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 defensive lines in the Big Ten West run the gamut from all of the starters are back to almost nobody is. Those numbers can be made even worse by the fact that a number of the teams in the West employ 3-4 fronts and are looking for multiple new starters this year.
The talent level in the West can be fairly consistent from the top team to the bottom team. So many of the defensive linemen in the division were developmental prospects, which is why experience and upperclassmen can be the difference between winning the division and finishing fourth.
There isn’t much that separates the good from the bad here, but we’re going to try to figure it out.
1. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue loses starting nose tackle Lorenzo Neal from last year’s group, but they are thrilled to be returning defensive end George Karlaftis for likely his last season in West Lafayette. Karlaftis is a two-time Second-Team All-Big Ten selection and is one of the best defensive ends in the nation. Last year’s numbers (4 tackles, 2 sacks) were hampered because he played in just three games. As a true freshman in 2019, however, he amassed 54 tackles, 17.0 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. The expectation is that he will be outstanding this year. Will he get any help around him is the real question. There are five other players on the defensive line with starting experience, but they have not raised much havoc. Senior defensive tackle Anthony Watts had 35 tackles and 7.0 tackles for loss in 2019, so he’s got some possibilities. Juniors Brandon Deen and Lawrence Johnson are both tackles who started as sophomores.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa has lost All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston from last year, but they do return Second-Team All-B1G defensive end Zach VanValkenberg. VanValkenberg finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in eight games. The other side looks like it will be John Waggoner, a former 3-star commit who has posted six tackles combined the last two years. A pass-rush specialist to watch is former walk-on Joe Evans, who was a high school quarterback and linebacker. Evans was second on the team with four sacks in eight games two seasons ago. While there are high hopes for the ends, the tackles are a concern. Junior Noah Shannon got a start last year and is by far the most experienced player on the interior. He has posted 16 tackles combined the last two years. Underclassmen Yahya Black and Logan Lee have only played in a handful of games each and yet they are likely two of the top three tackles.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin runs a 3-4 defense and they lost both of their starting defensive ends from last year. Nose tackle Keeanu Benton returns for his third season. He has tallied 20 tackles and four tackles for loss the last two seasons. Behind him is senior Bryson Williams, who will be an important piece to both give Benton a break or also swing over to defensive end. The likely starters at defensive end are upperclassmen Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens. Henningsen has 16 career starts, so he is plenty experienced. He has 7.5 tackles for loss in his career. Mullens has played in 20 games over the last two years, picking up five tackles in the process. The young talent behind the veterans will need to step up and provide some help as this defensive line attempts to mainly occupy the opposing offensive line so the Badgers’ linebackers can do their work. Wisconsin finished second in the B1G in yards allowed per rush (3.35 ypc) last season.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska is another Big Ten West defense that runs a 3-4 front. Things have gotten increasingly better defensively each year since Scott Frost has taken over, but the defense hasn’t increased to the point of actually being good yet. This year they return all three starters up front from last year. They are also hoping recruiting and development will make them deeper up front than they’ve been in a while. If they can hold up over the course of a game and the course of a season, those 12 one-score losses over the last three years wouldn’t always have to be losses. Senior end Ben Stille is back for his third year as a starter. He posted 27 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks last year. The other end is redshirt sophomore Ty Robinson, who finished with 17 tackles and 2.0 TFLs in 2021. Senior nose tackle Damion Daniels has four career starts. He is a big human (6-foot-3 335 pounds) who tallied 4.0 TFLs last year. This group needs more depth.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers return all four starters up front and add in a couple of transfers with starting experience as well. All told, the Minnesota defensive line has seven players with starting experience, and just about everybody from last year’s rotations is back as well. It starts with Honorable Mention All-Big Ten defensive end Boye Mafe, who finished with 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks in seven games last year. Fellow senior Esezi Otomewo started every game at the other defensive end spot, posting 15 tackles and two TFLs. Their backups return, but more is needed. Starting defensive tackles Micah Dew-Treadway and DeAngelo Carter are both veterans now. They will be helped by Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney, who started 15 games in his four years with the Tigers. Pinckney could win a starting job in a deep group. There’s experience, but these players also helped to allow a Big Ten-worst 6.3 yards per carry last year.
6. Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats must replace two starters and their top sacker (defensive end Eku Leota, who transferred to Auburn). Fortunately for Northwestern, they do have six players with starting experience on the defensive line. There is a lot to like about junior Adetomiwa Adebawore, who has split his career between defensive end and defensive tackle. He’s a very quick and fast tackle on the interior, but most projections have him at end this year. Will he be able to make use of his speed further away from the quarterback? Senior Samdup Miller is the other defensive end. He opted out last year but has 35 career starts to his credit. He posted 5.5 sacks as a freshman back in 2017, but only has two sacks since. Senior defensive tackle Joe Spivak started eight games last year, picking up 14 tackles. Senior Trevor Kent has six starts on the inside in his first three years. Jeremy Meiser is a transfer from Old Dominion with 20 starts and 64 career tackles.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illinois defensive line returns pretty much everyone, but with new head coach Bret Bielema implementing his preferred 3-4 defense, there are still changes taking place. Second-Team All-Big Ten defensive end Owen Carney is now moving to outside linebacker where he should be one of the B1G’s top pass rushers. Seth Coleman, who started four games last year at end, is also moving to linebacker. This has left things a little thin on the edges, and since 3-4 defensive ends are glorified tackles, the Illini will have to rely on their interior quite a bit this year. The good news is that they do have four tackles on the roster with starting experience. There hasn’t been a ton of production out of those guys, and we really have no idea how much moving and shifting will take place in fall camp. Bielema is going to have a lot of questions as he watches practice, and what might be an answer one day may be a new problem the next.
Rating the Big Ten
[George Karlaftis header photo courtesy of PurdueSports.com.]