Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams who will face off in the Big Ten Championship Game this December. We’ve made it through quarterbacks, running backs, pass catchers, offensive lines, defensive lines, and linebackers. Now we move to the secondary, starting with the East Division. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
It was not a very good year for pass defense last year in the Big Ten East, which means things can only go up this year.
Starters return everywhere and reinforcements have arrived via the transfer portal. Young players will undoubtedly step up, but the successes and failures will depend on veterans taking big steps forward thanks to a full offseason of development.
There are a lot of questions, a lot of possibilities, and very little clarity on how these ratings should actually go, but it’s too late to stop now.
1. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers must replace their outstanding safety Jamar Johnson, which won’t be easy, but this could still end up being the top secondary in the conference. Indiana may have the best pair of corners in the Big Ten. Junior Tiawan Mullen was a First-Team All-American last year following a season where he came down with three interceptions, 38 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The other corner is senior Jaylin Williams, who was a Second-Team All-B1G selection last year. He finished with four interceptions and 30 tackles. Senior Reese Taylor is another experienced corner for the Hoosiers. Senior safety Devon Matthews started every game last year and finished third on the team with 40 tackles. He earned Third-Team All-Big Ten marks last year. The other safety looks like it will be senior Raheem Layne, who has 13 career starts but missed last year entirely. This should be a very good unit for the Hoosiers.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State has one of the best pairs of cornerbacks in the Big Ten with senior Tariq Castro-Fields and sophomore Joey Porter Jr. Porter started eight of nine games last year and had outstanding moments, earning Third-Team All-Big Ten honors along the way. Castro-Fields missed most of last year with an injury, but when healthy he is productive and aggressive. True freshman Kalen King received high marks for his performance this spring. South Carolina transfer Johnny Dixon will also factor in as a corner or nickel. Senior safety Jaquan Brisker finished third on the team with 57 tackles last year and could line up for significant B1G honors this year. The other safety looks like Ji’Ayir Brown or Keaton Ellis. Most are projecting Brown to start as Ellis may still be floating between corner and safety. Overall, this group has the potential to be the Big Ten’s best, but they still need a few things to fall into place.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes lose Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and All-American cornerback Shaun Wade. Three starters return, but there will still be a number of changes from last year’s secondary. Senior cornerback Sevyn Banks is back and will man one spot. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year and should be much higher on that list this year. Senior Cameron Brown is next in line at the other corner spot, but he’s returning from an Achilles injury. There are four other options to help out as well, including redshirt freshmen Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos. Senior Josh Proctor has moved to free safety. He has a reputation as a football finder. The cover safety appears to be sophomore Lathan Ransom. Graduate senior Marcus Williamson will also figure in somewhere. He started every game last year. The hybrid Bullet has high hopes with redshirt sophomore Craig Young. This could be the B1G’s best secondary.
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers loses just one starter from last year’s secondary as former Buckeye Brendon White has moved on to the NFL. With just that one departure, the Scarlet Knights return a good deal of experience and they also add North Carolina cornerback transfer Patrice Rene. Rene has 26 career starts and is a sixth-year senior. Rutgers’ defense will generally feature five defensive backs and Rene will help them get to that number. Cornerback Tre Avery started all nine games last year, earning Third-Team All-Big Ten notice. Sophomore cornerback Max Melton started six games as a true freshman last year and expectations are high for him this year. Junior safety Christian Izien is back for his third year of starting. He finished third on the team in 2020 with 66 tackles. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year. Senior Avery Young has spent his career as a starting corner but now moves to safety. This could be a top group.
5. Maryland Terrapins
Maryland returns six players with starting experience, losing just one part-time starter from last year. The Terps potentially have one of the best safety duos in the Big Ten. Senior Jordan Mosley came away with 41 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss last year in five games. He was also outstanding again this past spring. Next to him is junior Nick Cross, who started five games as a true freshman and three games last year. Cross only played in four games, but posted 23 tackles, an interception, and a sack. He is one of the team leaders and could be primed for something special in 2021. Sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year as a true freshman. He broke up eight passes in four games in 2020. Junior Deonte Banks has 11 career starts. This group last year has the No. 4 pass efficiency defense in the Big Ten. They do need to turn the ball over more than they did a year ago (2 INTs).
6. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines return all four starters from a secondary last year that allowed a Big Ten-high of 2.2 pass plays of 30+ yards per game. Junior safety Daxton Hill is the star of the group and a legitimate playmaker. He can play any spot in the secondary, but looks to be the deep safety here. Hill was second on the team last year with 46 tackles. He can cover a ton of ground. The other safety is Brad Hawkins, who is a fifth-year guy with nearly 20 career starts. He recorded 39 tackles last year but has been taken advantage of in the passing game over the years. Starting cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green are both tall (6-foot-2), but were inconsistent last year. As juniors now, they have to grow from their mistakes and take a big step under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. There are other players to thicken out the depth, but the returning vets have to be much better than they were last year.
7. Michigan State Spartans
There is some boom-or-bust potential here because of the amount of unknowns. Two-and-a-half starters return from a secondary that was middle of the pack in the Big Ten last year. The interesting part is that they add in transfers from Alabama, Florida, Louisville, Arizona, and D-II North Greenville. The good news is that senior safety Xavier Henderson is back. He has 20 career starts and is a known quantity on the back end. He didn’t take the step that was expected last year, but he wasn’t alone in that regard by any stretch. Michigan State will play plenty of 4-2-5 and the nickel last year was manned by sophomore Angelo Grose, who had his moments. He could be back there again this year. Starting cornerback Kalon Gervin is back. He finished with 22 tackles last year and broke up four passes in six games. The Spartans need some of those transfers to step up if they’re ever going to get back to a No Fly Zone defense.
Rating the Big Ten
[Ohio State header photo courtesy of ohiostatebuckeyes.com.]