Big Ten football is built on tough-as-nails defense. The conference has become littered with talented players on the defensive side of the ball, which has led to a resurgence for the conference on the national stage.
This is a look at each team’s top defender for the 2013 season.
A number of skilled pass-rushers will take the field on Saturdays this fall, but the linebacker position is the most stacked unit inside the conference this year. These are the names that will provide the highlights this season on defense.
Tyler Scott is one of the hidden gems inside the Big Ten heading into the 2013 season.
Northwestern has marched to relevance over the past few seasons, and Scott has become a major player in the rise. Last season he finished with 42 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks (via CFBStats.com). He was tied for first in the conference in sacks by season’s end.
The key to the rise for Northwestern has been the spread offense, but the play of Scott can’t go unnoticed. Opposing offenses always know where Scott is on the field.
Heading into the new year, Scott is a premier defender for the Wildcats and will help usher in another winning season for Northwestern.
Deion Barnes burst onto the scene last fall as a redshirt freshman for the Nittany Lions, terrorizing backfields and ball-carriers.
Barnes saw time in every game last fall and finished with 27 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks (via CFBStats.com).
This season the rising sophomore won’t take the conference by surprise, but he will have a year of solid production under his belt to build on. This league is stacked with talented rush-ends, with Barnes taking a seat near the top of the list of top performers.
The Nittany Lions will have a tough year as they move into the second year under NCAA sanctions, but Barnes will be a bright spot during the struggles.
Ryan Shazier is the most explosive linebacker in the Big Ten heading into 2013.
Last year he stepped into a starting role after a strong true freshman season and helped lead the Buckeyes to an undefeated season. He finished 2012 with 115 total tackles, five sacks and 19 tackles for loss (via Ohio State Athletics).
The Buckeyes have a few questions in the middle of the defense for 2013, but the play and leadership of Shazier will help ease the transition this year.
Entering 2013, Shazier will be one of the cornerstones for the Buckeyes' second consecutive run at an undefeated season.
Michigan took a blow to the defense this spring when Jake Ryan tore his ACL in drills (h/t mlive.com), but the positive for the Wolverines is that the linebacker position is stacked with talent.
Desmond Morgan is a rising star, and he will become a household name by midseason this fall.
Last year he finished with 81 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups (via CFBStats.com). Morgan was able to contribute as a lesser-known commodity last fall, but this year he will be a leader for the Michigan defense.
Michigan has a defensive-minded reputation now under Brady Hoke, and Morgan will help continue that trend with his play this fall.
Ra’Shede Hageman was on the verge of jumping to the NFL following an impressive 2012 season, but after careful consideration, he decided to head back to Minnesota for his senior season (h/t Pioneer Press).
That is great news for the Golden Gophers, but it is terrible news for opposing offenses.
In 2012 Hageman totaled 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (via CFBStats.com), and his senior year is set up to be even better.
With one year left to show scouts what he is worth, Hageman will be a terror on the field this fall.
The Cornhuskers head into 2013 with a lot of gaps to fill on defense. There is an overhaul coming at linebacker and along the defensive line, but thankfully Ciante Evans returns to help anchor a rebuilt defense.
Evans finished last season as a first-team All-Big Ten selection after a season that saw him produce 56 total tackles, three tackles for loss and one interception (via Nebraska Athletics).
Heading into 2013 Bo Pelini’s squad needs consistency and leadership on defense, and they will look to Evans to provide it.
The life of a walk-on is a difficult road that rarely results in much, if any, playing time. Landon Feichter is an exception to the rule.
Last year the walk-on from Ft. Wayne, Ind., took over a starting job in the Boilermakers' secondary and sent waves through the Big Ten. He finished 2012 with 80 total tackles and four interceptions (via CFBStats.com).
At 6’0”, 189 pounds, he is not the biggest player on the field, but his nose for the football and tenacious style of play make him one of the best secondary players in the conference.
Look for this season to be another strong one for Feichter as he goes about his work on game days.
Chris Borland is a force for the Wisconsin defense from the linebacker position. Last season he totaled 104 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks (via CFBStats.com).
Heading into 2013, the Wisconsin defense is loaded at linebacker with top-level talent, and Borland is the leader of the pack.
This season the Badgers will battle for the Big Ten with their defense, and Borland will be the leader pushing this unit to wins.
Borland is one of the many elite linebackers who will roam the Big Ten this fall.
James Morris is heading into his senior season with Iowa and looking to help the Hawkeyes return to the winners circle. Last fall the Hawkeyes struggled on offense and relied heavily on the defense to make big plays.
Morris helped the defense respond, totaling 113 tackles, nine tackles for loss and one interception (via CFBStats.com).
The tandem created with Morris and fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens is one of the best linebacker duos in the country.
This fall Morris helps this program rise back to the levels expected of Kirk Ferentz’s salary.
Michigan State is known for tough defense, and Max Bullough has continued that trend over the past three seasons. Bullough has been a three-year letterman for the Spartans and heads into his senior year as one of the most respected defenders in the country.
Last fall Bullough was able to accumulate 110 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks (via CFBStats.com).
This year the Spartans are looking to return to the Big Ten title game, and for that to happen, Bullough needs an All-American type year. He was listed as a player to watch in the Big Ten for 2013 by SI.com (via Michigan State Athletics) and should reach expectations this fall.
Last year Greg Heban was a nickelback for the Indiana defense until he was moved to safety for the final seven games.
At safety his season took off when he finished with 91 total tackles, seven tackles for loss and one sack. He also added eight pass breakups (via CFBStats.com).
Heban took over the secondary for the Hoosiers and became a leader for a team on the rise.
As the 2013 season comes into view, Heban will be a name to watch in the Big Ten. He finished last season as a second-team All-Big Ten selection (via Indiana Athletics) and will look to take home first-team honors this fall.
Illinois struggled to find any positives last year after a 2-10 finish, but one bright spot was Jonathan Brown.
After battling through an ankle injury (via Chicago Tribune) last season that held him to only nine game appearances, he is set to have a monster senior year.
Last season, despite being limited with injury, he finished with 59 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks (via CFBStats.com).
Once he has a full year to contribute, those numbers will skyrocket. Brown is one of the many talented linebackers that line the Big Ten this season and will provide plenty of highlight hits in 2013.