- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.
These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.
The penultimate name on this list hails from Purdue, which is looking for a boost along its defensive line this season.
Spring breakout player: DT Ra'Zahn Howard
When a team goes 1-11 with zero FBS victories, the rebuild always begins up front. While Purdue needs help on both sides of the ball, Howard provides a much-needed disruptive presence in the middle of the defensive line.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Howard has shed about 40 pounds since he arrived at Purdue, and while he still must make strides in conditioning, he displayed explosiveness during practice this spring. He worked at nose guard and showed not only the ability to fill space but defeat blocks and penetrate the backfield. It's why coach Darrell Hazell, midway through the spring, called Howard "the most exciting football player on our team right now."
"He's really special," Hazell said.
Howard, who started playing football late in his high school career and blossomed at a prep school (Atlanta Sports Academy), originally committed to Tennessee but switched to Purdue in part because he connected with former Boilers defensive tackle Kawann Short. He wears Short's number (93) and has drawn comparisons to the All-Big Ten standout, a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Howard played all the defensive tackle positions and even some defensive end in high school. He wants to play at around 300 pounds to ensure he stays on the field. Howard had a sack and two pass deflections in two games last season.
Conditioning is still lacking for Howard. Confidence is not.
"When we line up in one-on-one, I don't lose whatsoever," he said. "And as far as the run game as far as my get-off, me being the big, explosive athlete that I am, I am aware of the things I can do. I just want to continue to humble myself and get better.
"I would love to start because I know what I can do. But if that's not my calling this year I'll contribute any way possible."
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