Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Secondaries

David Fidler Correspondent IJuly 18, 2011

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 2011 Secondaries

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    IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 20: Defensive back Shaun Prater #28 of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes returns a pass interception against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second half of play at Kinnick Stadium on November 20, 2010 in Iowa City, Iowa. Ohio Sta
    David Purdy/Getty Images

    A number of notable 2010 all-conference selections from Big Ten secondaries will return this season. This is in direct contrast to the defensive lines and linebackers.

    For the former, only three second-team players are returning, and for the latter, no all-conference players came back. Nebraska does have one all-conference lineman and one all-conference linebacker amongst its returning players, but that was in the Big 12.

    In effect, when one looks to analyze the holes in 2011 conference defense, one might be inclined to look for running teams to have a slight advantage.

    Either way, this is the way the Big Ten teams stack up in the secondary.

    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. Nonetheless, while true freshmen can fill out a depth chart and have important roles to play, if a true freshman is starting, that is rarely a good sign.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 9:  Donnell Jones #10 of the Indiana Hoosiers breaks up a pass attempt against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Greg Heban (junior) OR somebody else


    FS Greg Heban (junior) OR somebody else


    Players in the Mix

    CB Lenyatta Kiles (senior), Lawrence Barnett (sophomore), Brian Williams (redshirt freshman), Andre Kates (senior)

    S Donnell Jones (senior), Jarrell Drane (senior), Chris Adkins (senior), Drew Hardin (redshirt freshman)

    The Lowdown

    Last year's worst pass defense doesn't look much better heading into this year.

    Even a returning starter—namely Donnell Jones—hasn't impressed new coach Kevin Wilson, as he named Jones a second-stringer for the spring game.

    Speaking of the spring game, the secondary had multiple breakdowns against IU's decidedly inexperienced quarterbacks. Furthermore, the only seemingly quality defensive back—Greg Heban—started as a nickelback rather than a standard corner or safety. Of course, I suspect that says more about the linebackers than the secondary.

    Overall, Indiana should have a respectable front seven next year, but the back four do not inspire confidence.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Probable Starters

    CB Troy Stoudermire (senior)

    SS Kim Royston (senior)



    Players in the Mix

    CB Brock Vereen (sophomore), Michael Carter (junior), Kyle Henderson (junior), Johnny Johnson (senior)

    S Christyn Lewis (senior), James Manuel (sophomore)

    The Lowdown

    At this point, new coach Jerry Kill has made it clear that almost nobody, no matter how experienced, is safe from riding the bench.

    He said that Stoudermire has been impressive and will probably start. Also, Royston, who took a medical redshirt last year, will be at strong safety.

    However, the other two positions are wide open. Being that every player in the mix has some starting experience, it should be a competitive position battle.

    This bunch is light years ahead of the only team behind them on this list. Nonetheless, as they were the second-worst passing defense in the conference last year, and they can expect minimal help from the pass rush, I have my doubts about how effective they'll be.

Michigan Wolverines

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Jordan Kovacs #32 of the Michigan Wolverines breaks up a pass intended for Michael Floyd #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan defeated Notre Dame 28
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Troy Woolfolk (senior)

    SS Jordan Kovacs (junior)


    CB J.T. Floyd (junior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Courtney Avery (sophomore), Tony Anderson (senior)

    S Thomas Gordon (sophomore), Josh Furman (redshirt freshman), Marvin Robinson (sophomore), Floyd Simmons (junior)

    The Lowdown

    In Rich Rodriguez's three years in Ann Arbor, Michigan's pass defense got worse every single year. In 2008, it allowed an opposing quarterback efficiency rating of 131.69. That slipped a bit in 2009, and then in 2010, it plummeted to 144.79.

    Part of the reason for the 2010 issues was the unprecedented attrition in the Michigan backfield. This season, they'll get one of the biggest losses of 2010—Troy Woolfolk—back, which will immediately make this group better.

    On top of that, going into last season, J.T. Floyd and Courtney Avery were green and thrown into starting duties. This year, they'll be experienced.

    Jordan Kovacs is physically limited but is smart and a solid tackler. Nonetheless, he will have to relearn to play a more traditional safety position following last season's 3-3-5 experiment.

    Finally, there are plenty of bodies for the open free safety position. However, many of them are still learning the ropes (as it is evident that Rodriguez and former D-coordinator Greg Robinson didn't teach them).

    Overall, this group should be a decided improvement over 2010, but they're probably still closer to last season's bunch than 1997's UM secondary, where almost every player could have been an All-American.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Probable Starters

    CB Jordan Maybin (senior)

    SS Brian Peters (senior)*



    Players in the Mix

    CB Jeravin Matthews (senior), Demetrius Dugar (junior), Ricky Weina (senior)

    S Jared Carpenter (junior), David Arnold (senior), Hunter Bates (junior), Mike Bolden (senior), Ibraheim Campbell (redshirt freshman)

    The Lowdown

    Peters is the rock on the defense, and quarterbacks will avoid his area of the field. Also, Maybin is a solid veteran that can cover his man.

    In effect, opposing offenses will look to exploit the other two areas of the secondary.

    The wealth of experience at the safety position—Bates also had three starts last season—is evidence of how unhappy the coaches were with their starters last year, as they juggled Carpenter, Arnold and Bates throughout 2010. One of them will be expected to play more consistently and hold on to the starting spot.

    Finally, the players competing for the final starting cornerback spot are all upperclassmen, which is both good and bad. Good, because they are all experienced and know the system—bad, because none of them have cracked the starting lineup thus far in their careers, and that is often telling.

Michigan State Spartans

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    ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 01:  Greg McElroy #12 of the Alabama Crimson Tide blocks Trenton Robinson #39 of  the Michigan State Spartans on a touchdown run during the Capitol One Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl on January 1, 2011 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo b
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Johnny Adams (junior)*

    SS Isaiah Lewis (sophomore) OR Jairus Jones (sophomore)

    FS Trenton Robinson (senior)*

    CB Darqueze Dennard (sophomore)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Tony Lippett (redshirt freshman), Mitchell White (junior)

    S Mylan Hicks (redshirt freshman)

    The Lowdown

    MSU's passing defense in 2009 was a holy disaster, coming in second to last in the conference. Last year, they turned things around in a big way, posting the third-best passing D.

    A substantial portion of the reason for that was the return to health of Johnny Adams, who missed 2009 with an injury. Last year, still only a sophomore, he earned all-conference honors. He will be better this season.

    Trenton Robinson is the lone senior in this group, and he will be the leader of the defense. Robinson is a bit small for the position, but he combines football smarts with an ability to make big plays. Last season, he snagged four interceptions.

    The other two positions will be up for grabs. Right now, Darqueze Dennard appears most likely to assume the other cornerback position. He started two games last season as a true freshman but missed the end of the year with a knee injury. He is extremely talented but as a true sophomore is bound to makes some mistakes.

    The strong safety position is wide open. Spring practices started with Jones as the starter, but Lewis passed him by the conclusion. The two will head into summer camp in a deadlock.

    Finally, Tony Lippett is an interesting player, as the plan appears to be to use him as a two-way player.

    Overall, this is a very young group with a boatload of talent. However, there is minimal depth, and if Adams or Robinson goes down, things could get very shaky.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 23:  Logan Link #35 of the Purdue Boilermakers tackles Dan Herron #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Ricardo Allen (sophomore)*

    SS Logan Link (senior)

    FS Albert Evans (senior) OR Max Charlot (junior)

    CB Josh Johnson (junior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Mike Eargle (senior), Charlton Williams (senior)

    S NONE

    The Lowdown

    The Boilermakers' corners might have the strongest upside in the conference.

    Last season, after some early bumps, at-the-time true freshman Ricardo Allen settled in and played well enough to earn all-conference honors (which is often based more on reputation than how one plays, but a true freshman is in the process of developing his reputation).

    Meanwhile, Johnson is not as good as Allen, but he'll make plenty of quarterbacks pay for looking at his side of the field.

    At the safety position, both Evans and Charlot have starting experience and will battle it out.

    Logan Link might be physically limited, but he is smart and disciplined and is the leader of this Purdue defense.

    However, lack of depth is an issue, and occasional breakdowns by the safeties—particularly Evans—will have to be cleaned up.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    IOWA CITY, IA - OCTOBER 23- Defensive back Micah Hyde #18 of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes tackles wide receiver David Gilbreath #85 of the Wisconsin Badgers during the second half of play at Kinnick Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Iowa City, Iowa. Wisco
    David Purdy/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Shaun Prater (senior)*


    FS Micah Hyde (junior)* OR Tanner Miller (sophomore)

    CB Micah Hyde (junior)* OR a new starter

    Players in the Mix

    CB B.J. Lowery (sophomore), Greg Castillo (junior), Jordan Bernstine (senior)

    S Jordan Bernstine (senior), Collin Sleeper (junior), Jack Swanson (junior), Tom Donatell (senior)

    The Lowdown

    Prater is one of the top three cornerbacks in the league, and Hyde's move to free safety—assuming it sticks—should work well. He is physically more appropriate for safety than cornerback, and as a free safety, he could see all-conference honors this season.

    Meanwhile, the other cornerback can expect to get picked on a lot. Of the contenders, B.J. Lowery has the biggest upside, but Castillo, who has started two games in his career, is the safer choice.

    If Tyler Sash had returned for his senior season, this probably would have been the best secondary in the conference. He didn't, and now the strong safety position might be the most open and thus most hotly contested position on the team heading into August practices.

    The wild card in both the safety and cornerback battles is Jordan Bernstine, who was heavily recruited but has been hampered by injuries throughout his career. If he cracks the starting lineup, he is a big hitter that could make a final splash.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 04:  Knile Davis #7 of the Arkansas Razorbacks runs the ball as Orhian Johnson #19 of the Ohio State Buckeyes attempts to tackle him in the second quarter during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome on January 4, 20
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Travis Howard (junior)

    SS Orhian Johnson (junior) OR C.J. Barnett (junior)

    FS Orhian Johnson (junior) OR Christian Bryant (sophomore)


    STAR Tyler Moeller (senior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Dominic Clarke (sophomore), Bradley Roby (sophomore), Dionte Allen (senior)

    S Jamie Wood (sophomore), Nate Oliver (senior), Zach Domicone (junior)

    The Lowdown

    With only one true returning starter, who might not even maintain his job next season, the obvious question is why is Ohio State this high on this list?

    The answer is because between 2001-2010 (the now-defunct Jim Tressel era), 14 Buckeye defensive backs heard their names called on draft day. Four went in the first round. The Tressel era may be over, but the players on this team were still groomed in his shadow, for better or worse.

    As of now, Howard is the only definite in the secondary, and he will be the next great Buckeye cornerback.

    The second cornerback spot will probably be between Clarke and Roby. Clarke was pressed into action in the Sugar Bowl and fared well. Following the spring game, he seemed to have the slight edge. Whoever doesn't win the job will make up some solid depth to go along with Florida State transfer Dionte Allen.

    C.J. Barnett went into last season as a starter but was lost for the year due to an injury. He will press hard for a starting job.

    Meanwhile, the other safety will likely be either Johnson or Bryant.

    Finally, Tyler Moeller has been granted a sixth year of eligibility and will serve as the Bucks' STAR or safety-linebacker hybrid.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    MADISON, WI - SEPTEMBER 18: George Bell #13 of the Arizona State Sun Devils is tackled by Antonio Fenelus #26 of the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on September 18, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Antonio Fenelus (senior)*

    SS Shelton Johnson (junior) OR Dezmen Southward (junior)

    FS Aaron Henry (senior)*

    CB Devin Smith (senior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Marcus Cromartie (junior)

    S Adam Hampton (junior), Josh Peprah (sophomore)

    The Lowdown

    Antonio Fenelus was arguably the biggest surprise for last year's Badgers. He unseated incumbent starter Devin Smith, relegating Smith to nickel and dime package status. Fenelus then went on to capture all-conference honors.

    This season, Fenelus will be one of the better cornerbacks in the conference, while Smith looks to regain his place as a starter.

    After beginning his career as a cornerback and not faring too well, Aaron Henry made a smooth transition to free safety, where he shined in 2010. With the graduation of three-year starting strong safety Jay Valai, Henry will need to take on bigger responsibilities as a player and a team leader.

    Shelton Johnson and Dezman Southward have been waiting in the wings behind Valai and should be able to move right into the strong safety spot. Right now, Johnson is more likely to win the job, as he started one game last season and has more experience.

    Overall, the starting four are strong, though depth is a concern, and Bret Bielema may have to depend on some true freshmen to help out, especially at cornerback.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1:  Cornerback D'Anton Lynn #8 of the Penn State Nittany Lions intercepts a first-quarter pass against the Florida Gators January 1, 2011 in the 25th Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/
    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB D'Anton Lynn (senior)

    HERO Drew Astorino (senior) OR Andrew Dailey

    FS Nick Sukay (senior) OR Malcolm Willis (sophomore)

    CB Chaz Powell (senior) OR Stephon Morris (junior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Derrick Thomas (sophomore), Mike Wallace (redshirt freshman)

    S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (sophomore)

    The Lowdown

    I ranked the Nits' secondary higher than most publications I've come across, though much like Joe Paterno, I tend to err on the side of experience, and Penn State has plenty of that with its defensive backs.

    D'Anton Lynn is the only lock in the PSU secondary. He is not a lockdown corner, but he is smart, disciplined and a solid tackler and thus perfect for the Nittany Lions' Cover 2 defense.

    Due to injuries, Astorino played HERO, FS and CB last year. This year, if the secondary can stay healthy, he will play one of the safety spots.

    Penn State fans will keep their eyes on the other two positions. Sukay began last year as the returning starter but was lost for the season after six games. At that point, Willis stepped in and performed admirably (he was, after all, a freshman). Andrew Dailey, who also spent much of last season dinged up, will also fight for playing time.

    Willis probably has the highest upside, but with 19 starts under his belt, Sukay will be tough to keep off the field.

    Finally, the other cornerback spot will be between journeyman Chaz Powell and Stephon Morris. Powell has been back and forth between the offense and defense. If the coaches can keep him on defense, he might be successful.

    Meanwhile, Morris has plenty of upside but has been inconsistent, most especially with his tackling. That is a huge no-no in Joe Paterno's defense.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 13: Alfonzo Dennard #15 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers takes the ball away from D.J. Beshears #20 of the Kansas Jayhawks during second half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska De
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Probable Starters

    CB Alfonzo Dennard (senior)*

    SS Courtney Osborne (junior)

    FS Austin Cassidy (senior)

    CB Ciante Evans (sophomore)

    PESO Daimion Stafford (junior college)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Josh Mitchell (redshirt freshman), Antonio Bell (junior), Dijon Washington (sophomore)

    S P.J. Smith (junior), Daimion Stafford (junior college), Corey Cooper (redshirt freshman)

    The Lowdown

    Part of the reason Nebraska has such a wealth of experience despite graduating three starting defensive backs—including one All-American and one All-Big 12 player—is because it ran a base 4-2-5 in 2010. In fact, NU started six defensive backs and one linebacker in seven of its 14 contests.

    As I've previously mentioned, if Bo Pelini continues with this scheme in the Big Ten, I feel it will hurt him. On the other hand, the upside is the aforementioned wealth of experience he has accumulated in the backfield.

    Alfonzo Dennard is one of the three best returning cornerbacks in the Big Ten and will vie for All-American honors.

    The safety positions are set and have a good deal of established depth.

    Meanwhile, Ciante Evans will play the role Dennard played last season—getting picked on due to the talent of the more established cornerback, but making teams pay.

Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Probable Starters

    CB Terry Hawthorne

    SS Supo Sanni (junior) OR Tavon Wilson (senior)

    FS Trulon Henry (senior)

    CB Tavon Wilson (senior) OR Justin Green (junior)

    Players in the Mix

    CB Jack Ramsey (junior)

    S Steve Hull (sophomore), Patrick Nixon-Youman (sophomore)

    The Lowdown

    The Illini return three of their four starting defensive backs. Moreover, both Terry Hawthorne and Supo Sanni would have been starters last season had injuries not derailed their seasons.

    Hawthorne might have the highest upside of any cornerback in the conference, provided he can stay healthy (something he has yet to manage to do). Both he and Wilson will have a shot to make all-conference this season.

    On top of that, having the luxury of a returning starter—Green—as the fifth defensive back gives the Illini some nice depth. Adding to that depth are Hull and Nixon-Youman, both of whom got plenty of playing time last season. In fact, Hull was the starter over Henry in the bowl game, so perhaps calling Henry the starter is a bit premature.