In order to win the Big Ten West, you don’t necessarily have to have the best secondary in the division. The West, after all, isn’t exactly known for its dynamic passing attacks.
But if you have the worst secondary, you might be screwed.
There are many unknowns throughout the defensive back groups here. In fact, ranking one of these secondaries at the top is very misleading. In a typical year, any of these teams could find themselves ranked anywhere from third to sixth.
Recruiting continues to pick up for every program in the west. That may not be much help this year, but moving forward when teams are replacing starters, they may have more options than ever before to find their best replacements.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin will need to replace three talented starters from last season, and they’ll be doing it with youth. That is not often a great combination of events. All-Big Ten safety D’Cota Dixon returns for his senior season, so that’s a good start. At the free safety spot opposite him will likely be redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. Nelson redshirted last season due to a hamstring injury, but defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard swears by Nelson’s preparation. Sophomore corner Dontye Carriere-Williams (5-10 185) started five games last year as the team’s nickel back and picked up 30 tackles, six PBUs, and one interception. Sophomore Madison Cone (5-9 178) could be at the other corner, but he’ll be challenged by players just as young as he is. Wisconsin had the No. 1 pass efficiency defense in the nation last year. Good luck matching that number this year.
2. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern is dealing with the loss of both starting safeties, yet they return quite a bit of experience at cornerback. Senior corner Montre Hartage enters his third year as a starter. He had 57 tackles, seven PBUs, and three interceptions last season. Next to him could be junior Trae Williams, who has 12 starts over the last two years. Or junior Alonzo Mayo who has five starts the last two seasons. Senior Jared McGee has five career starts at safety and is expected to secure one of the jobs this season. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he is a big hitter, but not necessarily designed to be the last line of defense for Northwestern. J.R. Pace had two interceptions as a true freshman last season and he could be the deep guy for the Wildcats in 2018.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers
There are concerns here, but there are also possibilities in the Minnesota secondary this year. Redshirt sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. returns, and he could very well be the Gophers’ best player. He missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. If senior Jacob Huff is at safety instead of nickel back, then he and Winfield could pair together for a pretty good duo. Huff was third on the team last year with 65 tackles. Sophomore corner Kiondre Thomas started six games last season and P.J. Fleck is high on him. Junior corner Chris Williamson transferred to Minnesota last year from Florida, so you know he must be good. The Gophers allowed just 174.5 passing yards per game, but that was mostly because B1G teams were averaging 5.3 yards per carry against the Minnesota defense.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes are replacing First-Team All-American cornerback Joshua Jackson, which isn’t going to be easy. They also must replace starting strong safety Miles Taylor. Junior Amani Hooker should be the guy at strong safety. He started six games there a year ago and finished fifth on the team with 56 tackles. Senior Jake Gervase started 10 games at free safety a year ago and got better as the year went on. He was fourth on the team with 58 tackles and second with three interceptions. Senior Brandon Snyder is also back after missing last season — he started 13 games at safety in 2016. The situation at corner is going to be a question mark, however. Matt Hankins is likely one starter — he started twice last season as a true freshman. The other spot, however, will be a battle throughout fall camp. Junior Manny Rugamba started eight games a year ago.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue returns both starting safeties but may be starting a pair of redshirt freshmen at cornerback. Senior safety Jacob Thieneman finished third on the team with 80 tackles last season. Next to him is junior Navon Mosley, who finished with 65 tackles and a pair of interceptions. This is Mosley’s third year as a starter and second with Thineman. They believe they have elite communication skills, which is key for successful safety duos. Redshirt freshman cornerback Dedrick Mackey was the scout team defensive player of the year. Fellow redshirt freshman Kenneth Major may be the best athlete in the secondary. There are veterans who could emerge here as well. Senior Tim Cason started seven games in 2016. Purdue allowed 242.5 yards passing last season, which was 13th in the B1G. That number has to improve this year.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois is replacing two starters in the secondary but they still return four players with significant starting experience. Junior safety Stanley Green finished second on the team with 70 tackles last year. He was named Honorable Mention All-B1G. Next to him is sophomore Bennett Williams, who started seven games last year and finished fifth on the team with 64 tackles. He led the team with three interceptions. He was named a Freshman All-American. Sophomore corner Nate Hobbs started 10 games last season as a true freshman. Junior Cameron Watkins split his seven starts last year between nickel and corner. Sophomore Tony Adams is also a possibility at corner or nickel. Illinois was one of just six B1G teams last year to hold opponents until 200 yards passing per game. Their pass efficiency defense, however, was 13th in the B1G. Teams simply chose to run the ball on the Illini last year to the tune of 230 yards per game in conference play.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska’s pass efficiency defense was dead last in the Big Ten last season, but a coaching change and the return of plenty of starters should make them at least upper end of the lower half of the B1G this year. At cornerback, junior Lamar Jackson, sophomore DiCaprio Bootle, and junior Eric Lee all notched starts last season, but none of them came away with even one interception in 2017. They only combined for five PBUs. This is why new secondary coach Travis Fisher explained to his veterans that there are talented freshmen who don’t have to wait. “They’re not here to be babysat. They’re here to take over this deal,” he told his entire secondary this spring. Safety Aaron Williams has started 23 games over his first three years. He provides a veteran presence to a unit in search of leaders. Senior Antonio Reed looks like the other safety. He started five games last year, finishing with 42 tackles and an interception.
2018 Big Ten Ratings
Defensive Backs — East |