The last line of defense can cover up for a lot of weaknesses. Or it can expose them even more.
With solid tackling and coverage, half the battle is essentially won.
It’s easier than it sounds, however, because the players they are trying to defend are pretty good themselves.
Looking at the returning talent, only one First-Team All-Big Ten selection from last season returns. There are three members of the second team back as well. All four belong to the Big Ten East.
Overall, this isn’t a bad group of defensive backs and there is a bunch of experience here as well.
(The numbers in parentheses are the total number of recruiting stars at that position.)
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (57)
Ohio State returns two of their three cornerbacks from last season who were part of a 3-man rotation. In essence, they return two starters, even though junior Jeff Okudah started just one game last year. Okudah is looking to join the list of great Ohio State cornerbacks. He did not have an interception last year, but broke up eight passes. Fifth-year senior Damon Arnette will be the other cornerback. This is his third season as a starter. He has not been perfect in his career, but new secondary coach Jeff Hafley cannot talk highly enough of Arnette’s play and maturity. This is a new and flexible defensive scheme, but it looks like redshirt sophomore Shaun Wade is the nickel corner, which may also technically be a strong safety. He led the team with three interceptions last year. Senior Jordan Fuller returns for his third year of starting. He tied for the team lead with 81 tackles last season. All four players mentioned so far are All-Big Ten contenders. Sophomore Josh Proctor could factor in at safety, as could junior Isaiah Pryor. Proctor earned a comparison to former Buckeye Malik Hooker recently. The Buckeyes will be mixing and disguising coverages, which has led to increased turnovers created in camp.
2. Michigan State Spartans (47)
Michigan State must replace a third-team all-conference safety and a second-team all-conference cornerback, but expectations are high that they’ll be able to pull it off. Sophomore Xavier Henderson is stepping in at strong safety for Khari Willis. As a true freshman last year, he played in every game and posted 15 tackles. Senior cornerback Josh Butler looks like the next guy up at cornerback, replacing Justin Layne. He has started nine games the last two seasons and been more than acceptable. Expect his best in his final season. The other corner is junior Josiah Scott, who started 12 games as a freshman in 2017 and was a third-team all-conference pick. He missed the first eight games of last season, but bounced back in a good way. Scott is expected to be one of the Big Ten’s best this season. Senior free safety David Dowell was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection in 2017 and a third-teamer last year. Does that make him a second-team guy this year? A third corner and a third safety will likely step up. If MSU is again stout against the run, then throwing may be the only other option for opposing offenses.
3. Michigan Wolverines (41)
First-Team All-Big Ten cornerback Lavert Hill returns for his senior season. He only had 14 tackles, five PBUs, and one interception last year, which gives you an idea of how little he was targeted. He turned down the NFL for one last go with the Wolverines. Finding somebody opposite of him is still a process. It was slated to be junior Ambry Thomas, but he is currently dealing with colitis and his season is in question. Redshirt freshman Vincent Gray looks like the next guy up — or the only other guy available. Junior Jalyen Kelly-Powell will also be involved and could end up as a nickel. Senior safety Josh Metellus has started 24 games over the last two seasons and was a second-team all-conference selection last year. The other safety spot is still a concern. Junior Brad Hawkins — a former receiver — was leading as of a week or so ago. Junior J’Marick Woods is a big option (6-3 210), but has not done much in his career. Freshman Daxton Hill was a 5-star safety signee and is an incredible athlete who could end up at safety, corner, or nickel. Or all three. There is potential, but can it outrace the issues?
4. Penn State Nittany Lions (59)
Penn State loses a starting cornerback and safety from last year, but they will replace them with experienced upperclassmen. Junior safety Lamont Wade — who put his name in the transfer portal earlier in the year before backing out — could be the guy at strong safety. He was a former 5-star cornerback in the 2017 recruiting class. He played in every game last year, posting 18 tackles. The other new starter is junior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who started twice last year and put up 32 tackles and seven PBUs. He should be able to step right in and provide a veteran presence in a secondary full of guys like him. Senior free safety Garrett Taylor started 12 games last year, finishing with 71 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, seven PBUs, and a team-high three interceptions. Senior cornerback John Reid has 27 career starts. He broke up eight passes last season and picked off two passes. There are also some intriguing players looking to provide depth. Junior college safety Jaquan Brisker wasn’t brought over to simply watch. In fact, he is in a battle with Wade for a starting spot right now. Sophomore safety Jonathan Sutherland started once last year and finished with 38 tackles off the bench. The safeties are here, but can the corners go three deep?
5. Maryland Terrapins (51)
Tino Ellis and Marcus Lewis give the Terps a pair of senior cornerbacks with plenty of starting experience. Both are 6-foot-1 and over 190 pounds, so they have the size to match up against bigger receivers. Can they handle the smaller guys too? Ellis broke up 11 passes and intercepted one last year. There is still a competition going on at free safety between sophomore Jordan Mosley, freshman Nick Cross, and sophomore Deon Jones. Mosley played linebacker last year, but was pretty good. Cross was one of the top safeties in the 2019 class, but he is still learning. Strong safety will be senior Antoine Brooks, who was a second-team all-conference selection last year as a hybrid safety/linebacker in Maryland’s old defense. He should be just fine at strong safety. Sophomore Kenny Bennett is looking like the nickel, and at 6-foot-2, he gives the Terps another big defender. With so many big corners and two safeties who played quite a bit of linebacker last year, how is this group going to do against quick receivers, of which they are many in the Big Ten East?
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (38)
As is the case with most things at Rutgers, the secondary is in a bit of a flux. Malik Dixon looks like the starting safety, but he’s been moved from linebacker and also missed the entire season last year due to suspension. He hasn’t played in a game since junior college. But he’s 6-foot-3 and physical and athletic, so we’ll see. Senior cornerback Damon Hayes had to play safety last year, which didn’t go as well as playing cornerback went for him in 2017. Now he’s back at his preferred location and people are talking about him like he will have an NFL future. Sophomore cornerback Avery Young started 11 games last year, putting up 66 tackles and breaking up 10 passes. That’s pretty darn good for a freshman and more is expected this year. Sophomores Jarrett Paul and Tim Barrow are competing for the free safety spot, but both will play. They combined for seven tackles last season. Redshirt freshman Christian Izien will be the fourth safety this year and he will backup Dixon. Another cornerback to know is former Ohio State commitment Tre Avery, now a junior.
7. Indiana Hoosiers (47)
Indiana employs a hybrid linebacker/safety in Marcelino Ball, but for our purposes, he is part of the linebackers. Some of the safeties may also rotate in there, which is pretty annoying when you’re just trying to rate safeties and cornerbacks. We will stick with just the safeties and cornerbacks here, which is still a sizable quantity of options for the Hoosiers. The starting cornerbacks look like senior Andre Brown, who has 29 career starts, and junior Raheem Layne, who started once as a freshman and seven times as a sophomore. They combined for no interceptions last season. Senior safety Khalil Bryant returns after starting nine games last year, but his job is not guaranteed this season. Indiana comes into this season needing to replace the departed Jonathan Crawford, but they could actually end up starting two new safeties. Redshirt sophomore Jawan Burgess played in every game last year and had 25 tackles. Classmate Bryant Fitzgerald led the team with three interceptions. There are many who expect him to win a job. Sophomore Devon Matthews has good size (6-2 200) and is physical.