The Big Ten is going to look somewhat different defensively in 2012. Standout defensive players like Jerel Worthy, Whitney Mercilus and Devon Still will be plying their trade on Sundays from now on.
However, there is still a talented crop of defenders coming back. Some are already All-Big Ten performers, and some are looking to make the leap.
Earlier in the week, we looked at the top players vying for Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2012. Let's move to the other side of the ball and run down 10 likely candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
After a quiet freshman year, Michigan State's monster defensive end finally began to make his presence felt on the field.
William Gholston was constantly in opposing backfields and finished the season second on the team in tackles for loss for Michigan State.
Gholston has the physical tools to be one of the most dominant defensive ends in the country, and if he can take another step forward in production as a junior, it is likely he won't need a senior year to try to win DPOTY or earn a first-round draft pick.
There were very few things that Chris Borland didn't do as a sophomore.
He made tackles (averaging 10 per game), harassed opposing skill position players in the backfield (fifth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss) and forced turnovers (four fumbles, two interceptions).
Borland and fellow linebacker Mike Taylor will be back again, and with Borland's diverse skill set, there is no doubt he could put up the kind of stats that will endear him to awards voters.
Only two players averaged more sacks per game and tackles for loss per game than Ohio State's John Simon in 2011.
Simon was consistently one of the best pass-rushers on a defense that will be coming back almost completely intact in 2012. With that kind of support, Simon should shine in his role as leader of the defense and primary disruptor along the line.
While Whitney Mercilus soaked up most of the publicity on the Illinois defense in 2011, Jonathan Brown was putting up stats that were nearly as impressive.
Brown led the conference in tackles for loss per game and was third in the nation. On top of that, he was fifth in sacks per game and sixth in tackles per game.
With Mercilus leaving for the NFL, Brown will be one of the two players Illinois' defense will depend on in 2012, and he has already shown he is capable of making the plays.
Iowa's defense struggled with consistent effort in 2011, but linebacker James Morris was a steady presence in the middle of the defense. The linebacker was fifth in the conference in tackles per game with 9.5.
With Iowa losing a great deal of experience along the front line, Morris will have to step up production as a junior, and if that happens, he could put together the kind of resume that attracts award voters.
Penn State thought it lost its best linebacker when Michael Mauti went down with an injury early in the year, but Gerald Hodges stepped up and distinguished himself as one of the best and most well-rounded linebackers in the conference.
He was in the top 10 in tackles, the top 15 in tackles for loss and sacks, and added two forced fumbles and an interception. Hodges returns as a senior to once again lead the Penn State defense—a unit that will be the strength of the team for another year.
Illinois' ability to disrupt opponents' passing and running games in 2011 was one of the most impressive performances in the country.
Not only were Whitney Mercilus and Jonathan Brown responsible for this prolific production, but defensive end Michael Buchanan ranked in the top 10 in both tackles for loss and sacks as well.
With Mercilus moving, on the burden of pass-rushing will fall to Buchanan more than ever.
Nebraska suffered a huge loss when Jared Crick went down with injury early in the 2011 season, but thanks to the continued effort of Cameron Meredith, the Huskers were able to continue with some semblance of a pass rush.
Meredith is returning for a senior year, where he will be one of the most relied upon members of a defense that lost three standout players. He will have the chance to solidify himself as a standout in 2012.
Jake Ryan surprised many by starting the year as a redshirt freshman in place of the injured Cam Gordon. Even more surprising, he never relinquished the role.
Ryan steadily grew from a solid but mistake-prone player to one of the most productive players on the Michigan defense. Michigan will be losing the heart of its defensive line, and it will be up to players like Ryan to pick up the slack in both sacks and tackles for loss.
Ryan has already shown the potential to step up in a big way in 2012.
There was just one player ahead of Denicos Allen in tackles for loss and sacks in 2011, and he has a good chance of being a first-round draft pick come April.
Allen will be a junior and returns as the most productive pass-rusher in the conference. He was one of two players to tally double-digit sacks and double-digit tackles for loss, and from the rush linebacker position, he was able to constantly harass opposing quarterbacks.
Opposite William Gholston in 2012, Allen will have the opportunity to continue his already stellar career on one of the best defenses in the nation.