Big Ten Football: The Best Defensive Linemen Of The Decade 2001-2010

David Fidler Correspondent IFebruary 21, 2011

Big Ten Football: The Best Defensive Linemen Of The Decade 2001-2010

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    They say that the foundation of a solid defense is the defensive line, and I agree with that statement.

    After all, if the line isn't keeping blockers occupied, then the linebackers won't be able to make tackles. Moreover, if a pass rush isn't generated (and a pass rush starts with the front line), there are no defensive backs in the world that can keep a receiver from getting open.

    For this particular list, the only rule was that the lineman in question had to graduate between 2001-2010.

    Moreover, I tried to take both the entire collegiate career and any specific high points into consideration. Finally, "talent," as it were, was not a factor. Only production and presence over a period of time on the Big Ten playing field mattered.

    In the end, it doesn't matter if it's a 4-3 or a 3-4 or even a 5-2. In the Big Ten, it is all about trench warfare and that starts with controlling the line of scrimmage.

Honorable Mention (In No Particular Order)

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    Gabe Watson: Michigan nose tackle, 2002-2005

    Michael Haynes: Penn State defensive end, 1999-2002

    Erasmus James: Wisconsin defensive end, 2000-2004 (redshirt year 2003)

    Cam Heyward: Ohio State defensive line, 2007-2010

    Vernon Gholston: Ohio State defensive end, 2004-2007 (redshirt year 2005)

Tamba Hali: Penn State Nittany Lions DE, 2002-2005

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    Pre-college: Originally from Liberia, Hali's family escaped from the war-torn country when he was 10.

    They relocated to Teaneck, New Jersey, where Hali became a highly recruited 240-pound rush end.

    College Highlights: Hali was relatively quiet his first two years on campus.

    Nonetheless, he started to make a name for himself in his junior year. In 2004, he had 51 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. This was good enough to earn him second-team All-Big Ten honors.

    In 2005, he led a Penn State defense that ranked 10th in scoring, 12th in total defense and seventh in rushing defense.

    Individually, Hali had 65 tackles with 11 sacks. He was first team All-Big Ten, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and consensus All-American.

    Post-college: Chosen 20th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2006 draft.

    Hali impressed early and won a starting end spot in his first season. He remained as a starting end until 2009, when the Chiefs switched to a 3-4. At that point, Hali moved to outside linebacker.

    In 2010, he led the AFC in sacks with 14.5. He was invited to his first Pro Bowl but declined the invitation.

Mitch King: Iowa Hawkeyes DT, 2004-2008

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    Pre-College: King came to the Hawkeyes as a moderately recruited 230-pound linebacker out of Burlington, Iowa.

    College Highlights: A four-year starter at defensive tackle, King amassed 228 career tackles. This included 55 tackles-for-loss, 17.5 sacks, 12 passes defended, six forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

    After redshirting his first year on campus, he was named a freshman All-American in 2005. His 2006 campaign was marred by injuries. However, he returned to form in 2007, garnering first team All-Big Ten status.

    In 2008, he started all 13 games, leading the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the country. As a senior, he recorded 54 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, and four sacks. He was, once again, selected as a first team All-Big Ten player. He also won Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and made various All-American teams.

    Post-College: Being extremely small for an NFL defensive tackle (King is listed as 280 pounds), King went undrafted. He has since gone on to play for a number of NFL teams including the Titans, Colts, Rams and Saints.

    Most of his time has been spent on the practice squad or as a reserve lineman.

Matt Roth: Iowa Hawkeyes DE, 2001-2004

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    Pre-College: Roth was a heavily recruited linebacker and fullback out of Villa Park, Illinois.

    He came to Iowa with the intention of playing linebacker.

    College Highlights: Began his college career as a linebacker. He played in all 12 games his true freshman year, seeing most of his action on special teams.

    In 2002, he moved to defensive end, where he picked up 11 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks in a reserve role.

    He became the full-time starter as a junior and remained one through his senior year. In two years, he accumulated 100 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

    He was first team All-Big Ten both years, and second team All-American his senior year.

    Post-College: Roth was picked by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 2005 draft.

    He played a reserve role his first two seasons and then became a starter in 2007. When the Dolphins shifted to a 3-4 defense, Roth moved to outside linebacker.

    In 2009, he was placed on waivers and was eventually picked up by the Cleveland Browns.

Brandon Graham: Michigan Wolverines DE, 2006-2009

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    Pre-College: Graham came out of Detroit's Crockett Vocational Tech as one of the most heavily recruited inside linebacker prospects in his class.

    At the next level, he projected to play either linebacker or defensive end, depending upon the alignment.

    College Highlights: Graham played his true freshman year as a backup defensive end, though he played sparingly.

    He started five games as a sophomore, accumulating 25 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

    As a junior, he missed a few games due to injury, but he firmly established his presence on the field. In 11 games, he totaled 46 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and two forced fumbles. This was good enough to earn him second team All-Big Ten honors.

    In his final year of eligibility, Graham had 63 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.

    He was voted first team All-Big Ten. He also received numerous votes for All-American teams.

    Post-College: Graham was the 13th player selected in the 2010 NFL draft. He was picked by the Philadelphia Eagles.

    After playing a backup role throughout the first 14 games of the season, Graham tore his ACL and was placed on the injured reserve on December 14.

Jared Odrick: Penn State Nittany Lions DL, 2006-2009

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    Pre-College: Odrick was a highly recruited, 285-pounder out of Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

    In high school, he played defensive end and tight end, but he projected to play offensive or defensive line at the next level.

    College Highlights: Odrick had his redshirt burned during his 2007 true freshman year, though he only played sparingly. By the end of his sophomore year, he had earned a starting spot.

    However, it was during his junior year that he really began to make a name for himself. Playing both end and tackle; he put up 41 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks. He also had one forced fumble. This was good enough to earn him first team All-Big Ten honors.

    In his senior year, he totaled 43 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and one blocked kick. He was once again named a first team All-Big Ten player. Moreover, he won the Big Ten Defensive Lineman and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards. Finally, he was selected for various All-American teams.

    Post-College: Odrick was selected by the Miami Dolphins as the 28th-overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. However, he broke his foot in practice and missed the majority of his rookie season.

Jimmy Kennedy: Penn State Nittany Lions DT, 1999-2002

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    Pre-College: Kennedy attended high school in Yonkers, New York, where he played on both sides of the ball.

    He was heavily recruited and could have played on offensive or defensive line.

    College Highlights: Kennedy was a four-year starter for the Nittany Lions. During that time, he accumulated 213 tackles, 39 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

    In his senior year, Kennedy had 87 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

    He was a one time all-conference honorable mention, two-time first team All-Big Ten, and the winner of the 2002 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He was also voted onto a number of All-American teams after his senior year.

    Post-College: Kennedy was picked 12th overall by the St. Louis Rams in the 2003 draft.

    In his first two seasons, he played a reserve role, but he was the Rams starting nose tackle in 2005-2006.

    After those first four years, he has bounced around the NFL, playing on the Broncos, Bears, Jag's and Vikings.

Will Smith: Ohio State Buckeyes DE, 2000-2003

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    Pre-College: Smith came from Utica, New York. He was one of the most heavily recruited defensive line prospects in the country.

    College Highlights: Smith was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes. All three of those years, Ohio State's Defense ranked in the top 20 in scoring defenses.

    Over the course of his career, Smith had the fifth-most career tackles for loss at Ohio State with 45.5, and the sixth-most career sacks with 22.

    In his senior year, he had 49 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. He was selected as a first team all-conference player, as well as a consensus All-American. He won the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

    Post-College: Smith was the 18th overall pick in the 2004 draft. He was chosen by the New Orleans Saints.

    He has remained with the Saints since his rookie season. He played consistently his first two seasons, but didn't become a full-time starter until the end of 2005.

    In 2006, he earned his first, and only, trip to the Pro Bowl.

    Though Smith is not a perennial highlight reel type of player, he is one of the most consistent, durable and dependable defensive ends in the NFL.

LaMarr Woodley: Michigan Wolverines DE/OLB, 2003-2006

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    Pre-College: Woodley was the top-ranked defensive end prospect in the country. He came out of Saginaw, Michigan where he was mostly known as a 250-pound linebacker, though he did play offense as well. 

    Regardless, Woodley came to Michigan with the intention of playing defensive end.

    College Highlights: Woodley played in all 13 games as a true freshman, starting two, and earning Freshman All-American honorable mention.

    In his sophomore year, he started all 12 games, sometimes at end and sometimes at outside linebacker. In doing so, he earned second team all-conference as a linebacker after being selected by the coaches.

    He missed a large portion of his junior year due to injury. However, he did enough to earn all-conference honorable mention.

    Nevertheless, he exploded during his senior campaign. In 2006, he captained the No. 1 rushing defense in the country.

    Individually, he totaled 36 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and four forced fumbles. He was first team all-conference, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, consensus All-American, the Ted Hendricks Award winner, and the Lombardi Award winner.

    Post-College: Woodley was chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 2007 draft.

    In the Steelers' 3-4 alignment, Woodley moved back to linebacker, serving as an outside linebacker and pass rushing specialist.

    He has been the full-time starter since 2008. In 2009, after accumulating 62 tackles and 13.5 sacks, he earned his first Pro-Bowl selection.

Ryan Kerrigan: Purdue Boilermakers DE, 2007-2010

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    Pre-College: Kerrigan was a moderately recruited tight end and defensive end prospect out of Muncie, Indiana.

    At 225-pounds, he could have played either side of the ball at the next level.

    College Highlights: Kerrigan played as a backup during his true freshman year.

    He became a starter as a sophomore and responded by picking up 56 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. These stats garnered him honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition.

    As a junior, he recorded 65 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. He received first team All-Big Ten recognition, as well as mention on some All American lists.

    However, he left his best for his senior season. In 2010, the Academic All American recorded 70 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. He was first team All-Big Ten, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and a unanimous All American.

    Post-College: Currently projected to go middle-late first round, Kerrigan will find himself well-compensated for his hard work this April.

Wendell Bryant: Wisconsin Badgers DT, 1998-2001

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    Pre-College: In 1997, Bryant was a moderately recruited defensive line prospect out of Ritenour High School in St. Louis, Missouri.

    College Highlights: Bryant played as a true freshman, seeing extensive time as a reserve lineman.

    He became the starter his sophomore season, and never looked back. Between his sophomore and junior years, he combined for 125 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. In his senior year, he had 69 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and eight sacks.

    He was first-team All-Big Ten between 1999-2001 and was a consensus All-American his senior year.

    He won the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in both 2000 and 2001, along with OSU's Mike Vrabel (1995-1996), he is the only person to have ever won twice.

    Post-College: Bryant was drafted 12th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2002.

    He had three minimally productive seasons, before getting suspended due to repeated violations of the NFL substance abuse policy.

    He has since played in the Canadian Football League but has expressed an interest to return to the NFL.