Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Defensive Lines

David Fidler Correspondent IJune 6, 2011

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Defensive Lines

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    LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 11: Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive tackle Jared Crick #94 takes downIdaho Vandals quarterback Nathan Enderle #10 during second half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska Defeat
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    It starts up front.

    That is an age-old mantra in football, and even in the age of the spread offense, it still holds true.

    Control the line of scrimmage, win the battle in the trenches, and you will win the game. And that starts with the defensive line.

    This year's Big Ten graduated or lost most of its most dominant defensive linemen. In fact, the only team that will be bringing back a first team all-conference D-lineman is Nebraska, and the lineman in question—Jared Crick—wasn't even in the Big Ten last year.

    Nevertheless, players develop and new faces spring up. That is the nature of college football.

    As we have recently broken the 100-day mark before college kickoff, it seems worthwhile to put the past in the past and start looking ahead.

    In effect, in this article I will rank the 2011 defensive line position groups of every team in the Big Ten.

    A few notes

    The players in italics are returning starters. A "returning starter," for my purposes, is any player that has started four or more games in his career.

    Players in italics and bold denote multi-year starters.

    Players with an asterisk next to their names were first or second team, media or coaches, all-conference last season. 

    Players with three asterisks next to their names would be returning consensus All-Americans, but as there are none this season, this is irrelevant.

    Finally, I have not factored true freshmen into this projection. While true freshmen can fill out a depth chart and have important roles to play, if a true freshman is starting on either side of the line, that is rarely a good sign.

Illinois Illini

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 10: Walter Aikens #15 and Michael Buchanan #99 of the Illinois Fighting Illini tackle Caulton Ray #24 of the Michigan State Spartans on October 10, 2009 at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. Mich
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Whitney Mercilus (Jr) OR Glenn Foster (Jr)

    DT Akeem Spence (So)

    DT Craig Wilson (Sr)

    BAN Michael Buchanan (Jr)

    Players in the Mix

    DE/BAN Justin Staples (Jr)

    DT Wisdom Onyegbule (Sr), Jake Howe (RFr), Austin Teitsma (RFr)

    The Lowdown

    With the graduation of Clay Nurse and the early departure of Corey Liuget, returning Illini linemen had a grand total of five sacks last season. Also, one can't underestimate the loss of Liuget. The last time Illinois had a defensive lineman taken in the first round of the NFL Draft was 1996 (Simeon Rice).

    That was following a 5-5-1 year. The next year, Illinois went 2-9. In other words, the Illini are not Ohio State; they don't reload, then or now.

    Though the Illini had a solid rush defense last season (fifth in the conference in YPC allowed), the departure of Nurse and Liuget, not to mention two of their three starting linebackers, doesn't bode well for 2011.

    Moreover, there looks to be minimal depth with this bunch.

    Though the tank is not entirely empty, I don't like Illinois' prospects up front this season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Probable Starters

    DE D.L. Wilhite (Jr)

    DT Brandon Kirksey (Sr)

    DT Anthony Jacobs (Sr)

    DE Kendell Gregory-McGhee (So)

    Players in the Mix

    DE Matt Garin (So)

    The Lowdown

    Last season, the Golden Gophers were last in the country in sacks with eight. They also had the worst rush defense in the conference and were 114th in the country, letting up 5.27 YPC.

    Their top pass rusher, Jewhan Edwards, has left school. However, everybody else of note returns. The question is how much can they conceivably improve?

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Probable Starters

    DE Darius Johnson (Sr)

    DT Adam Repogle (Jr)

    DT Larry Black Jr. (Jr)

    DE Ryan Phillis (RFr)

    Players in the Mix

    DE Fred Jones (Sr)

    DT Mick Mentzer (Jr), Nick Sliger (Jr)

    The Lowdown

    In 2010, Indiana had the conference's second-worst pass rush with 15 sacks. They also ranked ninth in rush defense, letting up 5.07 YPC.

    They return the majority of those that played notable minutes. Specifically, Darius Johnson recorded 4.5 sacks and is a threat off the edge. Also, Adam Repogle is a solid run stuffer.

    However, unless IU finds another consistent threat to get to the quarterback, the defensive line will be limited.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 23: Edwin Baker #4 of the Michigan State Spartans is tackled by Nate Williams #44 and Vince Browne #94 of the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on October 23, 2010 in Evanston, Illinois. Michigan State defeated Northwestern 35-27.
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Vince Browne (Sr)*

    DT Jack DiNardo (Jr)


    DE Kevin Watt (Sr) OR Tyler Scott (So)

    Players in the Mix

    DE Quentin Williams (Jr)

    DT Brian Arnfelt (Jr), Niko Mafuli (Sr), Chance Carter (RFr), Will Hampton (So)

    The Lowdown

    Vince Browne led the Cats with seven sacks and 15.5 TFL. He is a force and will vie for all-conference honors. In fact, (absurdly) have Browne as a second-team pre-season All-American. Such hyperbole aside, Browne is a solid player.

    The problem is the only other returning defensive lineman with any trace of a sack last season is Jack DiNardo with .5 sacks and he got that against Rice.

    On top of that, NU had the second worst rush defense in the conference, allowing 5.15 YPC, and that was with experienced linebackers; a comfort this year's line won't have.

    This spring, Fitzgerald has juggled his starters around, trying to shake things up. Browne is a nice foundation, but the Cats will need every player not named Vince Browne to step it up.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 19: Defensive end Jack Crawford #81 of the Penn State Nittany Lions pursues wide receiver James Nixon #23 of the Temple Owls during a game on September 19, 2009 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunt
    Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Jack Crawford (Sr)

    DT Jordan Hill (Jr)

    DT Devon Still (Sr)


    Players in the Mix

    DE Eric Latimore (Sr), Kevion Latham (Sr), Sean Stanley (Jr)

    DT Brandon Ware (Jr), DaQuan Jones (So)

    The Lowdown

    Last year's PSU rush defense let up 4.46 YPC, which is its worst showing since 2003's 4.29 YPC and in that time, no Penn State defense has even been close.

    Moreover, last year's 17 sacks were the least sacks the Nits have had since at least 2004 (at which point, the NCAA website no longer has archived sack stats).

    Injuries played a part in that, as did the mediocre play of the linebackers. However, the defensive line has to take some of the blame.

    The 2011 line will return plenty of experience, and they should have a stronger back seven behind them than they had last year.

    However, the injuries keep piling up, as probable starting end Pete Massaro has already been lost for the season with a torn ACL.

    Massaro or not, this proud group will be expected to turn it up a few notches in 2011.

Michigan Wolverines

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    ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 24:  Mike Martin #68 of the Michigan Wolverines tackles Brandon Beachum #3 of the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 24, 2009 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Craig Roh (Jr)

    DT Mike Martin (Sr)*

    DT Ryan Van Bergen (Sr)


    Players in the Mix

    DE Jibreel Black (So), Steve Watson (Sr), Kenny Wilkins (RFr), Jordan Paskorz (RFr)

    DT William Campbell (Jr), Quinton Washington (So)

    The Lowdown

    Martin and Van Bergen were two of the bright spots in Michigan's awful 2010 defense. Perhaps, part of the reason for the woes of the UM defense was the ill-fated 3-3-5 scheme.

    New head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have switched back to a 4-3, and they have a strong foundation in their two inside guys.

    However, they will need to find a dangerous rusher off the edge. With only 2.5 sacks in 25 starts (20 at OLB and five at DE), I don't know if Craig Roh is that player.

    If they do find their guy, they will have a very dangerous front four. If they don't, they will be strong up the middle, but potentially lacking in the pass rush and contain.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 04: Kawann Short #93 of the Purdue Boilermakers awaits the start of play against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 4, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 23-12. (Photo by Jonath
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Gerald Gooden (Sr)

    DT Kawann Short (Jr)*

    DT Bruce Gaston (So)


    Players in the Mix

    DE Robert Maci (Jr), Ryan Russell (RFr), Eric Mebane (Jr), E.J. Johnson (RFr)

    DT Kevin Pamphile (So)

    The Lowdown

    Purdue appears to have the makings of a very good defensive line. Short will once again vie for all-conference honors and Gaston, who is a true sophomore, can only get better.

    Last season, the Boilermakers led the conference in sacks with 31, and were third in YPC allowed.

    The big question is two fold. Firstly, how will the Boilers replace Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Ryan Kerrigan; secondly, did Kerrigan's presence on the line make Short, et al look much better than they were?

    We will find out this season.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    MADISON, WI - SEPTEMBER 18: Louis Nzegwu #93 of the Wisconsin Badgers sacks Steven Threet #14 of the Arizona State Sun Devils at Camp Randall Stadium on September 18, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin.  Wisconsin defeated Arizona State 20-19. (Photo by Jonathan
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Louis Nzegwu (Sr)

    DT Patrick Butrym (Sr)

    DT Jordan Kohout (So) OR Ethan Hemer (So)


    Players in the Mix

    DE David Gilbert (Jr), Pat Muldoon (So), Brendan Kelly (Jr), Tyler Dippel (So)

    DT Beau Allen (So)

    The Lowdown

    The Badgers have solid players throughout their line, and with three experienced bodies in the middle, UW will be difficult to run against.

    The question is will Wisconsin field a dominant lineman in the mold of outgoing defensive end J.J. Watt and O'Brien Schofield before him?

    Nzegwu seems to be the most notable player, but though he was decent starting opposite Watt, he didn't seem to have the ability to take over games.

    If no such dominant player emerges, the Badgers will have a good, though limited line.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    IOWA CITY, IA - OCTOBER 30- Quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Michigan State Spartans throws under pressure from defensive lineman Mike Daniels #93 of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes during the second half of play at Kinnick Stadium on October 30, 2010 i
    David Purdy/Getty Images

    Probable starters

    DE Broderick Binns (Sr)

    DT Mike Daniels (Sr)


    DE Lebron Daniel (Sr)

    Players in the Mix

    DT Steve Bigach (Jr), Thomas Nardo (Sr), Carl Davis (RFr), Mike Hardy (RFr)

    DE Dominic Alvis (So), Louis Trinca-Pasat (RFr), Joe Forgy (Sr)

    The Lowdown

    The Hawkeyes line is not as notable for who will be starting as much as who's gone. Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug have all graduated and were all drafted. That is a lot of experience and production to replace.

    Nevertheless, the cupboard is not bare; Binns started 13 games in 2009 and five games last season, while Daniels started eight in 2010. Also, Lebron Daniel has plenty of meaningful game experience.

    Furthermore, when is the last time Iowa fielded a weak defensive line? The answer is 2005, when they had to replace all four starters with four very green faces. This group is considerably more experienced than that group and will be solid with the potential for being very good.

    Moreover, Mike Daniels will vie for all-conference honors, with Binns having a shot if he steps up his game.

    Maybe I'm being a homer given how much the Hawks' D-line lost to graduation. Nevertheless, I feel that Iowa's 2011 line will have more potential to take over a game than any group other than the three I've ranked ahead of them.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 27:  Nathan Williams #43 of the Ohio State Buckeyes defends against Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium on November 27, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Nathan Williams (Sr)

    DT John Simon (Jr) OR Johnathan Hankins (So)

    DT Garrett Goebel (Jr) OR Johnathan Hankins (So)

    DE John Simon (Jr) OR J.T. Moore (RFr)

    Players in the Mix

    DE Solomon Thomas (Sr) Suspended first five games

    DT Adam Bellamy (So)

    The Lowdown

    John Simon will be expected to take on the role that Cam Heyward played last season, where he moved from outside to inside. In effect, while his sack numbers decreased, his disruptive play was as notable as ever.  

    Meanwhile, Nate Williams will be a force off the edge.

    Hankins, Goebel, Bellamy and Thomas got plenty of meaningful playing time in reserve roles last year, and there is confidence that Moore, as well as a number of other freshmen, can step in and contribute.

    The fact is, this is the thinnest Ohio State's defensive line has been in a while (especially with Thomas' suspension). In effect, there is some degree of conjecture here. That is, based on past evidence, I'm assuming the worst OSU line will still be very good.

    Of course, if a few freshmen turn it up then the line play could be much more than "very good."

Michigan State Spartans

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    EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 23: Jerel Worthy #99 of the Michigan State Spartans moves past a block attempt by Brian Mulroe #72 of the Northwestern Wildcats with his sights set on Dan Persa #7 at Ryan Field on October 23, 2010 in Evanston, Illinois. Michigan St
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Tyler Hoover (Jr) OR Denzel Drone (So)

    DT Jerel Worthy (Jr)

    DT Anthony Rashad White (Jr) OR Kevin Pickelman (Sr)

    DE William Gholston (So) OR Corey Freeman (Jr)

    Players in the Mix

    DE OR DT Johnathan Strayhorn (Sr)

    The Lowdown

    If the Spartans don't have the best starting front four in the Big Ten, they do have the deepest group. Mark Dantonio likes to rotate his players, and one of the advantages of that is developing a wealth of experience beyond the starters.

    Jerel Worthy will vie for all-conference honors and perhaps All-American honors before he graduates.

    Drone and Gholston are young players that will be pass rushing specialists. 320-pound Anthony Rashad White will be a huge body in the middle.

    Finally, Johnathan Strayhorn is a solid utility player that had the second most sacks on the team last year (after Worthy).

    The only negative is that much more will be expected from the line with the graduation of All-Big Ten linebacker Eric Gordon and two-time All-American linebacker Greg Jones.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 13: Jared Crick #94 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs down D.J. Beshears #20 of the Kansas Jayhawks during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska.  (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty I
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    DE Cameron Meredith (Jr)*

    DT Jared Crick (Sr)*

    DT Baker Steinkuhler (Jr)

    DE Josh Williams (Jr) OR Joseph Carter (JUCO transfer)

    Players in the Mix

    DE Jason Ankrah (So), Chase Rome (RFr)

    DT Terrance Moore (Sr), Jay Guy (RFr)

    The Lowdown

    Last season, the Huskers were fourth in rush defense in the offense-happy Big 12, allowing 3.90 YPC. This would have put them as fifth in the Big Ten in the same category. They also totaled 31 sacks, which would have tied Purdue at the top of the conference.

    This season, they will only be short one notable lineman in Pierre Allen.

    Jared Crick will vie for All-American honors this season, while Meredith and Steinkuhler will look to build on strong sophomore seasons. Both Williams and Carter are solid options at the other end spot, and the depth, while not overwhelming in terms of quantity, is notable in terms of quality.

    The only concern is that last year's ends accounted for six of the team's 31 sacks. The Huskers will want more out of that position.