It’s been almost two weeks since I last did a Big Ten position ratings, but we’re going to have to power through over these next five days so that I can let you know what’s going to happen in the B1G before game week really gets underway.
When I last left you, we rated the Big Ten’s linebackers, which now takes us to the defensive backfield. Like every position so far, only a few players who received All-Conference recognition return from last season. Players will emerge — much like Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore did for the Buckeyes, but knowing who those players are is proving difficult.
Let’s get to it.
Big Ten West
Northwestern brings back an astonishing amount of experience in the secondary. Safety Godwin Igwebuike is the leader of the group, having compiled 31 career starts. He was a Second-Team All-B1G selection last year. Fellow safety Kyle Queiro picked up 53 tackles and eight PBUs last year. Cornerback Monte Hartage was an Honorable Mention All-B1G pick last season. His five interceptions were second-most in the conference. The other corner spot could shuffle, as it may be manned by experienced players with injury histories.
The Badgers return a pair of starters from last season, and their two new starters have plenty of experience. Senior cornerback Derrick Tindal has started 20 games in his career. He defended 14 passes last season, which was more than any of Ohio State’s first-round draft picks. Strong safety D’Cota Dixon finished with 60 tackles last season. Former Hawaii transfer cornerback Nick Nelson is one to watch. He sat out last season but was stellar on scout team. Senior Natrell Jamerson has a couple of starts in his career, but has played extensively.
The Huskers were dealt a blow when senior cornerback Chris Jones suffered a meniscus injury. He had started 20 games over the previous two seasons. He isn’t expected back until November. Joshua Kalu has moved from corner to safety and the expectations are very high for him. He has 28 starts to his credit and he will be put in a position to make plays this season. Somebody will need to step up for Jones, but there are a number of options. Junior Aaron Williams and senior Kieron Williams are both veteran safeties with much starting experience.
The Illini return several players who have started games here and there, which usually means that a team is having trouble finding consistency. Sophomore free safety Stanley Green started the final seven games last year as a freshman and forced three fumbles. Patrick Nelson had 75 tackles at safety as a redshirt freshman last year. Neither Green or Nelson had an interception, however. Senior Jaylen Dunlap is an experienced starter at corner, but he has yet to intercept a pass as well. Who knows what’s going on at the other corner spot.
Antoine Winfield Jr. was a huge help at safety last year as a true freshman. He finished fifth on the team with 52 tackles. He is one of just two starters returning this year, though the Gophers do have three safeties with significant starting experience. Next to Winfield will likely be Duke McGhee, who started half the games and picked up 54 tackles. The cornerback situation is not good. What it lacks in experience, it makes up for in lack of depth.
Senior strong safety Miles Taylor is the lone starter returning, and the Hawkeyes wouldn’t be terribly upset if somebody can unseat him. Junior Jake Gervase is a former walk-on who will likely be at free safety. He finished with four tackles last year. The cornerbacks are less experienced, but there is potential. Sophomore Manny Rugamba could be the next great Iowa corner — he started three games as a true freshman last year and wasn’t overmatched. Junior Joshua Jackson is a big corner (6-1 192) who started once last year.
As you might expect, things aren’t all that peachy in the Purdue secondary. Or maybe — just maybe — things are getting better. A pair of starters — safety Navon Mosley and cornerback Tim Cason — have seemingly lost their spots to other players. Senior cornerback Da’Wan Hunte was the lone starter to keep his job. Safety Jacob Thieneman is a former walk-on and he looks to have secured a spot. Junior college transfer T.J. Jallow could be the other safety. A lot has to come together for this group.
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return two starters from last season’s outstanding secondary. Cornerback Denzel Ward split time three ways with first-round corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Free safety Damon Webb started every game last season, finishing fifth on the team with 57 tackles. The strong safety spot is still up in the air between senior Erick Smith and sophomore Jordan Fuller. Redshirt sophomores Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette will round out yet another starting trio at cornerback for Ohio State. A freshman could make that a foursome.
Indiana returns an oaken bucketful of starters in the secondary, and we’re not even counting hybrid defender Marcelino Ball. Senior Rashard Fant may be the best cornerback in the conference. He was a Second-Team All-B1G selection last year. Andre Brown started eight games at corner in 2015, but missed last year. A’Shon Riggins took his place last year as a true freshman and played well. Safety Jonathan Crawford has 147 tackles in his first two seasons. Senior Tony Fields is battling senior Chase Dutra at the other safety spot. Fields started every game last year. Dutra has eight starts and 95 tackles the last two years. The experience here is impressive.
3. Penn State
The star here for the Nittany Lions is safety Marcus Allen, who has 33 career starts to his credit. He is an All-American candidate who finished with 110 tackles last year, but zero interceptions. Senior Troy Apke is next to him, but he has been inconsistent and has just two career starts. Senior cornerback Grant Haley has two seasons of starting experience and two career interceptions. Starting cornerback John Reid injured his knee and could be done for the season. Christian Campbell spent his first three years as a backup. He could be counted on. Keep an eye on true freshman Lamont Wade, who was a 5-star prospect in the 2017 recruiting class.
The Terps return three starters and may be in the process of moving one of them to a more versatile role. Safety Darnell Savage finished third on the team with 59 tackles, but has been playing a nickel role during camp. That leaves the two safety spots possibly completely up in the air, though senior Josh Woods started a handful of games last year. Cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Tino Ellis have secured starting jobs. Jackson started 11 games last year for the Terps. He is a transfer from Florida. Solid recruiting could also bolster this group this year too.
The Wolverines must replace all four starters in the secondary and none of the projected replacements have much playing experience. The starting four seems pretty well set, however, which would speak to their stellar play to this point in camp. Junior free safety Tyree Kinnell has about as much experience as a new starter could. Sophomore Josh Metellus is the other safety. Neither have been tested consistently, but they are still much more battle-tested than the cornerbacks. Sophomores David Long and Lavert Hill are out front, but have just 12 games experience combined. There will be some breakdowns early. Will Don Brown have to dial down the front seven until the secondary solidifies?
The Scarlet Knights return a pair of cornerbacks who are each heading into their third season as starters. They had games where they didn’t give up a lot of passing yards, but don’t get confused by that. In the game where Michigan scored 78 points, the Wolverines only threw for 119 yards. Still, juniors Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin have experienced everything in their time at Rutgers, and they can use that experience to their advantage. Safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton have experience as well, but they need more consistency.
7. Michigan State
There aren’t a lot of starts here, but there is experience. Sophomore Justin Layne started five games last year at cornerback as a true freshman. He continues to impress. The other cornerback could very well be true freshman Josiah Scott, who was solid in the spring as well. Both safeties from last season will need to be replaced, but they can do that with veteran backups Khari Willis and Grayson Miller, who both have starting experience. It will be interesting to see if the Spartans can get back to their old ways of being pretty good in the backfield.