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. None of the four belong to the Big Ten West.
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. Wisconsin Badgers (48)
All-Big Ten safety D’Cota Dixon is gone, but there is a bunch of experience — including experienced youth — returning. Five cornerbacks with starting experience are back, as are two safeties. Generally with that many corners getting starts, it means that the Badgers could never find a lineup that worked, or they dealt with injuries. There was a bit of both, but they will definitely need to improve their consistency this season. The expected starters are sophomores Faion Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose. Wildgoose started seven games last year, finishing with 29 tackles. Hicks started 11 games and ended up with 35 tackles and a pick. Sophomore Deron Harrell also started five games last year at corner for the Badgers. At safety, Scott Nelson started eight games and tallied 41 tackles, six PBUs, and an interception last year as a freshman. Junior Eric Burrell started six games, picking up 42 tackles and an interception over the course of the season. The Badgers were in the middle of the pack last year in Big Ten pass defenses. With so much experience returning, they need to be better than that this year.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes (41)
Iowa loses a playmaker in nickel back Amani Hooker and leading tackler in free safety Jake Gervase, but return five other players with starting experience. Injuries to cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia allowed freshmen Riley Moss and Julius Brents to get starts last year. All four return this season and expectations are high for Hankins and Ojemudia. Redshirt freshman DJ Johnson will also be involved this season. He was previously talked about here with the linebackers because of his possibility as the starting nickel, but his size (5-11 183) isn’t all that hybrid nickel/linebacker-like. Junior safety Geno Stone started eight games last season, finishing with 39 tackles and tying for the team-high with four interceptions. Sophomore Kaevon Marriweather looks like the heir apparent to the departed Gervase. He played in nine games last season as a true freshman, tallying one tackle. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten with 20 interceptions last season and were third in pass efficiency defense behind Michigan and Penn State.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers (38)
The Gophers lose two players with starting experience, including safety Jacob Huff, who finished second on the team with 93 tackles. The good news, however, is that six players with starting experience return, including budding star Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield started nine games as a true freshman in 2016, but has started just eight times in the two seasons since because of injuries. In four games last season, Winfield finished with 17 tackles and an interception. He also had a punt return touchdown. Next to him will be sophomore Jordan Howden, who started five games and totaled 45 tackles last year as a true freshman. He had some rough moments last season, but that’s to be expected for a true freshman. Four cornerbacks with starting experience will fill out the two-deep. Sophomore Terell Smith started nine games and had 43 tackles, eight PBUs, and an interception last year as a true freshman. Junior Coney Durr started nine games last year, finishing with 36 tackles, five PBUs, and a pair of interceptions. Senior Chris Williamson started four games last year after transferring from Florida. The Gophers finished tenth in the league in pass efficiency defense last year.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers (47)
The Huskers must replace both starting safeties from last season, but there is still plenty to like here. Cornerbacks Lamar Jackson and DiCaprio Bootle return. Bootle was a third-team all-conference pick last year following a season where he started every game, came up with 39 tackles, and led the Big Ten with 15 PBUs. Jackson is a unique cornerback at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He tied for the team lead with two interceptions last season. Sophomore Cam Taylor played in every game last year as a true freshman and should be a jack-of-all-trades nickel for the Huskers this year. The safeties look like juniors Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke. Williams was the Huskers’ nickel back last year after transferring from junior college. He played plenty, so this won’t be new to him. Dismuke started once as a freshman and tallied 34 tackles. Last year was a bit of a backslide for him. He played in eight games and totaled 10 tackles. This is a very athletic group overall. They got better as the year went on in 2018, but they’ll need to be at their best a little sooner than they were a year ago.
5. Northwestern Wildcats (42)
Northwestern gave up 801 yards passing in two postseason games last year, and now they’ve lost First-Team All-Big Ten cornerback Monte Hartage and starting safety Jared McGee. Senior cornerback Trae Williams returns. He has been starting since his freshman season. He needs to play his best this season and find some consistency. Sophomore Greg Newsome started four games at cornerback last year as a true freshman, totaling 23 tackles and four PBUs. Both corners have good size. Depth would be nice, but it’s still a work in progress. Junior JR Pace is a very good safety. He started every game last season, finishing third on the team with 82 tackles. He also had 4.5 tackles for loss and led the team with four interceptions. Junior Travis Whillock is a willing tackler. He put up 57 tackles and four PBUs last year, mostly off the bench. Northwestern’s defense faced 505 passes last season, which was the most in the nation. That’s life when you are a good rush defense, however. Can they make more plays with all of those passes this season? They’ll need to.
6. Purdue Boilermakers (39)
The Boilers must replace 2.5 starters from last season, but there are a number of options here to get that done. Senior safety Navon Mosley is the leader. He has 35 career starts to his credit and finished second on the team with 93 tackles last season. He is solid in run support, but they could use more impact in the passing game from him. Sliding in next to him will be junior Brennan Thineman or possibly redshirt freshman Cory Trice. Thieneman is being worked back from a broken ankle last season. He has been repping with the ones and twos throughout camp. A pair of sophomores look like the starters at cornerback. Kenneth Major started seven games last season, picking up 55 tackles, two PBUs, and three interceptions. Dedrick Mackey is the other expected corner. He played in every game last season, breaking up two passes. True freshman safeties Marvin Grant and Jalen Graham have received some hype this summer. Purdue had a Big Ten-worst five interceptions in conference play last season. There are some very good athletes in this two-deep, but they need to make some plays.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini (37)
Essentially five starters return. Junior cornerback Nate Hobbs has 17 career starts, but only broke up one pass last year and finished with one interception. Still, he’s got experience and he’s a year older. Sophomore cornerback Jartavius Martin started eight games last season, intercepting three passes, breaking up three others, and finishing with 42 tackles as a true freshman. He may be ready to take a big step forward. Junior safety Tony Adams started seven games last season, finishing with 43 tackles, 4 PBUs and one interception. He and senior safety Stanley Green provide a veteran presence. Green has started seven games in each of his first three seasons. He finished fourth on the team last year with 58 tackles. He may be a reserve, however, because sophomore safety Sydney Brown is a disruptor as well. He finished with three fewer tackles last Green last year, starting 10 games as a true freshman. Consistency is key here. There are players, but they need to improve on their last-place Big Ten finish in pass efficiency defense and a league-worst 30 touchdown passes allowed.
Big Ten Ratings
Defensive Backs — East |