The secondary is the last line of defense on the football field, and if a team has a great group of defensive backs, they can cover up a lot of problems in the front seven.
Now, no secondary is good enough to defend forever, but since we’re just talking split seconds, a great secondary can make everyone in front of them better.
In the Big Ten East this year, there is a large number of returning starters. Those teams will have an advantage on the teams replacing more than a couple of starters. And with conference play beginning right away again this year, offenses are going to hit the ground passing, so defenses will need to be ready.
Those teams with experience will be better able to handle the early uptick in scheduling. Those teams still looking for answers, however, will need to find them quickly if they are going to keep pace.
1. Michigan Wolverines
Not only does Michigan return everyone in the secondary from last season, but they also add graduate transfer Casey Hughes, who started 11 games at Utah in his three seasons. All four returning starters for the Wolverines earned some form of All-Big Ten mention last season. Junior cornerback Lavert Hill was a Second-Team selection by the coaches, while the other three were Honorable Mention. Cornerbacks Hill and David Long both came up with a pair of interceptions last season. They are aggressive defenders, which they need to be in order to play in Don Brown’s defense. They may be the best cornerback duo in the nation. Senior safety Tyree Kinnel had 68 tackles and two interceptions last season. He can be a big hitter, as he showed Austin Mack last year, but can also be a step late (see: Austin Mack as well). Junior safety Josh Metellus can cover ground and will be even better this year with more experience.
2. Michigan State Spartans
All four members of Michigan State’s 2017 starting secondary return this season and they all earned some form of All-B1G notice last year. Junior free safety David Dowell was a First-Team selection following a 74-tackle season last year. He kind of came out of nowhere last year, but the Spartans don’t expect him to be a one-hit wonder. Senior strong safety Khari Willis was fourth on the team with 71 tackles last year. His four sacks give you an idea of the many different ways he is used in this defense. He was an Honorable Mention All-B1G selection in 2017. Sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott started 12 games last year, breaking up 10 passes and intercepting two more. He was a Third-Team All-B1G honoree. Junior cornerback Justin Layne (6-3 185) has started 14 games over his first two seasons. He finished with 40 tackles and 8 PBUs last year.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes may lose a starting cornerback and a starting safety, but because they run a 3-man rotation at corner, they still have two starters returning there. Junior Damon Arnette was an Honorable Mention All-B1G selection last year, and junior Kendall Sheffield is showing up in 2019 mock drafts. Sophomore Jeff Okudah started the bowl game for Denzel Ward and has already been mentioned as the third guy this year. That group of three corners may grow if second-year players Shaun Wade or Marcus Williamson can make a move. Junior safety Jordan Fuller finished second on the team with 70 tackles last year. He is an elite tackler in space, and will likely move closer to the line of scrimmage, switching from deep safety to free safety this year. The Buckeyes need to find a second starting safety, and sophomore Isaiah Pryor looks like the best bet.
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers returns three starters, but many more players than that with starting experience. At cornerback alone, there are three players with a combined 69 starts. At safety, despite losing starter Kiy Hester, there are still two players with starting experience back. Senior corner Blessuan Austin is essentially a 4-year starter, but he missed the final eight games last season with a torn ACL. He missed spring ball, but the expectations are that he will return to form. Next to him is another 4-year starter at corner in Isaiah Wharton. Wharton broke up nine passes last season. Junior Damon Hayes started the eight games while Austin was out. He broke up 10 passes. Junior safety K.J. Gray started four games last season, yet finished fourth on the team with 58 tackles. There is NFL-potential being talked about where his safety partner is concerned. Senior Saquon Hampton has started 15 games over his first three seasons, finishing with 38 tackles last season.
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State must replace all four starters in the secondary from last season, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye wasn’t a starter, but he still played well enough (28 tackles, 8 PBUs, 4 INTs) to earn Second-Team All-B1G accolades. He’s a big, physical corner (6-1 205) who will be a leader for the Nittany Lion defense this year. Next to him will be senior John Reid, who was a starter in 2016, but missed last year with an ACL tear. Expectations are high for Reid, who has 16 starts to his credit. Junior safety Garrett Taylor has played in 25 games in his career, so he should know what to do, but he does not yet have much production to show for himself. Senior Nick Scott is at the other safety. He finished with 33 tackles in an active role last year. There is other depth here as well.
6. Maryland Terrapins
The Terps have to replace a couple of starters, but return quite a bit of experience, and possibly add a new starter in Florida State cornerback transfer Marcus Lewis. Lewis had a pick six in the Maryland spring game this year and is expected to be a starter. He started 15 times in his first two years at FSU. Junior Tino Ellis started six games last year at corner for Maryland and should be the starter next to Lewis. Ellis broke up five passes last year. Senior safety Darnell Savage is set for his third season as a starter in this defense. He finished with 59 tackles last year and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Strong safety Antoine Richardson started three games last year as a freshman, and picked up a season-high seven tackles against Penn State. The Terps allowed a B1G-high 23 passing touchdowns last season.
7. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana must replace star cornerback Rashard Fant, but they did have a handful of corners who picked up starting experience last season. Junior A’Shon Riggins has started 12 times over the last two years, but needs to develop into a more consistent defender. Junior Andre Brown finished sixth on the team with 33 tackles last year. He has started at least eight games in each of his first two seasons. Sophomore Raheem Layne started once last year and will be counted on again. Senior safety Jonathan Crawford has 38 starts to his credit and 209 career tackles. There is very little that he hasn’t seen at this point. Who will start next to him is still a bit of a mystery, but there are options. The decision likely won’t be made until late in fall camp when the coaching staff has as much information as they can get.