Every Tuesday, The Big Ten Blog will rank the top player at each position for each team in the Big Ten. Today, we're hitting, well, the big hitters: the strong safeties.
12. Derrick Wells, Minnesota
Minnesota's secondary is an absolute mess. It was shredded to the tune of 107th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and that's before the four top safeties graduated. Wells is moving over from cornerback, and the fact that he was even on the team last season gives him a leg up on the rest of the contenders. That's the best we can say for him.
11. Drew Hardin, Indiana
Drew Hardin was one of four Hoosiers to spend time at strong safety in 2011, but he struggled like everyone else. Don't be surprised if incoming Jucos Tregg Waters and Ryan Thompson push for playing time here; right now this race is wide open.
10. Max Charlot, Purdue
Purdue's set at cornerback. At safety, not so much. We'll pencil Charlot in here as he started three games at SS in 2011, but that could change. Charlot contributed 41 tackles last season, and he'll probably come close to doubling that if he hangs onto the starting role.
9. Jake Fagnano, Penn State
Penn State's trusted safety tandem of Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino has graduated, and its longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has moved on. So everything about the safety situation was wide open when senior-to-be Jake Fagnano won the starting role over the spring, and the former walk-on should be a steadying influence on a secondary in flux.
8. Nico Law, Iowa
Law established himself as a special teams beast in 2011, and he easily wrested control of the top strong safety spot from former walk-ons Tom Donatell and Collin Sleeper this spring. Law can bring the lumber, but his coverage bona fides have yet to be established. He's still a sophomore, though.
7. Supo Sanni, Illinois
Sanni looked to be a borderline Top 150 player for the 2012 season, but injuries kept him out of spring practice, and with a brand new coach and philosophy on defense, that means lots of critical missed reps with the first unit. He'll be back and he'll be fine, but he slides down to seventh.
6. P.J. Smith, Nebraska
Smith was beaten out by Austin Cassidy for the starting spot last year. But Cassidy's gone, and now Smith's the wizened veteran of the back four. He's got 86 tackles to his name over his first three years of play, and he might come close to that this year. He doesn't have the speed you want to see from a safety, but his run support is solid enough.
5. Shelton Johnson, Wisconsin
Wisconsin brings back Shelton Johnson as the starter after a strong campaign in 2011, making 54 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and picking off four passes in coverage. Johnson's tackle numbers won't be great with Mike Taylor and Chris Borland in front of him (this is a very good thing), but he makes plays all over the place and has good enough coverage skills that Wisconsin can confidently bring him up closer to the line of scrimmage.
4. Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
Campbell put together a Freshman All-American season in 2011, registering a team-leading 100 tackles, two picks and four passes broken up. Now, 100 tackles from a safety is a good sign that the defense is in trouble, and Northwestern's certainly struggled last year, so don't be surprised if Campbell's tackles drop next year. But he plays all over the field, is solid in run support and can play the ball on deep passes.
3. C.J. Barnett, Ohio State
Barnett seems like more of a free safety than most of these guys, but since Ohio State just goes with a two-safety look rather than designating a free/strong distinction, we'll throw Barnett here and have Christian Bryant at free safety. At any rate, Barnett is as capable of playing at the next level as anyone on this list, and his speed and physicality give Ohio State lots of versatility in defensive play-calling and pre-snap alignments.
2. Jordan Kovacs, Michigan
It's been remarkable to see Kovacs' progress as a quality contributor over his career at Michigan, and if that progress continues apace, he's going to have a great year in his senior campaign. His tackles dipped from 2010 (largely because the defense in front of him wasn't terrible anymore), but Kovacs has turned into a terror behind the line of scrimmage, registering eight tackles-for-loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. More than that, though, he is an easily recognizable leader of the defense and that's important to have.
1. Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
There's nothing Isaiah Lewis doesn't do well. He plays the ball like a cornerback. He returns picks like a punt returner. He hits like a linebacker. He reads and adjusts like a free safety. He's a major problem for defenses and he's the top strong safety in the Big Ten.
Oh, and he's a junior. Enjoy, Big Ten!