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, and offensive lines, so now it’s time to move on to the defensive side of the ball. We will begin with the defensive lines. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
The Big Ten East took some pretty deep hits on the defensive line this year and much rebuilding must be done. Still, only five of those departures throughout the division were drafted, so maybe the bulk of the losses will be easy to fix.
Only one team returns all four of its starters from last year and no team has been left without any returning starters. For better or worse, there’s not much that separates two through seven here.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes must replace nose tackle Tommy Togiai and defensive end Jonathon Cooper. They were thrilled when DT Haskell Garrett decided to use his free year to return this season. He is a returning All-American and will anchor the front four. Former five-star prospect Taron Vincent is now a senior and he’s healthy, so he will factor in significantly. Nose tackle Antwuan Jackson is back for his sixth year as a collegiate. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson says he will bring more pass rush to the position than Togiai did. At defensive end, Ohio State has nine or 10 guys who would start in the Big Ten. Tyreke Smith (Honorable Mention All-B1G) and Zach Harrison (Second-Team All B1G) will be the top two defensive ends.. Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste were both in the rotation last year as well. Five-star freshmen Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau are the future. This group needs to get to the quarterback more than it did last year.
2. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers bring back three starters from last year’s defensive line and have eight defensive linemen on the roster with starting experience. Part of the reason for all of that experience is the addition of transfer defensive end Ryder Anderson from Ole Miss and transfer defensive tackle Weston Kramer from Northern Illinois. Anderson posted 43 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks in 10 games last year. James Head is a veteran starting defensive end who has 19 career starts. They have other ends with starting experience and also add former blue-chipper Jaren Handy from Auburn. Junior tackle Sio Nofoagatoto’a started a couple of games last year and appears to be one of the starters inside this year. He will be joined on the interior by Demarcus Elliott who has started 18 games and posted 49 tackles the last two years. There’s a ton of experience here. The back seven returns six starters from last year, but it will all start up front.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State returns just one starter from last year. Nose tackle PJ Mustipher started all nine games for the Nittany Lions in 2020 and was productive with 35 tackles. Around him, however, are questions marks, transfers, and former blue-chip prospects. Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton transferred to Florida this year rather than stay at Penn State for a sixth year. Duke transfer Derrick Tangelo started 27 games in his Blue Devil career. He and Hakeem Beamon are the likely contenders to play alongside Mustipher. At defensive end, Penn State must replace starters Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh. They have talented recruits, but the production has been lacking. Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie averaged seven tackles per game last year and led the Owls with four sacks in six games. Junior Adisa Isaac is now an upperclassmen and is expected to produce. This group doesn’t seem to be as talented as it has been in the past.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan is undergoing a scheme change of sorts as they tinker with a three-man front under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. A scheme change may be welcomed considering the lack of defensive tackle recruiting over the last three or four years. Junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton is a former five-star prospect who has five career starts and 23 total tackles to his credit. Perhaps this is the year the light goes on. Tackle Donovan Jeter has been around for four years and he could either be starting next to Hinton or providing depth behind him. Senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson is the big name here. He may be better suited as a 3-4 defensive end, so maybe a new scheme will help him. Junior Taylor Upshaw finished with three tackles for loss last year and one sack. There are some other options as well, but the names above need to be at their absolute best if Michigan is going to hold up this year.
5. Maryland Terrapins
Everybody is back from last year on the Maryland defensive line, and now it’s time to get even more out of them. Maryland runs a 3-4 defense with a Jack linebacker. All three returning starters on the defensive line are former junior college transfers. Senior Lawtez Rogers played Jack last year due to injury, but he’s a strong candidate to battle for the starting five-tech defensive end spot. Senior Sam Okuayinonu will also be competing for the starting job. Together they could rotate and stay fresh. Nose tackle Ami Finau looks the part at 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds. He started every game last year and produced 18 tackles in five games. Defensive tackle Mo Nasili-Kite finished with 20 tackles and four sacks last year and was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Ideally, head coach Mike Locksley will have a deep rotation here. Since they run a 3-4, the individual stats may not be there, though Finau and Nasili-Kite would likely dispute that.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Scarlet Knights must replace one full-time starter in defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour and a part-time starting defensive end in Elorm Lumor. This roster can replace their respective impacts. Senior defensive end Mike Tverdov returns. He has added 20 pounds and is now tipping the scales at 275 pounds. Tverdov finished third in the Big Ten last year with 10.5 tackles for loss. He also had four sacks. Defensive tackle Julius Turner has 31 career starts to his credit. He posted 35 tackles and eight tackles for loss last year. He’s not the biggest nose guard (6-foot 270 pounds), but he uses his quickness and leverage to his advantage. There are options to pair with Turner, including Temple transfer Ifeanyi Maijeh, who has 19 career starts. Senior end CJ Onyechi has starting experience and produced 5.5 tackles for loss last year. If head coach Greg Schiano can get everything out of this group, they could be pretty darn good.
7. Michigan State Spartans
Defensive line coach Ron Burton is the only two-time winner of FootballScoop’s Defensive Line Coach of the Year Award (2013, 2018), and now he returns three starters and three others with starting experience. That number includes defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, who both opted back in for an extra year this season. Beesley was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten pick last year following a season where he posted 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks. They can also slide him inside when they like. Panasiuk has 30 career starts. He finished with 11.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks back in 2019. Drew Jordan transferred from Duke where he started 21 career games and compiled 102 tackles, 15 TFLs, and 10.5 sacks in his career. Inside, junior Jacob Slade returns, as does sophomore Jalen Hunt. The Spartans will need more than just those two. Maybe Beesley and Jordan can take some snaps at defensive tackle.