The Next Wave: 2018 Delivered Several Young Playmakers Who Could Take Over the Big Ten in the Coming Years

By Andrew Ellis on December 30, 2018 at 7:05 am
Chris Olave made a name for himself late in the season.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

This past summer we looked at several Big Ten newcomers who could make an early splash in the conference. With the season now nearing its conclusion, it's a bit easier to look back and speculate on what may happen over the next handful of years. 

Nationally, we just saw true freshmen Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross help to lead Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers to another College Football Playoff championship game. Lawrence, the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class, has been lights out since taking over as the Tigers' starting quarterback. Ross was the country's seventh-ranked 2018 wideout and he's coming off a 148-yard, two-touchdown performance against Notre Dame.

In the Big Ten, it was a year that saw three true freshmen capture starting quarterback roles before the season even kicked off. And while one in particular fared better than the rest, it may have served as a sign regarding the kind of impact the young talent – including that of the redshirt variety – would have across the conference. 

So who's already on track to be key figures for the foreseeable future in the Big Ten? Some of the names are ones we had circled in the preseason while a few others are a bit more surprising. 

Chris Olave • Ohio State • Wide Receiver • San Marcos, California

You're unlikely to find anyone proclaiming that Chris Olave was the most impactful freshman in the conference, but we're going to start with the local wideout who hails from San Marcos, California. 

Olave certainly wasn't one of our picks to make an impact in 2018. In fact, we had him on our early list of likely redshirt candidates. Considering the depth of Ohio State's wide receiver room – and Olave's prospect rating out of high school – he really wasn't someone we saw playing much as a true freshman. 

He didn't put up gaudy numbers with 12 receptions for 197 yards and three scores, but Olave definitely made a name for himself against Michigan and Northwestern. Austin Mack's injury gave him an opportunity for more playing time and he certainly took advantage. The departures of Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell, and perhaps K.J. Hill will mean even more opportunities in 2019; even if it does come with a new quarterback.

Rondale Moore • Purdue • Wide Receiver • Louisville, Kentucky

The Boilermakers' season didn't end on a high note with Friday's abysmal performance against Auburn, but there's still a lot to be excited about in West Lafayette. When looking at the Big Ten's top freshman it has to start with Rondale Moore and the ridiculous season he put together in Jeff Brohm's offense. 

Moore caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards with 14 total touchdowns. He took home a number of awards this month including consensus All-American honors and winning the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player. Buckeye fans got a first-hand look at the freshman phenom in October and fortunately won't face him again unless he's still around for his senior season in 2021.

Adrian Martinez • Nebraska • Quarterback • Fresno, California

Nebraska had its ups and downs during Scott Frost's first season, but I think it's pretty clear that the Huskers have something going at quarterback. True freshman Adrian Martinez scored 25 touchdowns in his first season despite missing one game and dealing with an injury against Michigan. Dual-threat quarterbacks have had plenty of success in Frost's system and Martinez should cause plenty of headaches in the coming years. 

Isaiah Bowser • Northwestern • Running Back • Sidney, Ohio

Jeremy Larkin's injury-induced retirement opened the door for Isaiah Bowser to take over the Northwestern running game. While it took some time for the Sidney, Ohio native to settle in as the workhorse, he had a superb second half of the season in helping to lead the Wildcats to a West Division crown. Oct. 20th against Rutgers was the freshman's first game as the lead back and he topped the century mark in four of the team's final seven contests.

Bowser ran for just shy of 800 yards and six touchdowns and Clayton Thorson's departure likely means he'll be relied upon heavily in 2019. Northwestern takes on Utah tomorrow evening in the Holiday Bowl. The Utes boast the nation's No. 4 rush defense.

K.J. Hamler • Penn State • Wide Receiver (RS) • Pontiac, Michigan

Penn State's redshirt freshman already looks like one of the Big Ten's most explosive players, and his speed was on display when the Buckeyes traveled to Happy Valley in late September. His 93-yard catch and run electrified the crowd and the speedster found the end zone six times on the season. Trace McSorley won't be back next season but James Franklin would be silly not to utilize Hamler in every way possible. 

Anthony McFarland • Maryland • Running Back (RS) • Hyattsville, Maryland

Just about every player on our list excelled against Ohio State this season, which perhaps is no surprise given the Buckeyes' struggles on the defensive side of the ball. Maryland's Anthony McFarland unquestionably put together the best performance of them all.

The redshirt freshman gashed the Buckeyes for 298 yards and two scores in the Terps' overtime loss. Ohio State had no answers early on as McFarland scored from 81 and 75 yards out in the game's opening quarter. He ran for 1,034 yards and four scores on the year while splitting backfield duties with senior Ty Johnson. The Big Ten can expect to see plenty of Anthony McFarland with Mike Locksley at the helm in 2019.

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