Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams that 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 continue into the secondary with the West Division. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
The free year from the NCAA has given college football teams more returning depth than ever, but even without the free year, the Big Ten West would be returning a large number of starters. There are multiple teams returning every single starter from the secondary, and Northwestern is the only team that isn’t returning at least three starters.
If experience means anything, then this is going to be a pretty even group of secondaries, even as they end up being separated by three or four spots in these particular ratings.
1. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa returns all five starters from one of the Big Ten’s best secondaries last year. Much of their defensive identity comes from having a hybrid “Cash” safety/linebacker who can handle a dual role. They have that with junior Dane Belton who is completely comfortable with the job. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year after posting 33 tackles in eight games. Second-Team All-Big Ten safety Jack Koerner is back. He was third on the team in 2020 with 45 tackles. He also added three interceptions. Strong safety Kaevon Merriweather started five games last year and is the only returning starter in the Iowa secondary to not receive any All-Big Ten notice. Many expect that to change this year. Cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins have 43 combined starts. Both were Honorable Mention All-B1G picks last year. Both are active tacklers. This is an experienced group, but they were never tested last year.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin loses a pair of veterans from last year’s team, including starting safety Eric Burrell. There doesn’t seem to be too much concern, however, as they return five cornerbacks and three safeties with starting experience. Those starts weren’t always outstanding, but this is a very veteran group. Cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams have 47 career starts between them. Both posted 13 tackles last year. Williams was named Third-Team All-Big Ten last year while Hicks was an Honorable Mention selection. Scott Nelson returns at safety. He finished with 22 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two interceptions last year. Senior Collin Wilder steps in at the other safety spot. He came off the bench last year to finish third on the team with 30 tackles. Junior nickelback Donte Burton has six career starts. Overall, this is a deep group, but the Badgers have been susceptible to talented passing games over the years.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Hopes are high in Lincoln for the Huskers secondary thanks to the return of three talented starters from last year’s squad. Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection last year and he is now back for his third year as a starter. There is some talk that he could be an eventual first-round pick in the NFL draft. There is still a battle going on for the other cornerback spot. Junior Quinton Newsome opened fall camp as the favorite. He has a bit of experience, getting a start last year. Junior Braxton Clark is an intriguing — and tall — possibility there as well. Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson has turned some heads already in camp. Regardless of who starts, there appears to be some depth here. Sixth-year senior safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke have seen it all. Both were Honorable Mention All-Big Ten picks last year and could move higher up on those boards this year.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern loses three starters from a secondary that gave Justin Fields a pretty hard time last year. The good news for the Wildcats is that All-Big Ten safety Brandon Joseph returns. He is one of the best players in the conference and exploded last year as a redshirt freshman. He led the Big Ten with six interceptions in nine games and finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles. Joseph can cover in man and has the range to track things down. It’s still a bit up in the air who will be playing next to him at the other safety spot, but there are options who have seen the field before. Cornerback looks somewhat set with sophomore Rod Heard and junior AJ Hampton. Hampton has four career starts and was the No. 7 tackler on the team last year (26). Heard started twice last year as a redshirt freshman. The overall depth has taken a hit, so a lot of things are going to have to fall into place if Northwestern is going to win the division.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue returns three starters from one of the worst secondaries in the Big Ten last year, statistically speaking. That being said, returning the amount of experience the Boilers do this year is only going to help this defense. Junior safety Cam Allen is the only one of the group who earned any All-Big Ten distinction, landing among the honorably mentioned. The other safety will be a new starter and looks like it’s going to be sophomore Marvin Grant, who is a big hitter and has people in West Lafayette excited. Junior cornerback Cory Trice is tall (6-3 210) and has 11 career starts. He finished fifth on the team with 31 tackles last year. He had three interceptions as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Senior Dedrick Mackey is the other starting cornerback. He is back for his third year as a starter. Mackey also had three interception in 2019. If he and Trice can get back to their 2019 ways, this could be a group that makes some noise.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
One starter departs from last year’s secondary, which is good news for a defense that can often rely on five defensive backs. Senior cornerback Coney Durr is the star of the group. He was an Honorable Mention All-League guy last year and is the only member of the secondary to receive such notice. Durr is a sixth-year senior with 30 career starts. The other cornerback spot seems to still be up in the air, but Terrell Smith and Phillip Howard are veteran reserves with starting experience. Nickelback Justus Harris was the Gophers’ highest-graded player in the secondary last year according to Minnesota CBs coach Paul Haynes. A pair of starters return at safety in senior Jordan Howden and junior Tyler Nubin. Howden has 24 career starts over his previous three years, while Nubin got his first starting gig last year as a sophomore. Nubin was second on the team last year with 41 tackles. The Gophers need more playmaking at safety.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini lose just one starting member from last year’s secondary. Of course, that secondary was part of a defense that allowed 69.6% of the pass attempts against them last year to be completed. Things need to get better this year, which they should. Senior Tony Adams played safety last year but moves back to corner this year. He has 25 career starts and will be the leader of the group. He averaged 8.5 tackles per game last season. Devon Witherspoon is at the other corner spot. He has started games in each of his first two seasons. Illinois was his only Power 5 offer coming out of high school, but he has already exceeded expectations. Senior strong safety Sydney Brown has 26 career starts. It would be nice for Illinois if he returned to his 2019 form where he totaled 88 tackles and three interceptions. Jartavius Martin is the other safety. He showed up almost out of nowhere as a freshman in 2018 with three interceptions.
Rating the Big Ten
[Riley Moss header photo courtesy of hawkeyesports.com.]