There are a large number of starters returning at defensive line throughout the Big Ten West, but while experience is nice, talent and production need to improve.
There are only two returning defensive linemen in the Big Ten West who earned as much as second or third-team All-B1G selection last year.
New stars will need to emerge. The school with the most defensive linemen stepping up will have a significant say in how the conference turns out this year.
1. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern defensive end Joe Gaziano led the Big Ten with 9.0 sacks last season as a sophomore. He also added a dozen quarterback hurries. Needless to say, expectations are high for what he will do this season. His bookend is sophomore Sam Miller, who was an Honorable Mention All-B1G selection with 5.5 sacks as a true freshman. There is depth behind them as well. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson has 24 starts to his credit. Junior defensive tackle Alex Miller is the only new starter on the line. Northwestern finished ninth in the nation against the run last year (107.7 yards/game), and the front four will continue to set the tone this year as well.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Three starters return to an Iowa defensive line that led the Hawkeyes to middle-of-the-pack finishes in rushing, sacks, and tackles for loss. But that’s maybe a bit more indicative of Iowa’s style of defense rather than their talent up front. Junior defensive end Anthony Nelson (6-7 271) was a Third-Team All-B1G selection last year. He had 7.5 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries last season. Across from him will be senior Parker Hesse, who has 34 career starts, and also sophomore A.J. Epenesa. Epenese is a former 5-star signee and the highest-ranked recruit Iowa has landed in 13 years. He finished with 4.5 sacks last year and will be part of the rotation this year. Veterans Matt Nelson and Cedrick Lattimore each started over six games last year inside. There are depth concerns, but overall the expectations are high for the entire front.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers return just one starter on the defensive line, but it’s not as bad as it could be since Wisconsin runs a 3-4 defense. Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu is back for his third year as a starter. A big fella, Sagapolu (6-2 338) finished with 17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks last year. To each side of him there will be new starters, but those new starters do have experience. Sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk (6-7 297) played in 11 games last year, picking up 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks. On the other side is junior Garrett Rand, who has 28 games under his belt. Loudermilk and Rand are replacing some very talented and productive players. They need to step up. Depth is a concern here, but they always seem to have big bodies waiting in the wings in Wisconsin.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota returns four players with starting experience, but only junior defensive end Carter Coughlin was a full-time starter last year. Coughlin was a blue-chip linebacker with all kinds of offers back in high school, but stayed home to play for the Gophers. He earned Honorable Mention All-B1G notice last year with 37 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 11.5 tackles for loss. He is fast and active and getting more complete as a defensive lineman. Junior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere has started five games in each of the last two seasons. Defensive tackles Gary Moore and Nate Umlor each started at least five times last year as well. Defensive tackle O.J. Smith is an Alabama transfer who sat out last season. Minnesota allowed 5.3 yards per carry in B1G play and 210 yards rushing per game. That’s not good. Maybe O.J. Smith helps that.
5. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska is one of two teams in the B1G West that runs a 3-4. After making the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 before last season, the Huskers come into this season with all three starters returning, and now they have had a full year of experience in a new system. After allowing a Big Ten-worst 5.7 yards per carry last year, things can only get better this time around. Senior defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun has 29 starts in his career, but managed just one tackle for loss last year. Junior defensive end Carlos Davis was more productive, with 42 tackles and four tackles for loss. Nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg has been around forever, and backup Peyton Newell has seen a ton of action as well. Only Illinois gave up more yards rushing in the B1G last year than Nebraska’s 214.8 yards per game. Things will be better, but to what degree?
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
Lovie Smith’s youth movement will hopefully pay dividends this season. Rather than rely on unproductive veterans last season, Smith turned to his underclassmen in order to be a bit more ready in 2018. Illinois now has five defensive linemen with starting experience. Those five linemen were part of a defense that allowed 230 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play, however. Sophomore defensive ends Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree, and Jamal Woods all started games last season. Roundtree was the most productive with 50 tackles and four sacks. Junior defensive tackles Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, and Jamal Milan all started as well last year. There will likely be a rotation this season, but that will mostly be because the Illini are looking to find their most productive players.
7. Purdue Boilermakers
While there is momentum with the Purdue football program right now, it is going to be difficult for the Boilermaker defensive line to keep up this year. Three starters depart, as do the top two backups. Junior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal, who was Honorable Mention All-B1G last year, is the only starter back. He finished with 22 tackles, 2.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. The rest, however, is a bit of a mystery. On the interior there are seven total tackles returning. No, not tackles as in defensive tackles — tackles as in the thing defenders do to stop the ball. At defensive end, there is youth upon youth. Redshirt freshmen Giovanni Reviere and Robert McWilliams are going to be leaned on to produce. Former junior college transfer Kai Higgins will also be counted on outside as well.
2018 Big Ten Ratings
Defensive Line — East |