You can’t win the Big Ten without a talented defensive line, so take note of the teams at the top of these two divisional rankings.
Only three defensive linemen from any of the three 2016 All-Big Ten football teams return from last year, and only Ohio State defensive end Tyquan Lewis made the first team. The other two returnees — Wisconsin defensive lineman Conor Sheehy and Minnesota defensive tackle Steven Richardson — were both third-team selections.
This position group is loaded with unknowns, future stars, and seniors who are hoping to finally have their best years as college football players. Whichever teams’ unknowns and future stars become present stars will be in line to win a couple more games than maybe they anticipated going into the season.
Whoever wins the conference, however, will likely do it by getting tremendous seasons from their senior leaders.
Big Ten West
The Hawkeyes were in the middle of the B1G pack in terms of stopping the run last year, allowing 149.7 yards per game. There is plenty of intrigue here, however. Three talented and disruptive defensive ends return in Matt Nelson (5.5 sacks), Anthony Nelson (6.0 sacks), and Parker Hesse (4.0 sacks). Defensive tackle Nathan Bazata started 24 games the last two seasons. They need to find another defensive tackle. Matt Nelson (6-8 285) has volunteered to be that guy if necessary. Sophomore Cedrick Lattimore played some last year. Freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa was one of the top DE recruits in the 2017 class.
The Badgers run a 3-4 front and they return all four starters from last year. Yes, you read that correctly. Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu is big (6-2 348), and he is flanked by a rotation of three defensive ends in Conor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih, and Alec James. Sheehy was a Third-Team All-B1G selection last year and both James and Obasih were honorable mention. There wasn’t a ton of production, but in a 3-4, the linebackers are the guys who get all of the glory. There is also some young talent here as well.
Northwestern returns three starters from last season, as well as some productive depth behind the first unit. Senior defensive end Xavier Washington tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks last season, but he is currently suspended indefinitely. He is on the official roster, however. Sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano came off the bench to also notch 4.5 sacks in 2016. Veteran defensive tackles Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson have 37 career starts between them. Wildcats have held opponents under 140 yards rushing per game the last two years.
Nebraska makes the move to a 3-4 this year, which is good for them because their defensive line depth is lacking. The Huskers return three players with starting experience in nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg (9 starts), and defensive ends Freedom Akinmoladun (17 starts) and Carlos Davis (4 starts). Akinmoladun tied for second on the team with 4.0 sacks last year. Stoltenberg added 20 pounds to play nose tackle, so this will be a new experience for him. The sophomore Davis is an active 300-pounder. None of them received All-B1G mention last season.
The Boilers return starting defensive tackles Gelen Robinson and Eddy Wilson. Robinson finished third on the team with 61 tackles. His six tackles for loss was fourth. At 6-foot-1 and 283 pounds, he’s not the biggest guy, but he uses his mobility well. He was still part of a defensive front that allowed 238 yards rushing per game last season, however. There is some interesting potential at defensive end, including senior Austin Larkin, who started the final five games last season. There is a junior college influence on the edges that Purdue needs to get production from.
Senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson (6-0 300) was a Third-Team All-B1G selection last season. He finished with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, which is pretty productive for a defensive tackle. Around him, however, there are a ton of questions. One player to watch will be sophomore edge rusher Carter Coughlin. Coughlin is a tremendous athlete who was recruited by Ohio State to play the walk-out linebacker spot. Using him as a pass rusher is intriguing. Gophers were pretty great against the run last year. Can they be again with a smaller line?
The Illini don’t really return any starters up front, but they do bring back four players with some starting experience. Sophomore tackle Jamal Milan started five games last year, picking up 3.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore tackle Kenyon Jackson started five games as a freshman as well in 2016. Senior defensive end James Crawford has started four games each of the last two seasons. He’s only listed at 220 pounds, but he says he’s closer to 240. The coaches believe he has finally found a home on the edge. He came to Illinois as a 185-pound safety. There is certainly potential in this group, but it is outweighed by question marks and concerns.
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State
Ohio State is deeper than any team in the nation at defensive end. They return all four defensive ends from a true 4-man rotation last year in Jalyn Holmes, Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, and Tyquan Lewis. Lewis was the B1G Defensive Lineman of the Year last year. In addition to those four, two 5-star prospects (sophomore Jonathon Cooper and freshman Chase Young) are looking to get into the rotation. There are eight defensive tackles who would play anywhere else, but the Buckeyes will likely trim that number to four or five. Urban Meyer says there is still work to be done inside.
Yeah, Michigan lost all of their starters up front, yet they still return what could be two of the best defensive linemen in the nation in senior tackle Maurice Hurst and sophomore end Rashan Gary. While neither player merited even Honorable Mention All-B1G status last year, that will be changing this year. Junior defensive end Chase Winovich is a nice change-of-pace pass rusher, but he needs to be part of a rotation in order to keep his motor up. Junior defensive tackle Bryan Mone has not lived up to the hype yet. Recruiting has gone well and now it is time for more of Jim Harbaugh’s recruits to emerge up front. There are a number of talented candidates. Expect to see them plenty in 2017.
3. Penn State
It was not easy choosing between Michigan and Penn State for the No. 2 spot in the Big Ten East. The Nittany Lions have just as much claim for that spot as the Wolverines. Penn State returns both starting defensive tackles, and reserve defensive ends Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller were productive last season. There are a few second-year players who will help out inside and outside as well. This is a fairly deep group of players with a nice mix of starting experience and production in limited opportunities. There don’t appear to be any great players, however.
The Terps return four players with starting experience, and three of them started at least six games last season. Those defensive linemen were only able to hold opponents to 215 yards rushing per game, however. Senior tackles Cavon Walker (8.5 TFLs) and Kingsley Opara (11.5 TFLs) are busy inside. Senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam had 14 tackles for loss. He has been around seemingly forever. Senior defensive end Chandler Burkett started the final eight games last season in his first real production as a Terp. Recruiting has picked up, so there is young talent as well.
Indiana returns three starters from a defensive line that helped hold opponents to 160 yards rushing per game in 2016, which was the best number the Hoosiers have had since 159 yards per game in 2009. That team finished 4-8, so maybe stopping the run isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Senior tackle Nate Hoff has started 22 games in his career. Reserve defensive end Nile Sykes is second on the team among returnees with seven tackles for loss last season. There’s not much in the way of production, but this group did keep linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver pretty clean last year.
Rutgers returns two starters up front, but also a number of other players with quality experience. Senior tackle Sebastian Joseph is heading into his third season as a starter. Senior end Darnell Davis is a former walk-on who has had a solid career. Senior end Komoko Turay has gotten less productive each year on campus. The Scarlet Knights allowed 264 yards rushing per game last season. Every carry went for an average of 5.7 yards. There is a lot of work to do here.
7. Michigan State
Michigan State and Rutgers went back and forth at No. 7, but the Spartans “win” out based on a significant lack of optimism surrounding the defensive line. Sophomore defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk each started the final three games of 2016 and played well enough — they helped hold Penn State to 77 yards rushing in a blowout loss. The only pass rusher receiving any buzz is former walk-on Kenny Willekes, who is a sophomore and played one game last year. Senior Demetrius Cooper is working his way back from suspension.