Defensive Lines - Leaders Division

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Last updated: 08/02/2012 2:11 AM
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Ranking the Big Ten Defensive Lines — The Leaders Division
By Tony Gerdeman

We have finally returned to our series on ranking the Big Ten's best units, and now it's time to focus on the defensive side of the ball.

It wasn't a great year for defenses in the Big Ten last year, but things should pick up a bit this year if for no other reason than experience.

Most of the starters on the defensive line are already known in the Leaders Division, which is either a blessing (in the case of an Ohio State), or a curse (in the case of an Indiana).

1. Ohio State

Starters: John Simon (DE), Johnathan Hankins (DT), Garrett Goebel (DT), Adam Bellamy (DE)

Backups: Michael Bennett (DL), Chris Carter (DT), Joel Hale (DT), Steve Miller (DE), J.T. Moore (DE), Noah Spence* (DE), Adolphus Washington* (DE), Se'Von Pittman* (DE), Tommy Schutt* (DT), Nathan Williams (DE)

The Buckeyes return all four starters from last season's defensive line, and while they had trouble against the run at times, that was more of a "back seven problem" rather than a "front four problem". John Simon is an All-American candidate and Johnathan Hankins is an "NFL Draft Room Invitee" candidate. Garrett Goebel is as solid as they come holding his ground, and Adam Bellamy's size (6-4 292) makes him a tough matchup against the run on the edges. The Buckeyes will also integrate seven highly-touted freshmen and sophomores into the lineup, including Michael Bennett, who may end up starting at strong side defensive end. Freshmen defensive ends Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, and Se'Von Pittman bring as many accolades as any defensive line class in the nation this year. Former starter Nathan Williams should be back, and is an All-Conference player when healthy. We don't know how healthy he will ultimately be, however.

3. Purdue

Starters: Ryan Russell (DE), Bruce Gaston (DT), Kawann Short (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Robert Maci (DE), Brandon Taylor (DT), Ryan Isaac (DL), Michael Rouse (DT), Greg Latta (JC) (DE), Jalani Phillips (DE), Ryan Watson* (DL), LaSalle Cooks (DL), Eric Mebane (DE), Kingsley Ike* (DE)

The Boilermakers might have the most imposing pair of defensive tackles in the conference. Together, Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short could clog a runway. Short bypassed a chance at being a second-day NFL draft pick for a shot at first-day status. He knows he has to become more consistent and stop taking plays off. Bruce Gaston gets the benefit of playing next to one of the best tackles in the nation, and one that commands plenty of attention from an offensive line. However, if a team sleeps on Gaston, he could live in the backfield this year. There is a ton of anticipation for what Ryan Russell will do in his second season as a starter. He finished with 33 tackles and a sack as a freshman last year, but needs to become the pass-rushing terror that this defense needs in order to be one of the Big Ten's best. The other defensive end spot could be manned by several candidates. Robert Maci had four tackles for loss last season before being lost due to injury in game number five. Brandon Taylor will also get some time at strongside end, even though he's got tackle size.

5. Illinois

Starters: Michael Buchanan (DE), Glenn Foster (DT), Akeem Spence (DT), Justin Staples (DE)

Backups: Darrius Caldwell (DE), Brandon Denmark (DE), Austin Teitsma (DT), Vontrell Williams* (DT), Jake Howe (DT), Chris O'Connor (DT), Tim Kynard (DE), Kenny Nelson (DE), John Valentine (DE), Teko Powell* (DT)

The loss of Whitney Mercilus' 16 sacks from last season won't be replaced this year, but Michael Buchanan will certainly give it a go. He had 7.5 sacks last year, and likely would have had more if Mercilus hadn't taken so many from him. Akeem Spence is one of the most active defensive tackles in the conference, and linemate Glenn Foster is solid, but not spectacular. Justin Staples is the likely other starter at defensive end, and while Buchanan is trying to put up Mercilus numbers, Staples will have to try and put up 2011 Buchanan numbers. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was retained by new Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, so the upswing that the Illini have seen on the front four over recent years should continue. Tim Kynard will be one backup at the rush end, and the coaching staff has raved about redshirt freshman Darrius Caldwell's athletic ability. Depth at tackle is a major concern, however.

6. Wisconsin

Starters: Brendan Kelly (DE), David Gilbert (DE), Beau Allen (DT), Ethan Hemer (DT)

Backups: Tyler Dippel (DE), Jesse Hayes (DE), Warren Herring (DT), Bryce Gilbert (DT), James Adeyanju (DE), Pat Muldoon (DE), Konrad Zagzebski (DE), Arthur Goldberg* (DL)

The major talking point of last year's defensive line was the lack of quarterback pressure. A large portion of that problem was losing David Gilbert after four games. He still managed to finish third on the team in sacks with three. With a healthy season in 2012, the Badgers could finally have the pass rusher that they have missed since J.J. Watt left for the NFL. Brendan Kelly is on the other end, and while he isn't a playmaker, he is a senior, so he brings plenty of experience. Beau Allen may be ready for a breakout season as a junior. He had 22 tackles and four sacks last year as a reserve. Ethan Hemer has 20 starts in his first two seasons, and will anchor the interior with Allen. There are plenty of question marks on the bench, and players will need to step up to keep a solid starting four from growing too tired to compete as the season goes on.

7. Penn State

Starters: Sean Stanley (DE), Jordan Hill (DT), Pete Massaro (DE), DaQuan Jones (DT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Deion Barnes (DE), Brad Bars (DE), Anthony Zettel (DL), Brian Gaia* (DL), Jordan Kerner (DE), Tyrone Smith (DE), Kyle Baublitz (DE), C.J. Olaniyan (DE), Carl Nassib (DE), James Terry (DT), Derek Dowrey* (DT), Cody Castor (DT), Austin Johnson* (DL)

The four starters listed above currently reflects Bill O'Brien's depth chart. Of them, only Jordan Hill started more than six games for the Nittany Lions last season. Hill has a chance to be the best defensive tackle in the conference this year after picking up 59 tackles last year playing next to Devon Still. DaQuan Jones and James Terry will likely rotate on the interior. Both are listed at 6-3 and 317 pounds. The belief is that Deion Barnes could find his way into the starting lineup, even though he is just a redshirt freshman. Pete Massaro is a veteran, but has missed two of the last three seasons due to injury. There is not a lot of production on the roster currently, but there are a lot of bodies with which to find that production. More than a few of these highly-rated recruits need to begin matching their production with their potential.

10. Indiana

Starters: Bobby Richardson (DE), Larry Black (DT), Adam Replogle (DT), Ryan Phillis (DE)

Possible Starters/Backups: Javon Cornley (DE), Justin Rayside (JC) (DE), Nick Mangieri* (DE), Jerrell Kirlew (DL), Tyler McGuigan (DL), Nicholas Sliger (DT), Adarius Rayner (DT), Zack Shaw (DE), John Laihinen (DE), Adam Kranda* (DL), Alex Todd (DT)

Larry Black and Adam Replogle are both seniors and have played next to each other for so long that their shoulders have actually fused to each other. Replogle will be a four-year starter and had his best season last year with 49 tackles and four sacks. Still, he's not the most disruptive force you've ever seen. Black has a lot of potential, but isn't generally capable of exploiting it. He can flash some numbers here and there, but tires or simply tunes out at times. Bobby Richardson is a very promising player who started six games and came away with 27 tackles and three sacks as a true freshman last year. He needs to double all of those numbers this year. Ryan Phillis started six games as a redshirt freshman last year, but will be fighting for a starting spot with Javon Cornley and junior college transfer Justin Rayside. The pass rushers on this team are young, but the interior experience should help everyone.

Ranking the Big Ten
Quarterbacks Leaders Legends
Running Backs Leaders Legends
Receivers Legends Leaders
Offensive Line Leaders Legends

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