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Last updated: 04/04/2011 6:48 AM

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Rating the Big Ten's Defensive Lines
By Tony Gerdeman

We have reached the defensive portion of our spring positional breakdowns and there has to be a certain level of irony that a team from the defenseless Big XII could have the best defensive front in the conference. The carpetbaggers cometh.

As for everybody else, there are flaws up and down the board, and there really isn't much difference between teams five through nine on this list. In the end, the best defensive lines will be the ones who hide their flaws the best.

1. Nebraska

Starters: Jared Crick (DT), Baker Steinkuhler (DT), Cameron Meredith (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Chase Rome (DT), Josh Williams (DE), Jason Ankrah (DE), Eric Martin (DE), Kevin Thomsen (DE), Joseph Carter (DE), Thaddeus Randle (DT), Terrence Moore (DT), Jay Guy (DT)

All four starters on the defensive front for Nebraska earned accolades last season. Jared Crick (6'6” 285) was first team All-Big XII, Cameron Meredith (6'4” 260) was second team, and Baker Steinkuhler (6”6” 290) was honorable mention. Meredith and Crick are both out this spring with injuries, so the Huskers will actually be able to get a good look at their depth during this time. Despite the talent returning, Nebraska defensive ends only produced six of their 31 sacks last year. For a defensive front that can dominate at times, that statistic is a bit concerning. One player that has quite a buzz around him right now is Chase Rome (6'3” 295), who was enrolled early as a freshman last season and participated in the spring but ended up redshirting. He is said to have starter's talent right now. He should be able to spell Crick and Steinkuhler at times. He could if Crick and Steinkuhler's backups weren't also returning, which they are. Thaddeus Randle (6'1” 300) and Terrence Moore (6'3” 290) are simply two more disruptive bodies for the Brothers Pelini to work with. The Huskers are still looking for a defensive end, but Josh Williams (6'4” 290) looks like the top candidate right now. He played in 13 games last year and had 12 tackles.

2. Ohio State

Starters: Nathan Williams (DE), John Simon (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Jonathan Hankins (DT), Adam Bellamy (DL), Melvin Fellows (DE), Solomon Thomas (DE), Darryl Baldwin (DL), David Durham (DE), J.T. Moore (DE), Garrett Goebel (DT), Joel Hale (Fr. DT), Michael Bennett (Fr. DT), Chase Farris (Fr. DL), Steve Miller (Fr. DE), Kenny Hayes (Fr. DE)

This might be the thinnest the Ohio State defensive line has been in years, which would explain five incoming freshmen and another five or so in next year's class. The Buckeyes are going to be counting on players they've never had to count on before. Nathan Williams (6'3” 260) and John Simon (6'2” 270) will be fine, and both are All-Big Ten caliber players. Jonathan Hankins (6'3” 335) will get plenty of time clogging the middle, but can the 335-pounder make an impact without heavy rotation? Adam Bellamy (6'4” 295) played well at the tail end of last season, and would probably be the best bet to step into Cameron Heyward's strongside defensive end spot. He's also versatile enough to slide inside on passing downs if need be. Ohio State will need meaningful snaps from some freshmen, and Joel Hale (6'4” 310) seems to have the best chance since he enrolled back in January. Overall, there is a lot of potential on this defensive line, but not a lot of playing time outside of the top six. Keep an eye on Steve Miller (6'4” 245), who might be the best pure pass rusher to come to Ohio State in a few years.

Wisconsin3. Wisconsin

Starters: Louis Nzegwu (DE), Patrick Butrym (DT), Ethan Hemer (DT), Jordan Kouhout (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Pat Muldoon (DE), Warren Herring (DE), Tyler Dippel (DE), Konrad Zagzebski (DE), David Gilbert (DE), Jesse Hayes (Fr. DE), James Adeyanju (Fr. DE), Beau Allen (DT)

Everybody will want to make the story of Wisconsin's defensive line about the loss of J.J. Watt. In doing so, they'll be ignoring the amount of talent coming back for the Badgers. Wisconsin returns their top four defensive tackles, three of which have started at least six games. The fourth, sophomore Beau Allen (6'3” 325), has the potential to be the best of the bunch. Louis Nzegwu (6'4” 250) will need to provide more of a pass rush than he did last year with just three sacks. He's a fifth-year player so he should be able to produce at his best this season. Pat Muldoon (6'3” 262) is the most likely candidate to slide into Watt's spot, and the staff is excited to see what he can do. He had some very good moments last year, and now he's going to get an opportunity to see what he learned playing behind an All-American. There is plenty of talent on this defensive line, but don't expect anybody to match Watt's 21 tackles for loss. Muldoon could certainly approach his seven sacks though.

Michigan State4. Michigan State

Starters: Tyler Hoover (DE), Jerel Worthy (DT), Kevin Pickelman (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Anthony Rashad-White (DT), Antonio Jeremiah (DT), William Gholston (DE), Corey Freeman (DE), Marcus Rush (DE), Johnathan Strayhorn (DT), Denzel Drone (DE), Taylor Calero (DE), Joel Heath (Fr. DL)

The Spartans return three starters on their defensive line, but aside from Jerel Worthy (6'3” 305), the production isn't where the coaches would like it. Tyler Hoover (6'7” 274) is a junior now, and much more disruption should be expected of him this season after recording just 3.5 tackles for loss last season. Kevin Pickelman (6'4” 278) is limited this spring with a neck injury, but he's penciled in as a starter once again. The expectation is for former mega-recruit William Gholston (6'7” 265) to slide into the open defensive end spot. He will also be limited a bit in spring after having his season shut down late in the year last season. After coming to MSU around 240 pounds, he is now hefting around 275 pounds on his 6'7” frame. Mark Dantonio says he should be a dominant player for the Spartans. Anthony Rashad White (6'2” 320) is currently listed as a first-teamer on the depth chart with Pickelman out. He should provide a third legitimate tackle for Michigan State this season.

Purdue5. Purdue

Starters: Gerald Gooden (DE), Bruce Gaston (DT), Kawann Short (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Rashad Frazier (DE), Ryan Isaac (DT), Ryan Russell (DE), Robert Maci (DE), LaSalle Cooks (DT), Eric Mebane (DE), Brandon Taylor (DT)

The Boilermakers return three starters from last season, but must find a way to replace the 26 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks that Ryan Kerrigan took with him to the NFL. Fortunately, they have a nice base. Bruce Gaston (6'2” 300) and Kawann Short (6'3” 305) are about as good a pair of tackles as a school like Purdue could hope to have. Both have impressed this spring and head coach Danny Hope has raved about Short's progress, stating that he thinks he could become a dominant player. Gerald Gooden (6'3” 235) is a veteran who is going into his third season as a starter. You can expect his 1.5 sacks from last year to go way up this year, if for no other reason than there are now more sacks to go around. They still need to find a fourth lineman, though Hope has said that they would like to tinker with a 3-4 look this season. Right now, the winner of the battle between redshirt freshmen Rashad Frazier (6'5” 235) and Ryan Russell (6'5” 250) looks like they'll have the inside track on replacing Kerrigan's spot.

Penn State6. Penn State

Starters: Devon Still (DT), Jack Crawford (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: James Terry (DT), Eric Lattimore (DE), Kevion Latham (DE), Jordan Hill (DT), Evan Hailes (DT), Jon Stewart (DL), Brandon Ware (DT), Sean Stanley (DE), C.J. Olaniyan (DE), DeQuan Jones (DL), Anthony Alose (Fr. DL), Kyle Baublitz (DE), Brad Bars (DE), Shawn Oakman (Fr. DE)

The Nittany Lions just recently lost starting defensive end Pete Massaro (6'4” 264) for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. He also missed the 2009 season with a torn ACL in his right knee. The biggest key for Penn State will be to stay healthy on the front four, which is something they didn't do last year, and clearly they're off to a rough start this season. Eric Lattimore (6'6” 278) and Jack Crawford (6'5” 265) will also be out this spring with injuries. DeQuan Jones (6'3” 316) has been moved to defensive end for the rest of spring because of the lack of available bodies, but Joe Paterno said it wouldn't be a permanent move. The Nittany Lions are looking for a new starting defensive tackle, and they've got a couple of promising candidates. James Terry (6'3” 317) and Jordan Hill (6'1” 316) both started games last season, though Hill seems to have the edge on the starting spot. Big things are expected from him this season after making 36 tackles last season in limited time as a sophomore. Sean Stanley (6'1” 245) started a couple of games last year and will provide some valuable depth this year, assuming he doesn't win the job outright. Overall, there is plenty of potential, but that potential has iffy tendons.

Michigan7. Michigan

Starters: Craig Roh (DE), Mike Martin (DT), Ryan Van Bergen (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: William Campbell (DT), Jibreel Black (DE), Quinton Washington (DT), Richard Ash (DT), Will Heininger (DE), Kenny Wilkins (DL), Terry Talbott (DL), Jake Ryan (DE)

There's some decent pieces to this puzzle, but that doesn't mean all of the other pieces fit. Try finishing a puzzle when you've mixed in pieces from an entirely different puzzle, and you'll understand defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's Rich Rodriguez-induced plight. Mike Martin (6'2” 299) is one of the best players in the Big Ten and will be a very productive leader for the Wolverines. Craig Roh (6'5” 251) will no longer have to pretend he's a linebacker. For the first time he'll get to be a defensive end from the first practice til the last practice, which means his sack numbers better go way up from last season when he only had a half a sack. Ryan Van Bergen (6'6” 283) is a solid player who generally knows where he should be. He provides the coaches a comfort level that they desperately need. William Campbell (6'5” 333) is back at defensive tackle after a failed experiment on offense. The coaches love his potential and ability, they just don't love the fact that he won't give 100% as much as they need him to. Former offensive guard Quinton Washington (6'4” 315) will be battling with Campbell for a starting spot, and is probably a little bit ahead right now. Keep an eye on Jibreel Black (6'2” 258), who could provide a pass rush that this team is going to desperately need. This front four still has a long ways to go in their understanding of Mattison's defense, but if history is any indicator, he'll eventually get it taught.

Northwestern8. Northwestern

Starters: Vince Browne (DE), Jack DiNardo (DT), Kevin Watt (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Niko Mafuli (DT), Quentin Williams (DE), Anthony Battle (DE), Davon Custis (DE), Tyler Scott (DE), Brian Arnfelt (DT), Chance Carter (DT), Bo Cisek (DT), Will Hampton (DT), Sean McEvilly (DT), Deonte Gibson (Fr. DE), C.J. Robbins (Fr. DE)

The Wildcats will only be replacing one starter, but Pat Fitzgerald has made it known that he wants his defensive line to step it up. In particular, he is expecting Vince Browne (6'5” 265) to double his sack total of 7.0 from last year. That might be a lot to ask of a player, but Browne has shown he can get into the backfield, as his 15.5 tackles for loss will attest. Jack DiNardo (6'4” 290) is out for the spring with a shoulder injury, but he should be fine by the time the season rolls around. Kevin Watt (6'4” 265) didn't record a single sack last year, which is probably why Fitzgerald didn't say he wanted Watt to double his sack total as well. Brian Arnfelt (6'5” 290) has been mentioned as having perhaps the best spring of any of the defensive linemen, and it just so happens there's an open tackle spot for him. Obviously he has taken that to heart. Niko Mafuli (6'3” 310) is another big body to watch. He could step in at the tackle spot, or back up both Arnfelt and DiNardo. Quentin Williams (6'4” 250) got two starts at defensive end last year, and if Watt can't produce better numbers, they may shuffle the deck a bit with Williams, or even somebody else. Davon Custis (6'3” 245) has the look of a speed rusher, and has gotten stronger in the offseason. He only played in two games as a redshirt freshman last year, but should make a more significant impact this year.

Iowa9. Iowa

Starters: Mike Daniels (DT), Broderick Binns (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Lebron Daniel (DE), Joe Forgy (DE), Dominic Alvis (DE), Steve Bigach (DT), Carl Davis (DT), Mike Hardy (DT), Donovan Johnson (DT), Darian Cooper (Fr. DT)

The emergence of Mike Daniels (6'1” 275) actually forced Broderick Binns (6'2” 261) out of the starting lineup last year, after starting all 13 games in 2009. Lebron Daniel (6'2” 250), a Glenville alum, will get the first crack at the defensive end spot opposite Binns, while the open defensive tackle spot looks like Steve Bigach's (6'3” 272) to lose. Daniel, a fifth-year senior, has had limited minutes in his time, and Binns needs to regain his 2009 form when he had 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. In fact, he hasn't had a sack since 2009. Daniels will be fine at defensive tackle. He's what you expect from the typical Hawkeye tackle. The problem is going to be finding another one. Part of the problem with Iowa's philosophy of building defensive tackles from smaller pieces of clay is that the clay can take a few years to set, and sometimes the coaches can get caught waiting. One big piece of clay to watch, however, is redshirt freshman Carl Davis (6'5” 295). The Iowa staff debated on whether or not to play him last year, so they obviously like his potential. Ferentz wants to have a rotation of 6-8 linemen, but that may be due more to the fact that they're having trouble finding a tighter rotation, which is normally what they work with.

Illinois10. Illinois

Starters: Akeem Spence (DT), Michael Buchanan (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Justin Staples (DE), Whitney Mercilus (DE), Craig Wilson (DT), Jake Howe (DT), Austin Teitsma (DT), Glenn Foster (DL), Houston Bates (DE), Willie Beavers (Fr. DT), Clint Tucker (Fr. DT), Chris Jones (Fr. DT), Kenny Nelson (Fr. DE), Chris O'Connor (Fr. DE)

Akeem Spence (6'1” 305) was a Freshman All-American last year for Ron Zook. He finished with 45 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack. He's very active for a player of his size. Michael Buchanan (6'6” 225) is the team's 'Bandit', which is basically their version of the rush end/linebacker hybrid that almost everybody has now. He needs to produce more than the two sacks he had last year, however. Whitney Mercilus (6'3” 265), who started twice last year, looks like the first option at the other defensive end spot. Craig Wilson (6'5” 320) was moved over from the offensive line and has been repping with the first team at defensive tackle already at times this spring. Glenn Foster (6'4” 260) is a catch-all for the Illini, and could play anywhere on the defensive line. He could be a defensive end on early downs and a tackle in passing situations. The staff really likes the potential of their incoming freshmen, particular at defensive tackle. Don't be surprised if a few of them make the two deep come August. Overall, however, outside of Spence, the bulk of this front four hasn't been overly productive to this point.

Indiana11. Indiana

Starters: Darius Johnson (DE), Mick Mentzer (DT), Adam Replogle (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Larry Black (DT), Nicholas Sliger (DT), Kevin Bush (DE), Pete Bachman (DE), Fred Jones (DE), Javon Cornley (DE), Ryan Phillis (DE), Harrison Scott (DL), Adarius Rayner (Fr. DE), Jake Reed (Fr. DE), Bobby Richardson (Fr. DT), Bernard Taylor (Fr. DT)

The Hoosiers return three starters, and that's not even including Larry Black (6'2” 311) who started four games last year and twelve the year before. Darius Johnson (6'0” 241) led all Big Ten defensive linemen in tackles per game last year, and finished with 65 stops on the season. He added 7.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year as well. Adam Replogle (6'3” 292) is a solid lineman who also showed enough versatility to start four games at defensive end last season. He's never going to be a big number guy, but is solid and does what is asked of him. Mick Mentzer (6'4” 306) and Black will compete for the starting spot, but both will play this year. New head coach Kevin Wilson's theory on freshmen is that he plans on playing all of them until they show him that they can't play, so any of the four freshman linemen could be on the field this year if they show well. The Hoosiers are changing their philosophy on the defensive line this year, as the coaches are now asking their players to engage and occupy blockers rather than trying to shoot gaps and get by them. They are trying to eliminate open lanes, which will allow their linebackers to clean up ball carriers much easier.

Minnesota12. Minnesota

Starters: D.L. Wilhite (DE), Brandon Kirksey (DT), Anthony Jacobs (DT), Matt Garin (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Ra'Shede Hageman (DL), Kendall Gregory-McGhee (DE), Austin Hahn (DL), Cameron Botticelli (DL), Ben Perry (DE), Lester Simpson (DE), Michael Amaefula (Fr. DE), Harold Legania (DT), Josh Tauaefa (DL)

The Gophers had nine sacks all of last season, which tied for worst in the nation. Clearly something has to give, and for a change it can't be the Gopher defense. Even though last year's starting defensive end Jewhan Edwards was kicked off the team, Minnesota still essentially returns four starters, as Matt Garin (6'4” 252) started six games as a redshirt freshman last year. It's a luxury to be returning so much experience, but if that experience isn't producing, what good is it? New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says he hasn't watched much film of last year because he doesn't want to “judge them in the past”. It's a clean slate for everybody, so the effort should be picked up. Keep an eye on Ra'Shede Hageman (6'6” 302), who came to Minnesota as a 260-pound tight end. At his size now, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him slide inside, which could add quickness and burst on passing downs. Overall, there is ability here, it just hasn't produced yet. A new start may help remedy that.

Rating the Quarterbacks

Rating the Running Backs

Rating the Receivers

Rating the Offensive Lines

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