- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our postseason position rankings wrapped up the offensive side of the ball Wednesday with a look at the offensive line. Now it's time to switch to the other side of the ball. We'll stay in the trenches with our rankings for the defensive lines.
This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.
Here we go ...
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 1): It took a while for this group to live up to expectations, but once it got going in the second half, you saw why the Buckeyes earned the No. 1 preseason ranking. Defensive end John Simon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Run-plugging tackle Johnathan Hankins should be an early first-round draft pick in April. Nathan Williams shook off injuries to contribute in a big way down the stretch. Freshmen Noah Spence and, in particular, Adolphus Washington helped with the depth, though the starters played a lot of downs.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.
3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.
4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.
6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.
7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.
8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.
9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.
10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.
12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.