The Buckeyes always recruit well, so it's no surprise when talented newcomers make an impact on one of Urban Meyer's teams. Still, it's probably fair to say that no one expected J.K. Dobbins to put up 1,500 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns with another game yet to take place. It's even crazier when you consider that he wasn't the conference's most impactful true freshman tailback.
While they may not have seen the field as much as Dobbins, the future is also extremely bright for Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah. Young recorded 2.5 sacks to go along with a forced fumble, and the former five-star stood out nearly every time he was on the field. Okudah played in every game this season, and his career is on a similar path as several previous defensive backs. He's making an impact on special teams before likely holding down one of the cornerback spots in 2018.
The Buckeyes recruit better than anyone in the conference, but several other teams featured true freshmen that played prominent roles this season. Players who could give the Big Ten fits for the next several years.
Jonathan Taylor • Tailback • Wisconsin
The Badgers are used to having a dominant ground game, and that was the case yet again in 2017. This season's bell cow may have been the most impressive freshman in the entire country. Jonathan Taylor was third in the nation in rushing yards (1,847) and scored 13 touchdowns. He took home the Big Ten's "Freshman of the Week" honors eight different times, which is a new record.
Taylor and the Badgers will face off against the Miami Hurricane's in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. He needs 79 yards to break Adrian Peterson's true freshman rushing record (1,925 yards). The Buckeyes held Taylor to just 41 yards on 15 carries last weekend in Indy, which may have been the defense's most impressive feat of the entire season.
Whether it be Ron Dayne, Melvin Gordon, James White, or Montee Ball, the Badgers ground attack is always a force in the conference. Taylor already looks to be the next great back in Madison.
Donovan Peoples-Jones • Wide Receiver • Michigan
It was difficult for the Wolverine wideouts to get a lot going this year. Much of that can be attributed to injuries and shaky quarterback play. Still, Donovan Peoples-Jones was impressive even if he didn't put up a gaudy stat line. DPJ was a guy the Buckeyes wanted badly, but he ultimately sided with Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor.
It came in a loss and it wasn't for a TD, but this Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return was filthy. pic.twitter.com/KVhK3aCggA
— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) November 26, 2017
Peoples-Jones impressed on special teams as he finished the season with over 300 return yards and one touchdown. On the receiving side, he caught 16 passes for 219 yards. If the Wolverines can find some competency at quarterback, then Peoples-Jones should cause some problems for the conference.
Cody White • Wide Receiver • Michigan State
White was a lowly three-star recruit coming out of Walled Lake, Michigan. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder held offers from most of the MAC programs and a few from the Big Ten. Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Wisconsin all showed interest, but White committed to the Spartans nearly a year before this past February's signing day.
White finished his freshman campaign as the team's No. 3 receiver. He hauled in 32 passes for 449 yards and a pair of scores. He exploded in the Spartans' triple-overtime loss to Northwestern; recording nine receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns. The team's top receivers – Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart Jr. – both return in 2018, but White's rapport with quarterback Brian Lewerke should only grow stronger.
Josiah Scott • Defensive Back • Michigan State
Fairfield, Ohio's Josiah Scott was another lightly recruited prospect coming out of high school. Rated as a three-star and the country's No. 953 player, Scott wasted no time making an impact in the Spartan secondary. His week-one performance against Bowling Green was impressive. In fact, it was the most impressive debut in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.
These athletes making their debut this season left a strong impression in Week 1. pic.twitter.com/vmgKbvsMEs
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 7, 2017
He started 10 straight games before sitting out with an injury against Maryland. Michigan State has a long history of producing talented defensive backs, and Scott already looks like he's the next in line.
A.J. Epenesa • Defensive End • Iowa
Iowa's A.J. Epenesa actually has a lot in common with Peoples-Jones. Both were five-star prospects and legacies who ended up siding with the in-state program. Epenesa checked in as the country's No. 27 player before enrolling in Iowa City this past summer.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team after recording 4.5 sacks on the season. His career is off to a bit of a Bosa-esque start as he came into the games primarily in pass-rushing situations early on, but saw his role expand as the season progressed. Nick Bosa recorded five sacks as a true freshman and bumped that number up to seven in 2017. Don't be surprised if Epenesa makes a similar leap as a sophomore.
Switching back to the Buckeyes, there were a number of heralded freshmen who actually didn't see action in 2017. That's certainly no reason for concern as oftentimes one just has to wait his turn before making it into the two deep and eventually taking over.
Guys like Shaun Wade, Baron Browning, Wyatt Davis, and Tate Martell all will likely see expanded roles in the coming years. The added reps in bowl practice should only help the youngsters prepare for what lies ahead.
Wade – a five-star from Jacksonville – had an injury-plagued season before undergoing abdomen surgery last month. Heading into this season, he was one of the guys many had circled as a potential early contributor. He'll look to bounce back and make an impact in the defensive backfield in 2018. He and Okudah both have the talent to be the next great defenders in the secondary.
Browning saw limited action this season – primarily on special teams – and he too will see the field often next season. Chris Worley will be gone and Jerome Baker will likely have a decision to make, but the opportunity for more playing time at linebacker should be there for the taking for the former five-star Texan.
The departure of Rimington winner Billy Price and Jamarco Jones could lead to all kinds of shuffling in the trenches. Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers both could be in line for some playing time following their redshirt campaigns. Thayer Munford made his debut against Army, and unlike Davis and Myers, he looks to have found a home at tackle.
The usage of Tate Martell will be an intriguing storyline heading into 2018. Martell is a completely different player than both Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow, and the early reports have been strong for the freshman. No one is really expecting him to take the reigns next season, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him used in select packages where his legs can be utilized.
The future remains bright in Columbus and throughout the Midwest for several of the Big Ten's top programs.