There is no doubt which area is strongest this year on the defensive side of the ball in the Big Ten and that's in the trenches. With four different programs all having an argument for the top line in the conference and each boasting players with All-American capability it will be interesting to see who finishes with the best line in the conference.
If there is one area that the Badgers are really expected to struggle it's in the trenches.
The Badgers lose three starters from last years line including DT Mike Newkirk who made the all Big Ten second team, DT Jason Chapman who received honorable mention all Big Ten, and DE Matt Shaughnessy who also received honorable mention all Big Ten.
The lone returning starter is O'brien Schofield who led the team in sacks last year with five and was fourth on the team in tackles for loss with 3.5. Seniors Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore will replace the two departing defensive-tackles.
Both saw some playing time in 2008 and Moore finished fifth on the team in tackles for loss with three. Sophomore J.J. Watt who transferred from Central Michigan should fill the vacant DE spot.
The Boilermakers lose half of their line from 2008 but the losses are very important. Defensive-end Alex Magee was third on the team in sacks with 3.5 while defensive-tackle Ryan Baker second on the team in tackles for loss with 11.
The good news is junior defensive-end Ryan Kerrigan returns and should play a major role this year. Kerrigan last year led the team in sacks with 7 and tackles for loss with 11.5. Senior defensive-tackle Mike Neal is the other returning starter.
Neal finished second in sacks with 5.5 and had 10 tackles for loss. The vacancies at defensive-tackle and defensive-end will be filled by redshirt freshman Kawann Short at DT and Senior Keyon Brown at defensive-end.
The unit will probably regress a bit this year with the two losses.
The Spartans are another team that lose half their line. The two departures are defensive-tackle Justin Kershaw and defensive-end Brandon Long both of which earned all Big Ten honorable mention.
The leader of this group is Cincinnati transfer senior defensive-end Trevor Anderson. Anderson last year led the team in sacks with 8 along with 10.5 tackles for loss. The other returning starter is junior nose tackle Oren Wilson. Wilson last year had 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
The two newcomers are redshirt freshman Jerel Worthy at the tackle position and junior Colin Neely at the end position. Last year the group had to replace three starters and still managed 26 sacks. With only having to replace two starters this year the group should improve their numbers again.
The Golden Gophers lose only one starter from last year's line but it's a big loss. First team all Big Ten William VanDeSteeg led the team in both sacks with 10.5 and tackles for loss with 19 but will now be playing on Sundays.
Seniors Garrett Brown and Eric Small return at the two tackle positions. Brown had 3 sacks and 7 tackles for loss in 2008 while Small had 2 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Senior Derrick Onwuachi returns at defensive-end after having 4 tackles for loss last year. The one newcomer is Cedric McKinley who in a limited role last year managed three sacks.
The line made great strides last year dropping opponents rushing average by 86 yards and sacking the QB 23 more times but with the departure of VanDeSteeg it will be interesting to see if the line can keep it up.
The Illini lose three starters from their front four. Defensive-tackle David Lindquist is the biggest loss, Lindquist was second on the team in sacks with 4 and tackles for loss with 7.5.
Defensive-end Will Davis is also gone after finishing the 2008 season with 3.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. Defensive-end Derek Walker is the other big loss. Walker led the team in sacks last year with six.
The lone returning starter is defensive-tackle Josh Brent. Brent last year was second on the team in tackles for loss with seven. The two new ends will be senior Doug Pilcher and junior Jerry Brown. Pilcher had a successful year as a backup with 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Brown didn't see much playing time at all in 2008. Sophomore Corey Liuget will take over for the vacant defensive-tackle position after having 3.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. The group loses their top four sack leaders but should be stronger against the rush with better tackles.
Last year the Wildcats set the school record for fewest rushing ypg at 126 and led the Big Ten in sacks with 34. They lose two starters from the group but should remain solid with what they return.
Headlining the group is senior defensive-end Corey Wootton. Wootton last year earned first-team all Big Ten honors after finishing the year third in the Big ten in sacks with 10 and 16 tackles for loss.
The only other returning starter is junior defensive-tackle Corbin Bryant. Bryant finished 2008 with one sack and 5.5 tackles for loss. The two newcomers are senior Adam Hahn at defensive-tackle and sophomore Vince Browne.
Browne was very good in the limited time he played in 2008 managing 4 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Overall the group should remain solid but are unlikely to put up the same record setting numbers as last year.
The Hawkeyes' defensive-line was absolutely dominant last year only allowing 94 rushing ypg and managing 19 sacks. Unfortunately, that group was led by Big Ten DL player of the year Mitch King and second team all Big Ten Matt Kroul, who are both gone now.
The Hawkeyes do return junior ends Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Clayborn had an impressive season in 2008 with 2 sacks and 8 tackles for loss while Ballard managed 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
The two replacements at DT are junior Karl Klug and sophomore Mike Daniels. Klug was very impressive in the limited role he saw last year manging 2 sacks and 5 tackles for loss. Overall the group should bring more pressure on the QB this year but not be as strong against the run.
The Hoosiers boast the best pair of defensive-ends in the Big Ten and arguably the entire NCAA. Two years ago Greg Middleton led the NCAA in sacks with 16 and Jammie Kirlew added 12.5 tackles for loss.
Last year, Middleton drew many double teams which allowed Kirlew to have a huge season where he managed 74 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 19.5 tackles for loss which earned him 2nd team all Big Ten honors.
The defensive-tackle position however looks much weaker. Junior Deonte Mack returns after having 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss last year. They will be bringing in junior Jarrod Smith to replace the departing Greg Brown at the other tackle position.
Overall this group should have the strongest pressure on the QB of any line in the Big Ten but could be vulnerable against the run.
Despite all their troubles last year the Wolverines were actually pretty strong along the line finishing in the top five in the Big Ten in rushing ypg. They do lose three starters but new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is switching from a four-man front to a three-man front.
Senior defensive-end Brandon Graham was the main reason the line was so successful in 2008. Graham finished the year with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss which led the Big Ten and was second most in the nation.
The Wolverines will have to replace defensive-end Tim Jamison and tackle Terrance Taylor. Sophomore Ryan Van Bergen will fill in for Jamison at the end while sophomore Mike Martin will fill in for Taylor.
Martin last year finished with 2 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss which earned him freshman All-American honors. The Wolverines will also be incorporating a new position which is a hyrbid of a linebacker and defensive-end and will be played by sophomore Brandon Herron.
Despite the losses this group should actually improve with Graham back and Martin is an upgrade at defensive-tackle.
The Nittany Lions' line was the strength of their defense last year only allowing 93 rushing ypg and managing 33 sacks. Penn State loses three starters from that line including first team All-American Aaron Maybin, first team All Big Ten Maurice Evans, and honorable mention All Big Ten Josh Gaines.
The Lions do return 1st team All Big Ten defensive tackle Jared Odrick who finished last year with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Junior Ollie Ogbu will start at the other tackle position after starting 6 games there last year.
The vacant end positions will be occupied by sophomore Jack Crawford and senior Jerome Hayes. Many would expect Penn State to take a step back this year due to their losses but they lost the same amount of starters in 2007 and actually improved.
The line should be just as good or better this year.
The Buckeyes' line was quite disappointing last year because despite returning all starters except one they still allowed 27 more rushing ypg and had 15 fewer sacks.
This year, the situation is the same as they return all starters but one and are expected to improve. Junior defensive-end Thaddeus Gibson headlines the group after finishing the 2008 season with 5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss.
Junior Cameron Heyward will start at the other end position after finishing with 3 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss last season. The final returning starter is senior Doug Worthington who managed 1.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss last season.
Junior Dexter Larimore is expected to start at the vacant tackle position after finishing last year with 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. The line is expected to anchor the defense this year and if they underperform this year than the Buckeyes will likely struggle some this year.