Big Ten: Quron Pratt
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 next stop on the Big Ten tour is a new one, and Rutgers might have found a dangerous weapon to deploy at wide receiver ahead of its first season in the league.
Spring breakout player: WR Janarion Grant
The Scarlet Knights already have seen what Grant can do when he gets his hands on the football, but last season about the only way that happened was when it was kicked to the speedster. Now Rutgers needs him to do the same thing when the ball is thrown his way.
Grant made an impact as a freshman on special teams, turning the Rutgers into a legitimate threat in that phase by returning both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown last season. But he wasn't much of a factor at wide receiver with just 3 receptions for 21 yards, numbers that hardly match up with the game-changing ability Grant was flashing elsewhere.
A productive spring and the chance to catch a lot more passes on the practice field appear to be closing the gap between what Grant can provide on special teams and what he can bring to the offense, with the potential slot receiver impressing the coaching staff enough through 15 workouts to be honored as the most improved player on that side of the ball, setting himself up to be an invaluable target in the fall.
The Scarlet Knights must replace both Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt at wideout, and the sophomore would seem to be as strong of a candidate as any to replace their production based on the development he showed during the spring and the flashes of excitement he provided last fall as a returner. Assuming Grant is able to be a consistent, reliable target with his hands, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder is capable of making things happen for the Scarlet Knights with his legs.
"It means a lot to win the [most improved offensive player] award," Grant said after the spring game. "I feel good just catching the ball more, being able to get my hands on the ball and be physical with it."
The football was already going to be in his hands when opponents kicked it to Rutgers. Now that Grant is making strides catching passes, it figures to be there much more often.
Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.
Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:
- LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
- WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
- TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
- WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
- WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
- WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
- RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
- LB James Morris, New England Patriots
- OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
- G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
- WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
- LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
- LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
- CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
- LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
- S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
- LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
- S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
- T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
- WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
- LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
- DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
- DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
- OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
- LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
- QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
- OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
- CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
- DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
- C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
- OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
- WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
- K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
- WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
- DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
- S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
- K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
- WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
- G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
- G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
- WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
- OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
- LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
- S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
- DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
- S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
- G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
- DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
- WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
- WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
- LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
- DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
- S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
- G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
- TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
- TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
- DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
The 28 receptions don't jump out. Dozens of FBS wide receivers reach that mark in a season.
It's the ratio -- nine touchdown catches, nearly one-third of the total production -- that suggests something is special about Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo. There are possession receivers and then there are playmakers. Carroo undoubtedly belongs in the second category.
His opening line: five catches, 135 yards, three touchdowns. Not too shabby.
Carroo's scoring secret is treating plays in or near the end zone like any others. Rutgers' fans undoubtedly have heard him recite the line his mother, Lavern, first told him after watching him drop a key pass in a game as a 7-year-old.
When the ball is in the air, everyone else is invisible. You don't see the defender, you don’t see the crowd, you just see the ball. As long as you focus on the ball 100 percent, you’ll be fine.
"It's almost like the ball is coming to me in slow motion," Carroo told ESPN.com. "That's why I feel comfortable catching the ball if there's 35 seconds left and my team's losing, or whether it's in the second overtime. I'm just going out there and making plays."
Levern, who Leonte says "knows pretty much nothing about football," gets a kick when she sees her advice in print, since Leonte often mentions it in interviews. It's a directive that has carried him through Pop Warner, high school and now college football, and will stay with him if he reaches the NFL.
Carroo's teammates expect big things from the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior this fall as Rutgers makes its Big Ten debut. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova this spring called Carroo the "best receiver in the country," while fellow signal-caller Mike Bimonte added, "The sky is the limit for Leonte."
The Knights need big things from Carroo, and not just touchdowns. Rutgers loses top wideouts Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, and returns no player with more than 43 receptions (tight end Tyler Kroft) from the 2013 team. Although Carroo left his mark in the end zone last season, he also disappeared for stretches.
Coleman's departure means Rutgers needs a true No. 1 receiver. Carroo wants the job.
"Last year, I was a big-time underdog, I was young," he said. "I'm sure in the beginning of the year, a lot of my teammates didn't expect much from me and they didn't expect that I was going to do what I did last year. This year, I want to start off like that and let this team know I’m going to do whatever it takes to lead this team to a Big Ten championship."
First, he has to get fully cleared to play. Carroo wore a no-contact jersey in practice this spring after missing the final three games last season following a concussion. He had suffered a previous head injury earlier in the year after crashing into a brick wall behind an end zone at SMU.
Carroo spent spring ball working on his leadership skills and his route-running, especially the shorter routes like hitches and curls. Although he felt 100 percent following winter break, he leaned on the strength coaches to improve his conditioning.
"They did a great job putting me in uncomfortable situations to see how far I was off and how fast I could recover," Carroo said.
Carroo isn't sure when he'll be cleared for contact but doesn't seem concerned.
When the lights come on this fall, he'll be ready to follow his mother's advice.
"All I know is if I see the ball and it's coming to me," he said, "I'm going to make a play."
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.