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The 21 Best Defensive Players in the Big Ten (Plus the Single Best Player)

Zach TravisContributor IDecember 4, 2016

The 21 Best Defensive Players in the Big Ten (Plus the Single Best Player)

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    The Big Ten has made its name on defense.

    Think of all the great Big Ten teams and you invariably think of strong defensive teams.  From the current Michigan State defense, if you think back to a dominant Big Ten team, the first thing that comes to mind for most is defense.

    Ohio State's run of dominance over the last decade?  Driven by a strong defense.

    Michigan in the 90's?  Defense.

    Penn State?  That's why they call it Linebacker U.

    Nebraska?  One of the biggest selling points was Nebraska's history of fielding dominant defensive units.

    Some of the best defensive players of all time have come out of the Big Ten, and this year is no different. The conference may lack offensive firepower outside of Madison, but one thing teams in the Big Ten will always focus on is punishing defense (just ask Rich Rodriguez).

    With that in mind let's look at some of the best defensive players in the Big Ten this year.

    (Presented in no particular order because ranking players this good is simply picking nits.)

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois

2 of 23

    Tackles - 8.3 per game; seventh in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 9.0; sixth in the Big Ten

    Sacks - 3.5 for 20 yards; sixth in the Big Ten

    One interception; Three passes defended

    Jonathan Brown had some big shoes to fill coming into the season, but he has done an admirable job so far.  Last year, the Illini were a very good defensive team and a big part of that was linebacker Martez Wilson.  

    This year, the torch has been passed to Brown, who has been not only a tackling machine, but a terror in the backfield.

    Brown (and a certain teammate that we will talk about in a while) is a big reason the Illini are in the top two in both sacks and tackles for loss in the conference.

Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa

3 of 23

    Interceptions - Three; t-second in the nation

    Passes Defended - Nine; first in the Big Ten

    Tackles - 6.1 per game; 25th in the Big Ten

    The Hawkeyes have become one of those schools that just churns out solid defensive players year after year.  It doesn't matter the recruiting pedigree, Kirk Ferentz and Norm Parker have a great defensive system in the 4-3 and can build rock-solid defenses out of a group of players who are smart and disciplined. Take NFLer Tyler Sash, for example.

    One of Iowa's best players this year is Micah Hyde, the team's top cornerback.  He has a nose for the ball and is capable of making some outstanding plays in coverage.

Mike Daniels, DT, Iowa

4 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 5.5; 19th in the Big Ten

    Sacks - Four for 19 yards; fifth in the Big Ten

    Iowa lost a great deal of talent along the defensive line over the offseason.  DT Karl Klug, DE Christian Ballard and DE Adrian Clayborn were cornerstones of the Iowa front four.

    Luckily, junior Mike Daniels broke onto the scene and has continued to lead the way on the defensive line for Iowa.  Daniels' fifth-place rank in sacks is especially impressive for a DT.

Devon Still, DT, Penn State

5 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 12.0; 11th in the nation

    Sacks - Three for 25 yards; 19th in the Big Ten

    Devon Still is at the heart of Penn State's impressive defense so far this year.  The Nittany Lions are in the top three in the Big Ten in every defensive category, and it all starts on the ground.  

    Penn State is second in the Big Ten in rush defense, and Still leads the way as a disruptive force in the middle.  Still also provides a pass rush from the middle of the defense.

Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State

6 of 23

    Tackles - 7.3 per game; 12th in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 8.0; 12th in the Big Ten

    Sacks - 3.5 for 21 yards; 10th in the Big Ten

    One interception; one pass defended

    Behind Still is another in a long line of hard-nosed, productive linebackers.  This is even more important for the Nittany Lions defense with the injury to Michael Mauti.  

    So far, Hodges has been one of the most productive linebackers in the conference, and he has been versatile enough to help out everywhere from stuffing the run (12th in both tackles and TFLs) to shutting down the pass game (10th in sacks with one interception).

Nick Sukay, S, Penn State

7 of 23

    Interceptions - Three; t-second in the Big Ten

    Passes Defended - Seven; t-second in the Big ten

    5.0 tackles per game

    It stands to reason that one of the Big Ten's best defenses is backed by one of the conference's best safeties.  

    Sukay has been a major disruption in the secondary for Penn State, helping the Nittany Lions to the second-best pass efficiency defense in the conference, as well as the lead in interceptions.  Penn State has also allowed the fewest passing touchdowns of any team in the Big Ten.

Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State

8 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 6.0; 17th in the Big Ten

    Sacks - 3.0 for 20 yards; 12th in the Big Ten

    Jerel Worthy is at the heart of the best defense in the conference, and the big man in the middle is a big reason why the Spartans have been so successful.

    It all starts with Worthy's contributions in the middle.  While his raw numbers don't blow you away, the disruption he creates along the front of the line requires double- and triple-teams and frees up Michigan State's linebackers to find the ball and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

    Worthy isn't just a facilitator, though.  Last week, it was his big tackle for loss after a punt pinned Wisconsin deep that led to the safety that ultimately changed the tone of the game.

Isaiah Lewis, S, Michigan State

9 of 23

    Interceptions - Four (two returned for touchdowns); sixth in the nation

    2.5 Tackles for Loss; 5.3 Tackles per game

    Isaiah Lewis is having a more productive year than some wide receivers.  Not only is he leading the Big Ten in interceptions, but he has turned two of his four picks into defensive touchdowns, arguably the biggest of which was his game sealing pick-six against Michigan two weeks ago.

    Lewis doesn't just stop there; he is capable in run support and as heavy hitting of a safety as you'll find in the league.

Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State

10 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 11.0; eighth in the nation

    Sacks - 6.0 for 42 yards; 12th in the nation

    5.3 tackles per game

    Denicos Allen and the rest of the linebacking corps for Michigan State have been a pleasant surprise so far this year.  After losing two excellent linebackers, Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, to graduation last year, the young Spartan 'backers have filled in nicely.

    Allen has perhaps been the most impressive, picking up where Jones left off as a terror in the opponents' backfield.  Allen is top 12 in the nation in both tackles for loss and sacks, and a big reason why the Spartans have been the best total defense in the conference and the second best in the nation.

Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska

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    Tackles - 9.1 per game; t-fourth in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 6.5; t-13th in the Big Ten

    2.0 sacks for 15 yards; One interception

    Nebraska has had a disappointing year defensively.  The secondary, a strength in 2010, has regressed to eighth in the conference in pass efficiency defense.  

    Star defensive tackle Jared Crick has been injured or ineffective all season.  However, none of this has been the fault of Lavonte David, who has been one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten this year.

    David has been all over the field, averaging more than nine tackles a game while tallying almost one tackle for loss per game.  David has even added two sacks and an interception.

David Nwabuisi, LB, Northwestern

12 of 23

    Tackles - 7.7 per game; t-eighth in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 4.5; t-27th in the Big Ten

    Sacks - 1.0 for 11 yards

    There haven't been many bright spots on defense for Northwestern this year, but the solid play of David Nwabuisi would certainly qualify.  Nwabuisi is leading the Wildcats in tackles, tackles for loss, and he has added a sack on the season.

John Simon, DL, Ohio State

13 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 7.5; 10th in the Big Ten

    Sacks - 3.0 for 15 yards; t-12th in the Big Ten

    Leading the way for the Buckeyes defense this year has been the defensive line.  All that starts with John Simon.  

    Simon has been one of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the conference, ranking in the top 12 in both tackles for loss and sacks.  This is a big reason why Ohio State is top five in the conference in every defensive category outside of fumble recoveries.

Johnathon Hankins, DT, Ohio State

14 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 6.5; t-13th in the Big Ten

    Two sacks for eight yards; 5.1 tackles per game

    Another reason Ohio State has kept the defensive performance high this year is the emergence of sophomore Johnathan Hankins.  The mountainous DT (6'3, 335 lbs) plays alongside Simon, and the two have combined to make a fearsome center to the Buckeye defense.

Jeff Thomas, LB, Indiana

15 of 23

    Tackles - 7.3 per game; 12th in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 8.5; 11th in the Big Ten

    Three passes defended; 1.0 sack

    Indiana, like Northwestern, isn't known for stout defense.  Don't tell that to Jeff Thomas, who is in the top 12 in both tackles and tackles for loss.

Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

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    Tackles for Loss - 9.5; 27th in the nation

    Sacks - 3.5 for 22 yards; T-sixth in the Big Ten

    5.0 tackles per game; One forced fumble

    Kawann Short is the heart of the Purdue defense, and has a very productive year so far.  He is one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the conference, and he is absolutely central to Purdue's rush defense.

Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue

17 of 23

    Interceptions - Three (one returned for a touchdown); t-second in the Big Ten

    Passes Defended - Five; t-12th in the Big Ten 

    2.0 tackles for Loss; one forced fumble

    Ricardo Allen, just a sophomore, has already put the Big Ten on notice.  He was an all-conference performer last year as well as second team freshman All-American.  This year he has backed up the award voters by being one of the top cornerbacks in the conference.

Brock Vereen, DB, Minnesota

18 of 23

    Tackles - 6.1 per game; t-25th in the Big Ten

    Passes Defended - Five; t-12th in the Big Ten

    One interception; 3.5 Tackles for loss

    Minnesota hasn't had a lot of luck on defense this year, but Brock Vereen has been one of the bright spots.  

    He has not only been good in coverage (one interception, five passes defended), but he has provided a great help in run support with 3.5 TFLs and six tackles per game.

Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin

19 of 23

    Tackles - 9.1 per game; t-fourth in the Big Ten

    4.5 Tackles for loss; 1.0 sack

    One interception; Two forced fumbles

    Mike Taylor is one half of the strong linebacker tandem for Wisconsin, and he is not only one of the most productive players in the conference, but he has a knack for big plays.

    It was Taylor who baited Taylor Martinez into his first interception in the Nebraska game.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin

20 of 23

    Tackles - 10.1 per game; second in the Big Ten

    Tackles for Loss - 10.0; 17th in the nation

    1.5 Sacks; One interception; Three passes defended

    Chris Borland is the other half of Wisconsin's productive middle, and Borland has been a beast for the Badgers.  He is second in the Big Ten in tackles per game and already has seven tackles for loss on the year.

Jordan Kovacs, S, Michigan

21 of 23

    5.3 tackles per game; One interception

    2.0 tackles for loss; 1.0 sack

    The former walk-on doesn't have the "wow" stats that some of the others on this list do (partly because the NCAA doesn't count the Wolverines' first game, where Kovacs had two sacks and a forced fumble), but it is impossible to quantify how much he means to this defense.

    The third-year starter is the sure-tackling last line of defense in the much-improved Michigan secondary.

Thomas Gordon, S, Michigan

22 of 23

    Tackles - 6.1 per game; 24th in the Big Ten

    Forced Fumbles - Two; T-third in the Big Ten

    One interception; Two passes defended

    One of the biggest positive developments of the season for Michigan has been the emergence of Thomas Gordon as a play-making safety to complement Jordan Kovacs.  

    While the defensive line and linebackers have been under-performing, Gordon has helped man the best safety tandem since 2006 in Ann Arbor.

Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois

23 of 23

    Tackles for Loss - 15; third in the nation

    Sacks - 10 for 64 yards; first in the nation

    Forced Fumbles - 5; first in the nation

    And then there was one.  In this case, we are saving the best for last.

    Make no mistake about it, Whitney Mercilus is the single best defensive force in the Big Ten, and his incredible numbers make a strong case for him being the most productive defensive force in the country.

    Not only does Mercilus lead the country in sacks and forced fumbles while being third in the nation in tackles for loss, but his last name is Mercilus.  There couldn't be any better name for a guy who has spent all year grinding opposing quarterbacks to dust.

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