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Last updated: 04/19/2011 10:52 PM

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Rating the Big Ten's Defensive Backs
By Tony Gerdeman

Here we are, finally to the secondary portion of our grand look forward at the Big Ten to come in 2011.

This group of defensive backs in the Big Ten might be the deepest overall unit that we've covered to this point. The top six schools listed all have an argument to be placed at the top.

That doesn't even include Indiana, who could argue that the list be done alphabetically.

1. Illinois

Starters: Justin Green (CB), Trulon Henry (S), Tavon Wilson (DB)

Possible Starters/Backups: Steve Hull (S), Terry Hawthorne (CB), Supo Sanni (S), Patrick Nixon-Youman (CB), Earnest Thomas (S), Joelil Thrash (S), Tommie Hopkins (S), Ben Mathis (S), Jack Ramsey (CB), Ean Days (S), Miami Thomas (CB), Dondi Kirby (Fr.) (S), Zeph Grimes (Fr.) (S)

Even though Justin Green (5-11 195) started twelve games last season in his first year as a cornerback, he will likely become the third cornerback this season as Terry Hawthorne (6-0 190) returns from injury. Hawthorne has as much potential as cornerback in the conference. He just needs to stay healthy long enough to show it. Tavon Wilson (6-0 205) moves from safety to cornerback, but will slide to the nickel spot on passing downs when Green enters the game. Trulon Henry (6-1 215) returns after a 64-tackle season in 2010. There was talk of moving him to linebacker, but the coaches felt he was too valuable to the defensive backfield. Supo Sanni (6-3 220) will likely be the other safety. He was atop the depth chart last season when he was lost for the year with a preseason Achilles tear. Patrick Nixon-Youman (5-10 180) took a lot of first-team reps at safety this spring as the staff eased Sanni back slowly. This secondary unit goes six deep pretty easily, and does it well. Beyond that, however, an injury might be too much to overcome, and it's not like they've been injury-free lately.

2. Nebraska

Starters: Austin Cassidy (S), Alfonzo Dennard (CB)

Possible Starters/Backups: Courtney Osborne (S), Corey Cooper (S), P.J. Smith (S), Anthony Blue (CB), Ciante Evans (CB), Lazarri Middleton (CB), Dijon Washington (CB), Josh Mitchell (CB), Andrew Green (CB), Charles Jackson (Fr.) (CB), Daniel David (Fr.) (S), Daimion Stafford (JC) (S)

The Huskers lose All-American cornerback Prince Amukamara, but return plenty of talent all throughout a crowded secondary. Alfonzo Dennard (5-10 205) had four interceptions last year, so when teams avoided Amukamara, he was more than capable of making them pay. His numbers may drop this year as he becomes the one to be avoided. Austin Cassidy (6-1 210) started seven games last year, and should assume one of the open safety spots this season. Courtney Osborne (6-3 210) (four starts) and P.J. Smith (6-2 215) (three starts) will also challenge for the two open safety spots. All three candidates bring experience, though all have their flaws. For Smith, it's inconsistent tackling, which the Pelini Brothers won't stand for. Corey Cooper (redshirt freshman) (6-1 210) and Daimion Stafford (6-1 210) could also surprise at safety. The second corner spot should go to Ciante Evans (5-11 185), who only played in eight games last year as a freshman, but did get in a start. With Dennard on the other side, Evans will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. There are so many candidates to fill out the secondary that talent shouldn't be hard to come by.

3. Wisconsin

Starters: Antonio Fenelus (CB), Aaron Henry (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: Devin Smith (CB), Marcus Cromartie (CB), Dezmen Southward (S), Adam Hampton (S), Shelton Johnson (S), Josh Peprah (S), Andrew Lukasko (CB), Jerry Ponio (S), Devin Gaulden (CB) (Fr.), Darius Hillary (CB) (Fr.)

Despite returning just two starters, the Badgers return much more experience than it appears. Devin Smith (5-11 185) was the nickel back last year after being a starting cornerback in 2009. Shelton Johnson (6-0 186) is the likely starter at strong safety, and he played in all 13 games last year, starting once. He and Dezmen Southward (6-2 200) sat and learned behind Jay Valai and are both ready to show what they know. Bret Bielema loves Southward's potential, but may value Johnson's experience a little more. Antonio Fenelus (5-9 193) was an All-Big Ten cornerback last season, and free safety Aaron Henry (6-0 211) was a second-team All-Big Ten pick. They are both more comfortable with their roles, and even more is expected of them this season. There is also adequate depth on hand in case anything bad should happen, though they wouldn't mind a freshman stepping forward at cornerback. Also, the Badgers will be playing a more aggressive style in the secondary, moving everybody closer to the line of scrimmage.

4. Ohio State

Starters: Orhian Johnson (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: C.J. Barnett (S), Travis Howard (CB), Christian Bryant (S), Bradley Roby (CB), Dominic Clarke (CB), Dionte Allen (CB), Jamie Wood (S), Zach Domicone (S), Nate Oliver (S), Doran Grant (Fr.) (CB), Ron Tanner (S), Jeremy Cash (S), DerJuan Gambrell (CB)

Even though C.J. Barnett (6-0 190) is not listed as a starter, he did start the first two games for the Buckeyes last year before being lost for the season due to injury, so his skills are not really a question mark. Travis Howard (6-0 190) will be the number one cornerback for Ohio State, and expect him to play very well. He has stepped up this spring and taken over the mantle at Cornerback U. The second corner spot is currently a battle between Dominic Clarke (5-10 191) and Bradley Roby (5-11 185). Clarke, who stepped up last year in the Sugar Bowl when pressed into duty, appears to have the slight edge right now. The “loser” of that battle, along with Florida State transfer Dionte Allen (5-11 185) will battle for the third cornerback spot, which could ultimately end up being the team's nickel back if Tyler Moeller ends up playing as much as I think he will. One of the more intriguing situations to watch will be where Christian Bryant (5-9 190) ends up. He was moved from corner very early last year because the coaches wanted to get him on the field quicker. Don't be surprised if he ends up beating out Orhian Johnson (6-2 205) for one of the safety jobs. Doran Grant (5-11 180) is one of the top incoming cornerbacks in the nation, but there may not be room for him until 2012. As a group, these Buckeyes are loaded with potential, they just need to step forward and make the most of it.

5. Iowa

Starters: Micah Hyde (CB/S), Shaun Prater (CB)

Possible Starters/Backups: Tanner Miller (S), B.J. Lowery (CB), Greg Castillo (CB), Torrey Campbell (Fr.) (CB), Jordan Lomax (Fr.) (CB), Tom Donatell (S), Nick Nielsen (S), Jordan Bernstine (DB), Collin Sleeper (S), Nico Law (Fr.) (S), Cole Fisher (Fr.) (S), Jack Swanson (S), Kyle Steinbrecher (S)

Tanner Miller (6-2 195) is a true sophomore who played in only eight games last year, but the staff likes him at free safety. The problem, however, is that he's out for the spring, which has prompted the move of honorable mention All-Big Ten cornerback Micah Hyde (6-1 185) to free safety. Hyde has picked up the new position well, but it seems whether he stays there or not is more dependent upon how well Miller comes back from his injury. Or not. It's still up in the air where Hyde ends up in the fall. Shaun Prater (5-11 180), an All-Big Ten cornerback, thought about leaving for the NFL but decided to return. He's probably the top defensive back in the entire conference. The open cornerback spot is a battle between Greg Castillo (5-11 180) and B.J. Lowery (5-11 180). Castillo is currently ahead on the depth chart, but seemingly the only thing holding back the sophomore Lowery is experience, which he is getting this spring. The strong safety job is apparently being contested by anybody who is a walk-on. Collin Sleeper (6-2 200) is currently atop the depth chart, followed by Tom Donatell (6-2 205). Nick Nielsen (6-3 210) is also getting reps there. All three are walk-ons. Keep an eye on Jordan Bernstine (5-11 205), who came to Iowa with high school All-American accolades but has battled injuries his entire career. He's repping at both corner and safety and could show up somewhere on Saturdays.

6. Purdue

Starters: Logan Link (S), Ricardo Allen (CB), Josh Johnson (CB), Albert Evans (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: Mike Eargle (CB), Max Charlot (S), E.J. Johnson (S), Charlton Williams (CB), Ishmael Aristide (S), Antoine Lewis (CB), Chris Quinn (S), Jarrett Dieudonne (S), Taylor Richards (Fr.) (DB)

The Boilermakers return all four starters from a secondary that finished in the bottom half of all pass defense statistics in the Big Ten last year. Still, for a back four that only recorded seven interceptions, there's some talent here. Ricardo Allen (5-9 175) started all twelve games last year as a true freshman, and proved to be one of the most exciting players in the conference. Of his three receptions, he returned two for touchdowns, including a 94-yarder against Michigan. Josh Johnson (5-11 191) started the final ten games of the year last year as a sophomore and ended up with 53 tackles. He has had a tremendous spring and abused his quarterbacks regularly. The cornerback tandem here is a pretty good one, and neither is afraid to help in run support. Logan Link (6-1 204) came out of nowhere last year and led the team in tackles with 91 after not playing the previous three seasons as a walk-on. Albert Evans (6-0 206) is an active guy, but can sometimes be a liability in coverage. This group is seasoned, but you have to wonder how the loss of Ryan Kerrigan is going to affect the amount of time they have to cover this year.

7. Penn State

Starters: D'Anton Lynn (CB), Malcolm Willis (S)/Nick Sukay (S), Stephon Morris (CB), Drew Astorino (S)

Backups: Chaz Powell (DB), Derrick Thomas (CB), Mike Wallace (CB), Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (S), Nick Sukay (S), Alex Kenney (CB)

The Nittany Lions return six defensive backs who started at least five games in 2010, so experience won't be a problem in 2011. However, despite being second in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed last year, they were seventh in pass efficiency defense, which put them behind the likes of Northwestern. D'Anton Lynn (6-1 210) and Drew Astorino (5-10 202) were both honorable mention All-Big Ten last year, and Lynn certainly has the ability to rise to the first team this season. He finished second on the team in tackles last year with 75. The safety spot opposite Astorino will be a battle between Malcolm Willis (5-11 212) and Nick Sukay (6-1 207), who both started six games last year. Willis stepped in last year for Sukay, who was lost for the season due to a pectoral injury. Stephon Morris (5-8 189) will have to hold off both Chaz Powell (6-1 198) and possibly Derrick Thomas (6-0 178) to keep his job. The fact that there's competition is a positive, but is the competition because the backups are that good, or are the coaches simply not happy with what they had last year?

8. Michigan State

Starters: Johnny Adams (CB), Trenton Robinson (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: Darqueze Dennard (CB), Isaiah Lewis (S), Mitchell White (CB), Arjen Colquhoun (Fr.) (CB), Jairus Jones (S), Dana Dixon (CB), Mylan Hicks (DB), Tony Lippett (CB), Roger Williamson (Fr.) (CB), Trae Waynes (Fr.) (S), Kurtis Drummond (S), Danny Folino (S)

Johnny Adams (5-11 170) returns after starting 13 games last season and intercepting three passes. Still just a junior, Adams provides experience on a defense that will need it. He's also dangerous with the ball in his hands. Trenton Robinson (5-10 195) returns at free safety after leading the team with four interceptions last season. He is the only senior in the secondary, so he'll have to set the tone for the rest of the defensive backs. Fortunately, he's quite capable of doing that. Darqueze Dennard (5-11 185) started twice at cornerback last year as a freshman, but his season was cut short due to injury. He's finally healthy now and big things are expected from him on the boundary. Jairus Jones (6-1 205) started the spring as the number one strong safety, but was eventually passed by Isaiah Lewis (5-10 199) with the understanding that the position is very fluid right now. Jones is a bigger body, and has a better knowledge of the defense. Lewis is more explosive and just a natural player. He was the fifth defensive back last season as a true freshman. Tony Lippett (6-2 185) is a redshirt freshman who is in the middle of a tug-of-war battle between his offensive and defensive coaches. The plan is for him to be a two-way player this year. The offense had him for the first two weeks of spring camp, and the defense gets him for the final three. Overall, it's a group with experience and talent, but they need to display stronger mental faculties in 2011.

9. Northwestern

Starters: Jordan Mabin (CB), Brian Peters (S), Jared Carpenter (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: David Arnold (S), Hunter Bates (S), Mike Bolden (CB), C.J. Bryant (CB), Ibraheim Campbell (S), Demetrius Dugar (CB), Davion Fleming (DB), Jimmy Hall (DB), Daniel Jones (DB), Jeravin Matthews (CB), Nick VanHoose (Fr.) (DB), Jarrell Williams (Fr.) (CB)

Jordan Mabin (5-11 185) may have only intercepted one pass last season, but he did lead the Big Ten in passes defended with 15. Oh, and he also happened to take his one interception back 39 yards for a touchdown. Brian Peters (6-4 215) started every game last year after being a bit starter his first two seasons. He led the Wildcats in tackles with 107, and interceptions with three. He knows everything that goes on with this defense, but that didn't help much when Northwestern was giving up 241 yards passing per game last year. Hunter Bates (5-10 180) and Jared Carpenter (6-0 210) will battle for the other safety position, though word is the coaches want Bates in that spot. He broke his leg in the bowl game last year, and has been held out this spring. Bates started three games last year at safety, Carpenter started seven and David Arnold (6-1 220) started four. There's plenty of experience to choose from to pair with Peters. Jeravin Matthews (5-11 175) is the second cornerback right now. He played in twelve games last year after moving to corner from offense, so he's expected to break out a bit as a senior in 2011. Another player to be aware of is redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell (5-11 195). He's stepped in very well at safety this spring and while it's a blessing now, Pat Fitzgerald classified his decision to redshirt Campbell last year as a “regret”. This unit returns a lot of familiar faces, but those same faces were frequently victims of quality passing attacks. There is improvement needed still, though admittedly they should be better this season.

10. Michigan

Starters: Troy Woolfolk (CB), Jordan Kovacs (S), J.T. Floyd (CB), Courtney Avery (CB)

Possible Starters/Backups: Cullen Christian (CB), Marvin Robinson (S), Josh Furman (S), Brandin Hawthorne (S), Carvin Johnson (S), Thomas Gordon (S), Tony Anderson (CB), Terrence Talbott (CB), Floyd Simmons (S), Jared Van Slyke (S), Greg Brown (Fr.) (CB), Blake Countess (Fr.) (CB), Raymon Taylor (Fr.) (CB), Tamani Carter (Fr.) (CB), Delonte Hollowell (Fr.) (CB)

Despite losing two starters from the secondary, the Wolverines still return a ton of experience. Of course, that experience came from the coaches unsuccessfully searching for adequate talent. The good news is that Troy Woolfolk (6-0 195) returns from a season-ending injury, and his presence and talent will instantly make this back four better than it was last season. The rest of the starters weren't Big Ten caliber, so no jobs are really safe. Jordan Kovacs (6-0 195) was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last season, but he'll have to play further away from the line of scrimmage in Michigan's old-fangled 4-3 defense. Courtney Avery (5-11 167) has some potential, as does freshman Greg Brown (5-10 180). Both have impressed the coaches this spring. Cullen Christian (6-0 187) doesn't have the speed for cornerback, so I wouldn't be surprised to eventually see him become a full-time safety. However, there are a ton of safety prospects, so it wouldn't be a necessity. Still, Brady Hoke needs to find talent, and the four best players will play. It's no coincidence that he brought in three more cornerbacks after he was hired. Josh Furman (6-2 207) and Marvin Robinson (6-2 200) are tremendous athletes, but are still learning how to play safety. Carvin Johnson (6-0 195) and Thomas Gordon (5-11 205) both got starts at Rich Rodriguez's hybrid linebacker spot last year. Overall, it's not a great unit, but there are tons of options.

11. Minnesota

Starters: Troy Stoudermire (CB)

Possible Starters/Backups: Michael Carter (CB), Tyrone Bouie (DB), Kyle Henderson (CB), Johnny Johnson (CB), Grayson Levine (Fr.) (DB), Christyn Lewis (DB), James Manuel (S), Steven Montgomery (Fr.) (DB), Kim Royston (S), Shady Salamon (S), Cedric Thompson (Fr.) (CB), Brock Vereen (CB), Kenny Watkins (DB), Derrick Wells (Fr.) (DB)

After a week of spring practice, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said that he wasn't able to come up with a depth chart because only one player had played well enough to deserve to be listed on the first team—Troy Stoudermire (5-10 195). He has been called the defense's “only clear #1”, which is both a statement about the way the senior has stepped up, and also about the defense's lack of basically everything else. The secondary lineup throughout the spring has changed almost every practice, much in the same way it did during the season. Michael Carter (5-11 182), Johnny Johnson (5-9 202), Christyn Lewis (6-2 172) and Brock Vereen (6-0 181) all started a few games last year, but none could hold onto it. Fortunately for the Gophers, Kim Royston (5-11 195) was granted a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his leg last season. He should be one of Minnesota's two safeties. The other could possibly be James Manuel (6-2 209), who has been working with the first team through much of spring practice. The lack of consistency from the defensive backfield is going to hold this team back, but Stoudermire and Royston will provide some much needed stability.

12. Indiana

Starters: Donnell Jones (S)

Possible Starters/Backups: Chris Adkins (S), Greg Heban (CB), Jarrell Drane (S), Drew Hardin (S), Forisse Hardin (Fr.) (S), Shaquille Jefferson (S), Andre Kates (CB), Lenyatta Kiles (DB), Brian Williams (CB), Kenny Mullen (Fr.) (CB), Nick Stoner (Fr.) (CB), Mark Murphy (Fr.) (S), Michael Hunter (Fr.) (CB)

There are jobs to be won in Bloomington, and new head coach Kevin Wilson is just hoping there are players who can actually win them. Donnell Jones (5-10 213) returns at safety after finishing seventh on the team in tackles with 47 last year. He failed to record an interception last year, which did a struggling team zero favors. He's limited in range, but should be better this year if for no other reason than his experience. Chris Adkins (6-1 183) started against Penn State last year and will get a long look at the open safety job. Greg Heban (6-1 188) walked on last summer and ended up starting four of the last five games at cornerback for the Hoosiers, finishing with 40 tackles and an interception. Still, Wilson can't be thrilled about the prospects of a walk-on battling a loaded Big Ten receiving corps. Andre Kates (5-11 192) and Lenyatta Kiles (5-11 194) both came in with junior college accolades last year, but neither performed as hoped. Don't be surprised if a couple of freshmen work their way into the starting lineup at some point this season. There isn't much hope for this secondary, other than the potential that some of the freshmen cornerbacks have. But the Indiana coaches still have to find a way to reach that potential.

Big Ten Quarterbacks

Big Ten Running Backs

Big Ten Receivers

Big Ten Offensive Lines

Big Ten Defensive Lines

Big Ten Linebackers

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