College Football

Big Ten Football: 10 Most Terrifying Defensive Players of the BCS Era

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

Big Ten Football: 10 Most Terrifying Defensive Players of the BCS Era

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    The Big Ten was mocked throughout much of the BCS era for its style of play, the ineptitude of its "boring," pro-style offenses and the low-scoring nature of its games.

    But what if that had less to do with offense and more to do with defense? What if, as fans of the conference would no doubt contend, the games feature so few big plays and so little points because the defenders are the class of the nation?

    Players like J.J. Watt have gone on to rewrite the NFL record book since leaving the Big Ten Conference—and he, while dominant in his own respect at Wisconsin, didn't even make it on the back part of this list. 

    If perhaps the most fearsome player in professional football was not even one of the 10 most terrifying defensive players from the Big Ten in the BCS era, doesn't that mean—at least in some ways—that the conference was functioning on a higher, more-efficient defensive plane?

    The following 10 players certainly think so.

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com

10. LB Greg Jones, Michigan State

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Greg Jones' 465 total tackles are the most in the Big Ten since 2005, more than 45 better than any other player. They're also the fifth most in the NCAA at large during that span.

    The only BCS-conference player with more? Former Boston College linebacker and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly.

    Jones wasn't feared in the more traditional way, i.e., he wouldn't hit you hard enough to make the field start spinning. He was more about speed and finesse than power and size for a Big Ten inside linebacker.

    But rest assured: If you hit the A- or B-gap against Michigan State between 2008 and 2010, the first and only vision in your head was that of No. 53 in green.

    Especially in hindsight—having seen the precedent he laid for the current, dominant MSU defense—Jones' contributions were a big deal.

9. DE Erasmus James, Wisconsin

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    Danny Moloshok/Getty Images

    Erasmus James has flamed out both on and off the field since leaving Madison, Wis., having dealt with both performance and serious legal issues that ended his NFL career.

    Still, that doesn't diminish the impact he had in Wisconsin, especially during the 2004 season when he was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus first-team All-American and a finalist for the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards.

    Nicknamed "The Eraser," James had a penchant for making big plays in big spots of big games. He was someone you never wanted to see across the line.

8. DE/LB LaMarr Woodley, Michigan

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    LaMarr Woodley was a knockout artist at Michigan, a man who was seemingly bred to play for his eventual NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    He crushed quarterbacks Daryll Clark of Penn State, Bryan Cupito of Minnesota and Drew Stanton of Michigan State into ugly (and varying degrees of) injuries during his 2006 season, making him one of the most viscerally feared players in the conference's history and spawning some catchy text-based t-shirts.

    Woodley went on to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award that same season, along with being named a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Bednarik Award.

    But more than his tangible production, his desire to bend people out of shape is what really made Woodley fearsome.

7. LB A.J. Hawk, Ohio State

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    A.J. Hawk took over as the heart of the defense on the heels of Ohio State's BCS National Championship upset over Miami and, even though he could never restore the program to quite those heights, he ushered in a still-successful era of Buckeyes football right behind it.

    Hawk made the All-Big Ten team all three years he started in Columbus, earning a spot on the All-American team in 2004 and 2005. He also led Ohio State to a couple of Fiesta Bowl victories.

    More than anything, though, Hawk was just a scary-looking, scary-playing and scary-hitting dude. He was always the last guy on the field you wanted to get hit by, which was bad because he always seemed to be around the ball.

6. DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Ryan Kerrigan wasn't feared as much as he ought to have been.

    Because he played for Purdue, teams were able to scheme around stopping him and quarterbacks could always keep him in the forefront of their mind. Someone who sneaks up on you while you're distracted is far more scary than one you keep your eye on.

    But even all of that was never enough to stop Kerrigan, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 after racking up an absurd 26 tackles for loss.

    His 57 career tackles for loss are ninth most in the NCAA since 2005, and his 34 sacks and 14 forced fumbles are both second in the NCAA (and first in the Big Ten) during that span.

     

5. LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    The only 2013-14 college football player on this list, Chris Borland leaves Wisconsin as one of the most accomplished linebackers in, not just Big Ten, but NCAA history.

    His 420 total tackles are second best in the conference since 2005 (and the only thing in the stratosphere of Greg Jones) and his 14 forced fumbles are tied with Ryan Kerrigan for most in the conference during that span. He also had 50 tackles for loss, good for fifth best in the conference since 2005 and a fitting sign of his versatility.

    Always underappreciated by casual fans, opposing coaches certainly understood the value Borland brought to Wisconsin's defense. Especially after Bret Bielema left in 2013, he was the heart and soul of a team that stood tall and remained one of America's best.

    He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year this past season.

4. DE Courtney Brown, Penn State

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    GEORGE WIDMAN/Associated Press

    In NFL circles, Courtney Brown's name is used in the same vein as famous NBA busts like Michael Olowokandi or Sam Bowie. Be careful: He might be another Courtney Brown.

    But in college circles, Brown's name is used in a much more positive light. Be careful, Big Ten: Recruit X might be another Courtney Brown!

    Even if he flamed out after being drafted No. 1 overall by the aptly named Cleveland Browns, Brown's college accomplishments cannot be erased from memory.

    Per the university's website, he "shattered" Penn State records for career tackles for loss with (70), career sacks (33) and single-season tackles for loss (29).

    Together with a member of this list to be named later, Brown established one of the single most feared units in college football history—a defense that will always survive in the lore of the sport.

    No matter how its players fared in the NFL.

3. LB Paul Posluszny, Penn State

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    In the long and esteemed history of Penn State linebackers, Paul Posluszny has a legitimate argument to make for being the best.

    That alone is a massive accomplishment.

    A two-time All-American in 2005 and 2006, "Poz" curiously never won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award. This despite winning the Bednarik Award—given to the nation's top defender—in each of those All-American seasons.

    Since its inception in 1995, Posluszny and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald are the only two-time winners of the Bednarik.

     

2. LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State

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    Terry Gilliam/Associated Press

    The only two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year during the BCS era, James Laurinaitis was the on-field heart of an Ohio State team that went to consecutive national title games in 2006 and 2007 and the Fiesta Bowl in 2008.

    He finished with 100-plus total tackles in each of those seasons, helping him reach a career total of 375 that is fifth-best in the Big Ten since 2005.

    Laurinaitis was as fast as he was manic, the true son of professional wrestler Road Warrior Animal (and nephew of Johnny Ace).

    A three-time consensus All-American, one-time recipient of the Nagurski Trophy and eventual second-round NFL draft pick, he was everything one could want from a college inside linebacker. 

1. LB LaVar Arrington, Penn State

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    It's not that there has never been another player like LaVar Arrington. Saying so would be hyperbolic and wrong. There have been.

    It's just that they come around once or twice per decade.

    Arrington won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1998 and the Bednarik in 1999, but his career at Penn State was about so much more than stats and accomplishments. It was about pageantry, and it was about star factor.

    It was about The LaVar Leap.

    Toeing the fine line between mass appeal and menace, Arrington was a college football superstar who always backed it up with his play on the field. He was truly, truly terrifying.

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