Big Ten's Defenses Ranked from No. 1 to No. 12 and Nebraska Leads the Way

Deni MartinCorrespondent IAugust 28, 2011

Big Ten's Defenses Ranked from No. 1 to No. 12 and Nebraska Leads the Way

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    If you are "seeing red" in the Big Ten this year, it's probably the Nebraska Cornhusker defense.

    Nebraska enters the 2011 season with the best defensive line and secondary in the 12-team Big Ten based on my evaluation and the opinions of my peers at Bleacher Report, ESPN and the-ozone.net.

    The Cornhuskers have the fifth-best set of linebackers, but the margin between the No. 2 team (Penn State) and No. 5 team was only four points.

    The red color theme continues in rating the Big Ten defenses, as the Ohio State Buckeyes are second, and the Wisconsin Badgers are the third-best team in the conference. 

    Ohio State possesses the second-best defensive line and secondary. Their linebacking corps is rated No. 3 in the Big Ten.

    Wisconsin is the team with the best set of linebackers. They are No. 3 among secondaries in the Big Ten and have the fourth-best defensive line.

    Turn to the next slide as we count down the Big Ten defenses from best to worst.

No. 1 Defense: Nebraska Follows Up 2010 Success with the Best Big Ten "D"

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    Defensive Line

    It all starts in the trenches, and Nebraska has the best defensive line going into the Big Ten season.

    Teammates Jared Crick (No. 94 in the picture) and Baker Steinkuhler (No. 55) finished in the top five at defensive tackle. Crick was No.1 and Steinkuhler was No. 4.

    Cameron Meredith finished No. 3 in the Top 10 ratings of defensive ends. Junior Josh Williams is the most likely candidate to join this talented line in shutting down the opposition's running game.

     

    Linebackers

    This may be the weakest area of the Cornhusker defense, but don't say that anywhere near All-American Lavonte David. He is a tackling machine and Nebraska's main man in the middle of Nebraska's defense.

    David is the No.1 linebacker in the Big Ten. Last year, he broke former Husker linebacker Barrett Ruud's team record with 152 tackles.

    Nebraska prefers to play a 4-2-5 defense, and it appears that the starting wide-side linebacker will be junior Will Compton.

     

    Secondary

    Three of the five starters in the Cornhusker secondary made a top 10 list. Alfonzo Dennard and Ciante Evans were ranked No. 1 and No. 9 respectively at cornerback. Free safety Courtney Osborne enters the 2011 season as the No. 5 safety in the Big Ten    .

    Senior Austin Cassidy brings experience to the strong safety position, and sophomore Andrew Green looks like the starter at nickelback.

     

    Synopsis

    Nebraska has a great mix of experience and talent that makes them the best defensive team in the Big Ten.

No. 2 Defense: Don't Count on the Buckeyes Being Down and out of Defense

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    Defensive Line

    I grew up in Michigan, and one certainty every fall was that the Ohio State Buckeyes would have a strong defense. They enter the 2011 season with the second best defensive line in the Big Ten.

    It starts with a talented set of bookends in John Simon and Nathan Williams. Simon is the No. 2 defensive end in the Big Ten, and Williams isn't far behind at No. 4.

    Actually, Simon may slide inside to play tackle, so 6'4" sophomore Adam Bellamy can play defensive end.  The other defensive tackle is no slouch. I projected sophomore Johnathan Hankins as the No. 9 tackle in the Big Ten, and if he doesn't perform well, they have junior Garrett Goebel ready to step in.

     

    Linebackers

    Senior Andrew Sweat continues the tradition of strong linebacker play at Ohio State. Sweat is rated as the No. 5 linebacker in the Big Ten.

    While Sweat patrols the wide side of the field, juniors Etienne Sabino and Storm Klein will fill the other linebacker slots. Keep an eye on Sabino, because he may be the next great Buckeye linebacker.

    Also, don't be surprised to see safety Tyler Moeller slide down into a linebacker's position in certain defensive situations.

     

    Secondary

    The Buckeyes finished right behind Nebraska in the secondary ratings, with four players making their respective top 10 lists.

    Junior Orhian Johnson is No. 3, and senior Tyler Moeller is No. 6 at safety in the Big Ten. Sophomore Jamie Wood is ready to step in when Moeller slides to linebacker.

    Ohio State is so deep at cornerback that the player I projected at No. 10—Florida State transfer Dionte Allen—may not start in the defensive backfield. Allen has been replaced by sophomore Dominic Clarke.

    The other cornerback is junior Travis Howard, who finished No. 7 in my top 10 list.  I am still scratching my head wondering how I could rate the Buckeye secondary as No. 1 in the conference, but my peers rated them lower.

     

    Synopsis

    Please don't feel sorry for the Buckeyes.  If Nebraska had not joined the Big Ten, we'd be praising Ohio State for having the No. 1 defense in the conference. And that sounds very familiar.

No. 3 Defense: Wisconsin Makes It a Trifecta of Red at the Top

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    Defensive Line

    My alma mater, Michigan State, played spoiler and snuck ahead of the Badgers, giving Wisconsin the fourth-best defensive line in the Big Ten.

    The leader of the Wisconsin line is defensive end Louis Nzegwu. Nzegwu is No. 6 in the Big Ten at end, and he will be joined this year by junior David Gilbert.

    The two tackles feature senior Patrick Butrym and sophomore Jordan Kohout. Butrym was an honorable mention in my top 10 list of Big Ten defensive tackles.

     

    Linebackers

    You normally refer to schools like Penn State and Ohio State as "Linebacker U," but the Badgers have the best set of linebackers in the Big Ten. Wisconsin placed two of their linebackers in the top 10.

    Middle linebacker Chris Borland is No. 4 in the conference, and outside linebacker Mike Taylor is No. 6. They are joined by senior Kevin Claxton to give the Badgers a very imposing set of linebackers.

     

    Secondary

    Wisconsin and Illinois tied for third among the Big Ten secondaries. Wisconsin had one top 10 player at cornerback and one at safety.

    Senior Antonio Fenelus is the Badgers' shutdown corner. Fenelus is the No. 5 cornerback in the Big Ten, and his partner in the defensive backfield will be senior Devin Smith.

    Free safety Aaron Henry is second only to Michigan State's Trenton Robinson. Sophomore Dezman Southward is the strong safety.

     

    Synopsis

    Wisconsin's philosophy is simple and effective. They run the football first and pass the ball after they've established the running game on offense. They punish opponents on defense whether it's Chris Norman, Aaron Henry or a group of Badgers making the tackle.

No. 4 Defense: Penn State Remains Solid and Ready for 2011

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    Defensive Line

    The top-rated Big Ten defense without red in their color scheme is the Penn State Nittany Lions, and their line is their "weakest link."

    Senior Devon Still is the leader of the line and is No. 6 on the Top 10 list of defensive tackles. Florida remembers Still in the Outback Bowl. He had 3.5 tackles for a loss against the Gators.

    Sophomore Jordan Hill joins Still at defensive tackle. There are no experienced reserves, so the Nittany Lions are considered thin at the tackle spot.

    Jack Crawford earned an honorable mention on my top 10 defensive end list but has not performed up to expectation as Penn State's lead pass-rusher.  The three possibilities at the other defensive end spot are senior Kevin Lathom, senior Eric Latimore and junior Sean Stanley.

     

    Linebackers

    Penn State's reputation as "Linebacker U" may be restored by linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Middle linebacker Mauti is rated No. 2, and former safety Gerald Hodges will be the weak-side linebacker. He is No. 10 on the top 10 list.

    The strong-side linebacker will either be fifth-year senior Nate Stupar or talented sophomore Khairi Fortt. Behind the starting trio are three talented reserves in redshirt freshmen Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Dakota Royer.

     

    Secondary

    The heart of the Nittany Lion secondary is cornerback D'Anton Lynn. Lynn is a fierce competitor and is No. 6 among cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

    Opposing quarterbacks will probably choose to throw against Stephon Morris, who will start at the other corner. Morris' ability to pass protect may dictate the success of Penn State's secondary.

    If both safeties stay healthy, they could be the strength of the secondary. Strong safety Drew Astorino enters the season as the No. 10 safety in the Big Ten. 

    Free safety Matt Sukay may have been headed for All-Big Ten honors until a torn pectoral muscle against Illinois ended his 2010 season. He's healthy now and ready to compete again in conference play.

     

    Synopsis

    A healthy secondary makes Penn State a formidable opponent.  Their depth at linebacker is also worth noting.  The biggest help would be if the defensive line improved significantly.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Evan Hailes

No. 5 Defense: Iowa's Title Hopes Rest on Their Balanced "D"

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    Defensive Line

    "Balance" is the key word to describe the Hawkeye defense, and it starts with their defensive line.

    It seems almost eerie that the two best starters on the defensive line were rated No. 7 in the conference in their respective positions. They are seniors Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns.

    Daniels will be teaching sophomore Dominic Alvis how to play defensive tackle for Iowa. Binns is taking on the same assignment at end with senior Lebron Daniel.

     

    Linebackers

    The "balance" theme continues at linebacker. Middle linebacker James Morris is No. 3 in the Big Ten. 

    Morris is flanked on one side by returning starter Tyler Nielsen and new starter sophomore Christian Kirksey on the other side.

     

    Secondary

    The two returning starters in the secondary are among the best defenders in the Big Ten.

    Shaun Prater posted an impressive 69 tackles last year and is rated No. 2 cornerback in the top 10 list. Since opposing quarterbacks will probably avoid throwing passes in Prater's area of the field, junior Greg Castillo will have to look sharp at the other corner.

    Matt Hyde was rated as the No. 4 cornerback earlier this year, but it appears he will be the Hawkeyes' free safety this year. He will be joined by junior Collin Sleeper,

     

    Synopsis

    Iowa's defense and their favorable schedule make the Hawkeyes a dark horse candidate for the Legends Division title and possibly a berth to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.  A lot will depend on how the five new starters perform during the regular season.

No. 6 Defense: Depleted Spartan Defense Looks To Reassert Itself

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    Defensive Line

    While key starters have been lost at linebacker and in the secondary, the Spartans' strongest group on defense is the line.

    Three of the four linemen are returning starters. One starter is considered a No. 1 pick at defensive tackle at next year's NFL draft.  And the new kid on the defensive line is rated as a top 10 defensive end.

    The centerpiece is defensive tackle Jerel Worthy (pictured above). Worthy is rated No. 2 in the Big Ten behind Nebraska's Jared Crick. NFL draft experts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper have Worthy at the top of the defensive tackle draft list for 2012. 

    Veteran senior Kevin Pickelman starts next to Worthy.

    The two defensive ends are returning starter Tyler Hoover and William Gholston. Gholston is listed as the No. 5 end in the Big Ten. If both Hoover and Gholston have breakout years, it would greatly help the Spartans' quest to win the conference title two years in a row.

     

    Linebackers

    Losing veterans Greg Jones and Eric Gordon hurts the Spartans' linebacking corps.  The two players finished first and second respectively in tackles last year.

    Chris Norman is the only returning starter, and he just missed cracking the top 10 list at linebacker.  Two sophomores—Max Bullough and Denicos Allen—will start in the other linebacking spots.

     

    Secondary

    Of possible equal value to Worthy is free safety Trenton Robinson. He is considered the No. 1 safety in the Big Ten. He will be joined by sophomore Isaiah Lewis, who will play strong safety.

    The Spartans lean on junior Johnny Adams to be their cover cornerback this year. Adams is the No. 8 corner in the Big Ten.  The other starting corner will be sophomore Darqueze Dennard.

     

    Synopsis

    The Spartans may have a lot of returning starters on offense, but they need a solid defense to compete with the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the Legends Division crown and a shot at the Big Ten title. 

    The play of the linebackers will be the key.  If they can play effectively and the defensive line can be as effective as projected, we may see Michigan State playing for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis.

No. 7 Defense: Purdue Could Be a Leaders Division Contender If the "D" Delivers

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    Defensive Line

    Like Michigan State, the Purdue Boilermakers' strength on defense is their line.

    Their defensive tackle pair of Kawaan Short and Bruce Gaston will clog up the middle of the line and smother opposing running backs. Short is the No. 5 defensive tackle and Gaston is No. 10 in the Top 10 list.

    Gerald Gooden needs to stay healthy, but he is considered the 10th best defensive end in the conference. He will be joined by junior Robert Maci.

     

    Linebackers

    The Boilermakers' biggest need is for strong play at linebacker. Senior Joe Holland is slated to start at weak-side linebacker, and junior Dwayne Beckford will be the middle linebacker.

    Holland and Beckford were starters last year, and they will be joined by strong-side linebacker Will Lucas.

     

    Secondary

    Ricardo Allen leads the secondary and is considered the third-best cornerback in the Big Ten. Opponents may prefer to throw the ball in junior Josh Johnson's direction.

    Though neither of them appears in the top 10 list for safeties in the Big Ten, safeties Logan Link and Albert Evans are returning starters. Link will be the strong safety and Evans will start at free safety.

     

    Synopsis

    Purdue's defensive line is solid, but they are going to need a lot of help from the linebackers and secondary to have any shot at a division title.

No. 8 Defense: Illinois Seconday Needs Line and Linebacker Support

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    Defensive Line

    Tackle Akeen Spence is the heart of the Illini's defensive line. Spence is No. 8 in the top 10 list for defensive tackles.  First-year starter Glenn Foster will start at the other defensive tackle spot.

    Returning starter Michael Buchanan will play at defensive end with untested junior Whitney Marcilus.

     

    Linebackers

    Senior Ian Thomas returns to play wide-side linebacker. Thomas is considered the ninth-best linebacker in the Big Ten.

    Asante Williams will start at strong-side linebacker, and the battle is still raging over who will start at middle linebacker.

     

    Secondary

    Illinois has two of the best safeties in the Big Ten. Free safety Trulon Henry is No. 7 on the top 10 list, and teammate Tavon Williams is No. 9.

    Junior Justin Green returns to play cornerback this year. He will be joined by junior Terry Hawthorne.

     

    Synopsis

    The Illini have to hope that the talent around Spence, Henry and Williams develops if their goal is to make a bowl game this year.

No. 9 Defense: Conventional Approach to "D" May Help Wolverines

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    Defensive Line

    Defensive tackle Mike Martin (pictured above) and his linemates should benefit from a switch to a more convention defense under new head coach Brady Hoke.

    Martin is the third-best defensive tackle in the Big Ten. Either junior Will Campbell or sophomore Quinton Washington look like the starter at the other tackle spot.

    Craig Roh is an experienced and talented defensive end. Roh is the ninth-best end in the Big Ten.

    Senior Ryan Van Bergen is Michigan's best pass-rusher and will start at the other defensive end spot.

     

    Linebackers

    Inside linebacker Kenny Demens was impressive in 2010.  Demens is No. 7 in the Big Ten list of the top 10 linebackers.

    Sophomore Mike Jones will be the weak-side linebacker this year. Sophomore Cameron Gorden and redshirt freshman Jake Ryan appear to be battling for the other linebacker spot.

     

    Secondary

    The Wolverines best player in the secondary is safety Jordan Kovacs. Kovacs is rated No. 8 among Big Ten safeties.

    Carvin Robinson is the front-runner to start at the other safety position. Josh Furman is another candidate at safety due to his speed and athleticism.

    A bigger concern is cornerback. Is Troy Woolfolk healthy again and ready to play corner?

    Other candidates to play cornerback are senior Tony Anderson, junior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Courtney Avery.

     

    Synopsis

    The defensive line is the strength of the Wolverines' defense, but they need major performances from their linebackers and secondary. 

    Despite the new leadership of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, this squad must hope that their younger starters develop into solid contributors.

No. 10 Defense: Gopher Linebackers Look for Teammates to Contribute

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    Defensive Line

    The good news is three of the four starting linemen are returning to play this year. They are defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey, tackle Anthony Jacobs and defensive end D.L. Wilhite. The first-year starter will be defensive end Kendall Gregory-McGhee.

    The bad news is none of the starters cracked the Top 10 list at his respective position.

     

    Linebackers

    Gary Tinsley (pictured above) is the heart and soul of the Minnesota defense.  He is No. 8 in the top 10 ratings of linebackers.

    The other two linebackers are returning starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper.  The linebackers may be the strongest group on the defense.

     

    Secondary

    It's the weakest area of the defense, with only starter Troy Stoudermire returning to play cornerback.  The new faces include Brook Vereen as the other corner and safeties James Manuel and Kim Royston.

     

    Synopsis

    Minnesota has eight starters on defense returning to play in 2011.  Only Tinsley received preseason recognition. New head coach Jerry Kill is hoping his starters can take it to the next level in defensive accomplishments.

No. 11 Defense: Northwestern Finishes a Point Behind Minnesota

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    Defensive Line

    Northwestern was just one point in the final evaluation behind Minnesota despite having the best defensive end in the league.

    Senior Vince Browne finished atop the leader board at end and will be joined by returning starter Kevin Watt.

    Senior Jack DiNardo received an honorable mention as a defensive tackle. His linemate will be first-year starter Brian Arnfelt.

     

    Linebackers

    An apparent weakness of the Wildcats is their lack of quality linebackers. Only two of the three linebacking positions have a starter. 

    Senior Bryce McNaul is a returning starter at outside linebacker. Junior David Nwabuisi is the new middle linebacker.

     

    Secondary

    Strong safety Brian Peters is the best player in the Northwestern secondary. Peters is No. 3 among the top 10 safeties in the Big Ten.

    Cornerback Jordan Mabin and free safety Jared Carpenter are returning starters. Senior Mike Bolden is slated to start at the other cornerback position.

     

    Synopsis

    Browne and Peters are great players, but they are surrounded by inexperienced and less talented players. Northwestern will need some defensive breaks in order to have a successful year.

No. 12 Defense: Indiana Finishes at the Bottom of the List

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    Defensive Line

    Defense is not Indiana's strong suit, though senior Darius Johnson did manage to finish at No. 8 among Big Ten defensive ends.

    Defensive tackle Adam Replogle earned an honorable mention and will be joined at tackle by Larry Black Jr. The other defensive end is Ryan Phillis.

     

    Linebackers

    None of the Indiana linebackers made the top 10 list. Returning starters include middle linebacker Jeff Thomas and weak-side linebacker Leon Beckum.

    Redshirt freshman Chase Hoobler is listed as the strong-side linebacker.

     

    Secondary

    The only returning starter is free safety Greg Heban. The strong safety will be senior Jarrell Drane.

    The first-year cornerbacks are Lenyatta Kiles and Lawrence Barnett.

     

    Synopsis

    Indiana needs a lot of improvement in the "back seven" of their defense.  Their line may contain their opponent's running attack, but their secondary is porous.