News & Analysis

College football: Five Big Ten players high on PFF's radar ahead of 2020

Yesterday, we named five SEC players who are high on our radar ahead of the 2020 college football season. Now, we turn our attention to the Big Ten. Ohio State, without question, has the most talented roster in the conference — and the Big Ten is theirs to lose — but there are numerous potential stars outside of the Buckeyes. These five, in particular, are the highest on our radar:

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CB SHAUN WADE, OHIO STATE

This really isn’t much of a hot take. Wade is on virtually everyone’s radar after playing fairly well from the slot in 2019 in a secondary that was one of the “Best in America” and featured 2020 first-round picks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. He allowed only seven first downs on 241 coverage snaps while making eight plays on the ball in the slot last year. He's on this list because of his transition to outside corner in 2020 — a position he’s hardly played (12 snaps in 2019 on the outside). It’s a different game on the outside, but Wade has the physical tools to succeed there and make his name known as one of college football’s best cornerbacks. He was instinctive in the slot, and pairing that with his length and athleticism results in impressive ball production.

QB MICHAEL PENIX JR., INDIANA

Indiana might have one of the best teams — if not the best — in program history this year, and a big reason for that is Penix. Injuries have derailed his collegiate career thus far, but he’s done everything right when on the field. Accuracy is vital to quarterback success, and no Big Ten quarterback threw a higher rate of accurate passes in 2019 than Penix (59.6%). He’s incredibly mobile, and it shows up with how well he evades sacks. No FBS quarterback converted pressure to a sack at a lower rate than Penix in 2019 (2.6%). Rarely has he committed a costly error when on the field for the Hoosiers. Penix had only three turnover-worthy plays in his six appearances, forming a rate that would rank fifth in the FBS. And the cherry on top is the formidable arm strength that allows him to make throws other quarterbacks can only dream of.

All Penix needs is a fully healthy season to be considered one of college football’s ebay quarterbacks.

CB BENJAMIN ST-JUSTE, MINNESOTA

St-Juste has had a bit of a rollercoaster collegiate career. He was a four-star recruit in the 2017 class before committing to Michigan, where he played only three defensive snaps for the Wolverines as a freshman before missing all of 2018 due to injury. Then, it was reported he was medically retiring from the game following that year. But that obviously didn’t hold. He transferred to Minnesota, earned a big role on the Gophers’ defense and thrived.

He’s a tremendous athlete with great length at 6-foot-3, making him a shutdown corner in press coverage. St-Juste played in press on just over 30% of his coverage snaps in 2019, allowing only five catches on 13 targets with seven forced incompletions en route to a Big Ten-high coverage grade. Overall, his 26.2% forced incompletion rate was the eighth-best in the FBS. And remember, this was his first real taste of collegiate action and his first time consistently on the field since high school in 2016. 

DI JACK HEFLIN, IOWA

Iowa scored big in the transfer portal by prying away two key defensive linemen from Northern Illinois in Heflin and edge rusher Matt Lorbeck. Heflin, in particular, is high on our radar due to the absurd production we saw from him as a Husky in 2019. He posted a 90.1 PFF grade this past year, which ranked sixth in the FBS. His tackling was nothing short of bad there, but his strength and heavy hands allowed him to consistently make plays. Among FBS interior defensive linemen to log at least 175 pass-rush snaps last year, Heflin ranked first in pressure rate generated at 14.2%.

Clearly, the competition gap between the MAC and Big Ten is massive. It won’t be easy for Heflin to replicate that production, and we aren’t guaranteeing he will do so, either. He’s high on our radar for now, though.

WR JAYDEN REED, MICHIGAN STATE

Reed blew up as a freshman in 2018 while playing for Western Michigan and ended up transferring to Michigan State following the season. He sat out 2019 due to transfer rules and will now see a huge role in 2020 given the fairly poor state of Sparty’s receiving unit. Reed has deep speed, but considering the quarterback situation, his ability to excel underneath will be more coveted. He’s dynamic in an open field, shedding tackles and racking up yards after the catch like clockwork. In 2018, Reed averaged 7.3 yards after the catch per reception and broke 18 tackles on his 56 catches. 

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