Rating the Big Ten - The Defensive Backs
By Tony Gerdeman
The last line of defense can either be a calming influence, or one of sheer panic-inducing, muscle-clenching fright. Coaches can sleep a lot better at night when they know that their secondary is going to be on the same page with the rest of the defense.
When they aren't on that same page, however, no matter how well-oiled the front seven is looking, a confused or untalented secondary will undoubtedly wreck it all.
A secondary that can be repeatedly broken then puts pressure on the rest of the defense to be perfect. It becomes more difficult to then simply focus on your own assignments when you're constantly worried about those behind you doing the same.
But when a front seven has complete confidence in what's going on in the secondary, they don't even have to worry about what's happening behind them. They can freely focus on what's in front of them, and they'll do it a lot quicker and with much more confidence.
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return the best pair of safeties in the conference in seniors Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. Bryant was a Second-Team All-Big Ten player last season and was as a sophomore in 2011 as well. Bradley Roby is the best cornerback in the nation per most pundits and led the nation with 19 passes defensed last year. Junior Doran Grant will start next to Roby. He has one start in his career, but would likely be a starter for most Big Ten teams this season. Tyvis Powell is the current starter at nickel back after a strong spring. Top prospects Vonn Bell, Cameron Burrows and Eli Apple will all play as well. Bell could get an immediate look in nickel and dime packages.
2. Michigan State
The secondary should once again be a strength for the Michigan State Spartans. They return Darqueze Dennard, who was First-Team All-Big Ten a year ago with 52 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and seven PBUs. Sophomore Trae Waynes should line up next to him. He didn't play much last season, but had a solid spring and the coaches are excited about him. Safety Isaiah Lewis was Second-Team All-Big Ten in 2011 and Honorable Mention last year. He will need to have his best season now that he is a senior. Safety Kurtis Drummond started the final seven games last year. There are also a handful of other talented young players who will see time.
The Boilers essentially return four starters from last year's secondary. The most notable is cornerback Ricardo Allen, who is a three-time Second-Team All-Big Ten selection. Is this the year he finally lands on the first team? Joining him at corner will be Frankie Williams, who started six games as a redshirt freshman last season. He played nickel back, and also started for Allen during a brief injury. He finished with 45 tackles a year ago, which was the same number as Allen. Junior safeties Landon Feichter and Taylor Richards return, and both started all 13 games last year. Feichter led the team with 80 tackles and four interceptions in 2012. He was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten.
4. Penn State
The starters are pretty set in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions return three starters from last year's secondary. Cornerback Adrian Amos was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection a year ago. Safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong return as well, and could contend for Big Ten recognition this season. However, together, these three players only intercepted two passes and broke up nine last year. The other starter at corner will likely be sophomore Da'Quan Davis, who played in every game a year ago. There is more depth here, as there is an entire two deep who could see the field. This will allow more nickel and dime packages than they could play last year.
The Huskers have no shortage of cornerback candidates in 2013, as they return four players with significant starting experience. Ciante Evans was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last season, despite spending most of his time as a nickel back. Andrew Green started 12 games and finished with 50 tackles. There is also Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds is oversized at cornerback, yet very productive with nine PBUs in spot duty last year. The Huskers will need to find two new safeties, but there are plenty of capable players to choose from. Junior Corey Cooper has four starts in his career, and junior Harvey Jackson started once last year.
The Wildcats return three starters from last season's secondary. Cornerback Nick VanHoose picked off three passes last year as a redshirt freshman. Junior Daniel Jones started the final seven games at cornerback a year ago, breaking up four passes in the process. He will certainly be pushed for the job by some younger players, however. Junior safety Ibraheim Campbell has 25 starts to his credit, and was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year, finishing with 89 tackles and 14 passes defensed (including two INTs). Sophomore Traveon Henry seems to be in the driver's seat at the other safety spot after playing in 10 games and notching 23 tackles a year ago.
Cornerback Blake Countess returns after being lost for the season against Alabama last year. He started six games as a freshman in 2011, and was slated to be the team's top guy last season. Raymon Taylor started 11 games last year in Countess's place, and had his ups and downs. Thomas Gordon returns, though he'll move to strong safety and be asked to make plays like Jordan Kovacs used to. Jarrod Wilson is expected to be the other safety. He was a liability at times as a true freshman last year, but should be much better as a sophomore. Courtney Avery will provide depth at cornerback, but watch for freshman Dymonte Thomas to be involved at nickel back very early on.
The Hoosiers essentially return everybody from their secondary last season. Junior cornerback Brian Williams finished with 58 tackles and nine passes defensed. Antonio Marshall started the final seven games last year at corner after taking some time to adjust as a junior college transfer. He intercepted two passes a year ago. Safety Greg Heban led the Hoosiers with 91 tackles, 11 passes defensed and three interceptions. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, and should merit recognition again this year. Junior Mark Murphy begins his third season as a starter. There are three others filling out the depth chart with starting experience.
Minnesota returns a pair of safeties with starting experience. Brock Vereen started seven games last season, and Cedric Thompson started eight. However, they only started together twice, so there will still be a learning curve when it comes to communication. Cornerback Derrick Wells was very productive as a sophomore last season, starting 11 games and finishing with 74 tackles, 12 passes defensed and two interceptions. He is the leading returning tackler, along with linebacker Aaron Hill. Sophomore cornerback Eric Murray didn't play much last season, but he was the talk of the spring among the defensive backs. There is some pretty good depth here as well.
Last year, the Iowa defense allowed opponents to complete 63.5% of their passes, which was the highest in school history. This year, they replace two starters and will try to get much better. Cornerback B.J. Lowery is back, but his four passes defensed is unremarkable. Jordan Lomax is likely the other cornerback, but he missed all of 2012 with an injury. Senior safety Tanner Miller had a promising 2011, but struggled in coverage last season. Improvement is needed here, or the promising talent up front could be wasted. Nico Law started the last four games at the other safety spot last year as a sophomore. He was green then, he's a little less green now.
Wisconsin returns just one starter in their secondary from last season. Dezmen Southward started all 14 games for the Badgers last season, finishing fourth on the team with 69 tackles, and second with eight tackles for loss. The other safety will either be Michael Trotter, who has three career starts, or Michael Caputo, who has one. Both have their faults. Both cornerback jobs are open, and there are three main candidates. Darius Hillary was the nickel back as a redshirt freshman last year. Peniel Jean was the nickel back in 2011. Together, they are the most experienced corners on the team. True freshman Sojourn Shelton enrolled early and had a solid spring.
Rating the Big Ten Quarterbacks
In terms of experience, there almost isn't any when it comes to the Illinois secondary. Safety Earnest Thomas returns, and he started nine games last year and finished fourth on the team with 69 tackles. After him however there's little else. The cornerback jobs are wide open. Sophomore Eaton Spence started twice last year. Fellow sophomore V'Angelo Bentley played in all 12 games last year as a true freshman. The safety job next to Thomas is also anybody's guess. Junior college transfer Zane Petty enrolled early and may have an edge. Three other defensive backs also enrolled early and participated in spring football, so a freshman may emerge as a starter somewhere as well.
Rating the Big Ten Running Backs
Rating the Big Ten Receivers and Tight Ends
Rating the Big Ten Offensive Lines
Rating the Big Ten Defensive Lines
Rating the Big Ten Linebackers
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