The Big Ten is known for its play in the trenches, both on offense and defense, and this year will be no exception.
Despite the loss of seven all-conference honorees—both coaches and media—the Big Ten returns a number of quality players. Moreover, it sees the return of at least two difference-makers that missed the majority of 2011.
The number of asterisks next to a players' name indicates how many years he has started. A "starter," for my purposes, had at least four starts to his credit in any one season.
Players in italics are returning all-conference honorees.
A pound sign (#) indicates a player who hasn't started consecutive years or didn't start last year.
I based my ranking on returning experience, inherent talent (recruiting rankings), as well as what the teams and coaches have turned out in the past. For example, Iowa and Kirk Ferentz have proven they can regularly turn out quality defensive lines. Indiana and Kevin Wilson, on the other hand, have not.
Finally, a lot can change in the next few months.
This article is based on what the rosters of Big Ten teams look like, and what we know, right now.
Check out previous articles in this series, beginning with the most recent, Power Ranking the Big Ten Offensive Lines.
DE: Tyler Scott (Jr)*
DT: Will Hampton (Jr)
DE: Quentin Williams (Sr)*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Anthony Battle (Jr), Davon Custis (Jr), Max Chapman (RFr), Deonte Gibson (RFr), Dean Lowry (TrFr), Ifeadi Odenigbo (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Brian Arnfelt (Sr), Sean McEvilly (So), Connor Mahoney (TrFr), Greg Kufar (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Bo Cisek (Sr), Chance Carter (So), C.J. Robbins (RFr)
The Lowdown: Last season, Northwestern was the Big Ten's third-worst rushing defense and had the fewest sacks.
This year, the Cats lose their only two full-time starters, while returning Tyler Scott, who had eight starts, and Quentin Williams, who had seven. Also, Will Hampton earned one start filling in for an injured Jack DiNardo.
In short, barring insane and unlikely leaps forward from Scott, Hampton and Williams, don't expect much, if any improvement from the Northwestern defensive front.
DE: Ben Perry (So)*
DT: Ra'Shede Hageman (Jr)
DE: D.L. Wilhite (Sr)* OR Michael Amaefula (So)*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Matt Garin (Jr)#*, Kendall Gregory-McGhee (Jr), Leston Simpson (Sr), Theiren Cockran (RFr), Alex Keith (TrFr), Lincoln Plsek (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Roland Johnson (Jr Juco), Scott Ekpe (TrFr), Jordan Hinojosa (TrFr), Yoshoub Timms (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Eric Jacques (Jr), Austin Hahn (Sr), Harold Legania (So)
The Lowdown: In 2011, Minnesota allowed 4.87 YPC, which was second-worst in the Big Ten. It also had the third-fewest sacks.
Only two key members from that group return this year. That overhaul might be a good or bad thing in the long run, but there will be minimal improvement from the Gopher front four this year.
Minnesota, and second-year coach Jerry Kill, are still at least one more year away.
DE: Ryan Phillis (So)*
DT: Larry Black Jr. (Sr)**
DT: Adam Repogle (Sr)***
DE: Bobby Richardson (So)*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Javon Cornley (Jr), Justin Rayside (Jr Juco), Zack Shaw (RFr), Shawn Heffern (TrFr), Adam Kranda (TrFr), Nick Mangieri (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Nicholas Sliger (Sr), Tyler McGuigan (So)Adarius Rayner (RFr), Raphael Green (TrFr), Alex Todd (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Laniel Himes (So)
The Lowdown: Indiana returns all but one key contributor to its defensive line and two multi-year starters inside, so that's a good thing, yes?
Maybe not, when one considers that IU allowed 5.30 YPC in 2011. That was 114th in the country. To put that in perspective, for every one yard the Michigan State rush defense—the best in the conference and seventh in the country—allowed last year, Indiana let up almost two.
The Hoosiers also had the second-fewest sacks in the Big Ten.
This season, expect the Indiana defensive line to take some steps forward, but it won't be as formidable as one would expect given its returning experience.
DE: Dominic Alvis (Jr)*
DT: Steve Bigach (Sr)* OR OPEN
DE: OPEN OR Steve Bigach (Sr)*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Joe Gaglione (Sr), Melvin Spears (RFr), Dean Tsopanides (RFr), Riley McMinn (RFr), Drew Ott (TrFr), Daumantas Venckus (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Carl Davis (So), Darian Cooper (RFr), Jaleel Johnson (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Mike Hardy (So), Louis Trinca-Pasat (So), Faith Ekakitie (TrFr)
The Lowdown: Historically under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa consistently boasts one of the best defensive lines in the conference.
Not this season.
Last year was something of a letdown as Iowa allowed 3.69 YPC, which was good for fourth in the conference. That might not seem bad, but it was the worst Ferentz run defense since 2001.
The Hawks also tied for the eighth-most sacks in the conference.
With three full-time starters gone, 2012 projects to be worse.
There is some hope if youngsters Carl Davis and Darian Cooper play beyond their years and experience levels. However, it is probable that the 2012 Iowa defensive line will go through some growing pains.
DE: Craig Roh (Sr)***
DT: William Campbell (Sr)
DT: Quinton Washington (Jr)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Jibreel Black (Jr), Frank Clark (So), Brennen Beyer (So), Keith Heitzman (RFr), Chris Rock (RFr), Tom Strobel (TrFr), Christopher Wormley (TrFr), Mario Ojemudia (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Richard Ash (So), Matthew Godin (TrFr), Willie Henry (TrFr), Ondre Pipkins (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Nathan Brink (Jr), Kenny Wilkins (So)
The Lowdown: The 2011 Michigan defense was better than it's been in a long time, and much of the reason for that was due to the proper management of a number of quality upperclassmen.
Three of those upperclassmen are gone, which leaves UM starting from something close to scratch.
Craig Roh has a good deal of experience, and is a disciplined, quality player, but after three years of starting at both defensive end and linebacker, it is palpable that he is not a game-changer.
Meanwhile, Washington and especially Campbell came to Ann Arbor with all the hype in the world but, thus far, have been underwhelming. They will have to step up in order for the UM defensive front to have success this season.
The other end position will most likely be occupied by either Jibreel Black or linebacker-turned-speed-rusher Brennan Beyer.
DE: Ryan Russell (So)*
DT: Kawann Short (Sr)***
DT: Bruce Gaston (Jr)** OR Brandon Taylor (Jr)*
DE: Brandon Taylor (Jr)* OR Robert Maci (Sr)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Kingsley Ike (TrFr), Greg Latta (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Kevin Pamphile (Jr), Ryan Isaac (Jr), Michael Rouse III (RFr)
Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Ryan Watson (TrFr)
The Lowdown: The pieces are in place for Purdue to have a dominant defensive line.
Three of its four starters are returning. Two of the returnees are multi-year starters. One of the returnees is an all-conference honoree that is looking to have a strong enough senior season to move into the first round of the NFL Draft.
The problem is that Purdue under Danny Hope has been here before, yet the final results have not been as impressive as the individual pieces.
In three years as head coach, Danny Hope's defense has never ranked above No. 7 in conference scoring defense. This was despite having the most sacks in the conference in 2010, the fourth-ranked rush defense in 2010, Ryan Kerrigan's dominating senior year, experienced safeties, experienced linebackers, etc.
The pieces are in place for a strong Purdue defensive line and, by extension, a strong Purdue defense.
The question is, will the pieces add up to more than the whole?
Furthermore, depth with this group is a substantial issue.
DE: David Gilbert (Sr)*
DT: Ethan Hemer (Jr)**
DT: Beau Allen (Jr) OR Jordan Kohout (Jr)#* OR Pat Muldoon (Jr)
DE: Brendan Kelly (Sr)* OR Pat Muldoon (Jr)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Konrad Zagzebski (So), James Adeyanju (RFr), Jesse Hayes (RFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Bryce Gilbert (So), Joe McNamara (So), Kyle Costigan (So), Arthur Goldberg (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Tyler Dipple (Jr), Warren Herring (So)
The Lowdown: The Badgers lose two full-time starters from last year's line, which ranked No. 8 in the conference, allowing 4.29 YPC. It also had the fifth-most sacks in the Big Ten.
There are some quality players in Madison. The problem is much the same as last year—there is no individual difference-maker, a la J.J. Watt or O'Brien Schofield.
The Badgers might get some help from a healthy David Gilbert, who started the first four games in 2011 but missed the rest of the season with a foot injury.
He was dominant in those four games, notching three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nevertheless, one has to consider the competition—UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota.
Otherwise, UW will field its typically decent front four, but outside of Gilbert, there doesn't look to be much hope of a playmaker.
DE: Cameron Meredith (Sr)**
DT: Baker Steinkuhler (Sr)**
DT: Chase Rome (So) OR Thaddeus Randle (Jr)
DE: Jason Ankrah (Jr)* OR Eric Martin (Sr)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Joseph Carter (Sr), Walker Ashburn (So), Tobi Okuyemi (So), Donovan Vestal (So), Greg McMullen (TrFr), Avery Moss (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Jay Guy (So), Todd Peat (RFr), Aaron Curry (TrFR), Vincent Valentine (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Kevin Williams (RFr)
The Lowdown: The Blackshirts came into their inaugural year as one of the most experienced defenses and defensive lines in the conference. This prompted me to predict that "Nebraska [would] have the best defense in the Big Ten."
It didn't work out that way. NU had the No. 7 rush defense (YPC) in the conference and the eighth-most sacks.
The season-ending injury to would-be all-conference defensive tackle Jared Crick played a part, but injuries are part of football.
In effect, the Huskers are out to prove that the Big 12's most dominant defense between 2009-2010 can be just as dominant in the Big Ten. That begins with the line.
Nebraska returns all but three key contributors from 2011—Crick, Terrence Moore and Josh Williams, the last of whom was recently dismissed from the team.
Meredith and Steinkuhler are multi-year starters and seniors and must be the leaders on the defense. Meredith was All-Big 12 in 2010, but as with the entire defense, he wasn't as successful in his new conference.
Ankrah got most of the starts at strong-side defensive end last season, but had mixed results. He will be pushed by pass-rush specialist Martin and second-year JUCO-transfer Joseph Carter.
The other defensive tackle spot will be between newcomer Rome, who picked up two starts last season, and veteran journeyman Randle.
DE: Marcus Rush (So)* OR Tyler Hoover (Sr)#* OR Denzel Drone (Jr)#*
DT: Anthony Rashad White (Sr)*
DE: William Gholston (Jr)*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Corey Freeman (Jr), Taylor Calero (So), Shilique Calhoun (RFr), Jamal Lyles (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Doug Curtis (Sr), Matt Ramondo (RFr), David Fennell (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: James Kittredge (So), Brandon Clemons (RFr), Joel Heath (RFr), Mark Scarpinato (RFr), Damon Knox (RFr)
The Lowdown: When William Gholston isn't punching offensive linemen or attempting to tear quarterback's heads off, he makes for one of the most dominant strong-side rushers in the conference.
Provided he can get his anger issues in check, Gholston will press for his second all-conference honors.
Due to Mark Dantonio's emphasis on defensive line rotation, MSU has an abundance of experienced linemen ready to step in.
The Spartans will have trouble replacing both of their defensive tackles, including All-Big Ten Jerel Worthy, who left for the NFL one year early.
Nevertheless, Anthony Rashad White looks poised to step into a larger role.
DE: Sean Stanley (Sr)*
DT: Jordan Hill (Sr)**
DT: James Terry (Sr) OR DaQuan Jones (Jr) OR Evan Hailes (So)
DE: Pete Massaro (Sr)#*
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Brad Bars (So), C.J. Olaniyan (So), Deion Barnes (RFr), Jordan Kerner (RFr), Evan Schwan (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Derek Dowrey (TrFr), Austin Johnson (TrFr), Wendy Laurent (TrFr), Jamil Pollard (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Kyle Baublitz (So), Anthony Zettel (RFr)
The Lowdown: Penn State is enigmatic this season.
One thing you could depend on with Joe Paterno was a staunch defense that began with a strong defensive front.
This season, three key contributors have graduated. Under Paterno, the returning players would be enough to expect a semi-reload of the Big Ten's third-best rush defense (YPC).
Jordan Hill looks poised to take departed defensive tackle Devon Still's place. Massaro would have been a starter last year, if not for a season-ending ACL tear. Sean Stanley is poised to finish his up-and-down college career with a big senior season.
Finally, between Terry, Jones and Hailes, the Nits will find an able body to fill up the middle.
This line has the talent to be amongst the best in the conference.
The question is, can Bill O'Brien coach up a defense the way Joe Paterno and former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley could?
DE: Michael Buchanan (Sr)**
DT: Akeem Spence (Jr)**
DT: Glenn Foster (Sr)*
DE: Justin Staples (Sr) OR Tim Kynard (Jr)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: DeJazz Woods (So), Darrius Caldwell (RFr), Kenny Nelson (RFr), Chris O'Connor (RFr),
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Jake Howe (So), Teko Powell (TrFr), Vontrell Williams (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Austin Teitsma (So)
The Lowdown: New head coach Tim Beckman steps into a good situation in his first year at Illinois.
His defensive line loses All-American Whitney Mercilus, which is a substantial loss, but not as substantial as one might expect.
Every other key contributor returns, including all-conference honoree Michael Buchanan, who will take over Mercilus's role as speed rusher. Last season, Buchanan had 7.5 sacks. This season, expect him to push double-digits.
Akeem Spence looks poised to have a breakout year and will vie for all-conference honors.
Meanwhile, Glenn Foster and Justin Staples are limited but can be potent when they are surrounded by playmakers, which they are.
Finally, Jake Howe and especially Tim Kynard will push hard for playing time.
DE: John Simon (Sr)** OR Garrett Goebel (Sr) OR Nathan Williams (Sr)#**
DT: Johnathan Hankins (Jr)* OR Garrett Goebel (Sr)*
DT: Garrett Goebel (Sr)* OR John Simon (Sr)**
DE: Nathan Williams (Sr) #** OR Adam Bellamy (Jr)* OR J.T. Moore (So)
Other Defensive Ends in the Mix: Steve Miller (So), Chase Farris (RFr), Kenny Hayes (RFr), Noah Spence (TrFr), Se'Von Pittman (TrFr), Adolphus Washington (TrFr)
Other Defensive Tackles in the Mix: Darryl Baldwin (So), Joel Hale (So), Tommy Schutt (TrFr)
Other Inside-Out Players in the Mix: Michael Bennett (So)
The Lowdown: For the first time since 2004, OSU was not one of the top-three rush defenses, or one of the top-three scoring defenses, in the conference.
That anomaly will right itself in 2012.
The Bucks return the most talented line in the Big Ten and one of the more talented lines in the country.
John Simon is the anchor. He can play three-technique defensive tackle or strong-side defensive end. Urban Meyer will have to decide where he will be most effective, or if he will rotate between the two to confuse opposing offenses.
2012 will also see the return of Nathan Williams, who missed almost all of 2011 with a knee injury. He led the Bucks in sacks in 2010 and, along with Simon, will likely do the same in 2012.
The other spots will be filled by any of a number of returning veterans, depending upon where Simon lines up.
Either way, the 2012 Buckeye defensive line will be the best, the deepest and the most versatile in the conference.