After a little bit of a break from our annual Big Ten ratings, we now turn to the defense.
With college football being more and more of an offensive game, the defenses that can actually hold their own are always going to have an advantage. Those who cannot, better be able to score more than the average team.
Containing those offenses begins up front, which is also where we will begin our positional ratings on defense.
Two All-Big Ten defensive linemen from last season return in the East in Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes.
They are joined by Ohio State defensive end Chase Young from the Second Team and Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams on the third team.
Losses have been significant for a number of teams, including the consensus Big Ten favorite Michigan Wolverines.
(The numbers in parentheses are the number of recruiting stars on the roster at defensive end and defensive tackle.)
1. Michigan State Spartans (50)
Michigan State’s defensive lines take a bit longer to come together, so when they return all four starters from the No. 1 rush defense in the nation, they’re going to be at the top of these ratings. They may not have all of the individual pieces that Ohio State has, but that doesn’t matter when they play together as one. Senior defensive end Kenny Willekes led the conference with 20.5 tackles for loss last season. Defensive tackle Raequan Williams has 29 career starts and is a stalwart against the run. He can also get into the backfield, as his 10.5 tackles for loss last season showed. Next to him once again is senior Mike Panasiuk, who also has 29 career starts. Junior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk picked up a pair of sacks in 11 starts last year. Junior defensive tackle Naquan Jones is big (6-4 340) and provides depth up the middle. Some young depth on the edges will need to emerge. Being MSU, it probably will.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions (69)
Penn State led the nation last year with 3.62 sacks per game, and 7.5 of those departed to the NFL with defensive end Shareef Miller. First-Team All-Big Ten defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos returns, as do his 54 tackles, 8.0 sacks, and 20.0 tackles for loss. A true junior, Gross-Matos is one of the most productive defenders in the nation, but he’ll have more attention focused his way this season. Junior defensive end Shaka Toney had five sacks last season. There are also young defensive ends on the roster looking to come out of nowhere the way Gross-Matos did last year. Senior defensive tackle Robert Windsor is one of the most active interior defenders in the Big Ten. He finished with 7.5 sacks and 39 tackles last year. Junior Antonio Shelton is the expected nose tackle. He started once last year. James Franklin has recruited well and there is talent all over the place, but this group needs to do better against the run than they did a year ago.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (67)
The Buckeyes return three starters from last season, including junior defensive end Chase Young, who tied for the Big Ten lead with 10.5 sacks last season. Young is arguably the best player in the conference. Opposite him is senior Jonathon Cooper, who picked up 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss last season. This is his contract year and he is expecting to increase his production. Nose tackles Robert Landers and Davon Hamilton return. Landers has been the starter since last season, but they split the reps fairly evenly. They are backed up by sophomore Tommy Togiai, who is the strongest player on the team. Finding a replacement for Dre’Mont Jones will be the key. Fifth-year senior Jashon Cornell and sophomore Taron Vincent are the two favorites, and both are former 5-star recruits. Sophomore defensive end Tyreke Smith will be in the DE rotation. Finding room for 5-star freshman defensive end Zach Harrison is going to be difficult.
4. Michigan Wolverines (61)
Last year’s starting defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are gone, as is starting nose tackle Bryan Mone. Defensive tackle Carlo Kemp is the lone starter returning. He finished with 17 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss last season at a position that needs to be more active this year. They do add Central Michigan graduate transfer Mike Danna at defensive end. He was third in the MAC last season with 9.5 sacks and tied for fourth with 15.0 tackles for loss. Junior Kwity Paye and sophomore Aidan Hutchinson will combine with Danna to give the Wolverines a trio of pass rushers who have at least seen some action. Hutchinson may be the best of the bunch. The interior could be an issue, however. Sophomore Donovan Jeter and junior Michael Dwumfour are not new, but they both need to take the next step and become some of the Big Ten’s best defensive tackles. Freshman Chris Hinton could figure in somewhere as well.
5. Maryland Terrapins (37)
The Terps are moving to a 3-4 defense. They will also be employing a Jack linebacker, which we’ll just consider a defensive end for our purposes here. That person will probably be sophomore Durell Nchami, who played in 10 games last year and came up with 15 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 1 sack. Senior defensive end Brett Kulka missed last year, but has six starts to his credit. Sophomore Lawtez Rotgers could also be an option outside. Veteran defensive tackles Oluwaseun Oluwatimi, Adam McLean, and Keiron Howard have been around forever and seen it all. The Terps were down the board in stopping the run last year, but finished 7th in the Big Ten with 4.4 yards per carry allowed. Only Rutgers (16) had fewer sacks than Maryland’s 18 last year. A new defense is being brought in, so it may take a while before players are 100% comfortable.
6. Indiana Hoosiers (48)
The Indiana defensive line loses three players who started at least four games last season, but still return three who started at least seven games. Senior defensive ends Gavin Everett and Allen Stallings combined for 17 starts and 2.5 sacks last season. Junior defensive tackle Jerome Johnson is active, notching 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks last season. Some junior college transfers are expected to help on the interior as well. The Hoosiers finished 10th in the Big Ten in rush defense last season, but they have the experience returning that could improve that number. They were sixth in the conference in sacks per game in conference play (1.89), but no Hoosier player had more than Jerome Johnson’s 3.5 sacks. Depth is also a question mark. Freshman defensive end Beau Robbins is the lone 4-star prospect on the defensive line.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (41)
There is one former 4-star recruit on the Rutgers defensive line, which is 12 fewer than Ohio State has on theirs. That former 4-star recruit is sophomore nose tackle Micah Clark, who actually moved over from the offensive line. Two starters return from a defensive line that finished second-to-last against the run in the Big Ten last year (214.8 ypg) and dead last in sacks (1.33/gm). Junior defensive end Elorm Lumor led the team last year with seven tackles for loss and four sacks. He was joined at the top of the sack leaderboard by true freshman defensive end Mike Tverdov. Together, they will need to set a disruptive tone for the defense as a whole. On the interior, starter Julius Turner is back, but he is undersized. Senior Willington Previlon has started six games over the last two seasons, so he has experience. There just isn’t that much production here and every guy on the line has to become an overachiever.