off huge chunks of yards? Probably not, but just throw it high and let the big man grab short-yardage, third-down conversions all day long. Interesting dynamic, GoAUpher's favorite player, should be a contributor but not meeting my definition of breakout player.
What say you? Who did I miss and who gets your vote for this year's breakout player?