- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let's turn the spotlight to the defense. As a reminder, by indispensable, we don't necessarily mean the best players, but the players who would be the hardest to place between now and the start of the season if they were hurt, suspended or vaporized.
Here are the nominees for defense (in alphabetical order):
Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans once again should have a nationally elite defense, and they're the only Big Ten team that had two defenders (Bullough and CB Darqueze Dennard) listed in its most indispensable capsule. But Bullough is undoubtedly the leader of the unit, as he plays an integral role in communicating calls and setting alignments. Bullough earned first-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches) last season and second-team honors as a sophomore in 2011. He has 223 career tackles, including 21 for loss, and has started the past 27 games. Although MSU doesn't have a major depth problem at linebacker, Bullough would be a significant loss because of all that he brings to the field.
Bruce Gaston Jr., DT, Purdue: It's hard enough to replace one standout interior lineman, as Purdue must do after losing Kawann Short, a second-round pick in April's NFL draft. The Boilers would have a tough time filling Gaston's shoes, too. He has started his first three seasons at Purdue, racking up 17 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. Purdue's defense isn't "Big Ten strong" just yet, but the 6-2, 303-pound Gaston certainly fits the description. Given the question marks at linebacker and elsewhere on defense, the Boilers really need No. 90 on the field.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: The Gophers have holes to fill at both linebacker and cornerback, so they'll need to be stout up front and that starts with Hageman. He always has had next-level potential and showcased it at times in 2012, when he recorded six tackles and 35 total tackles in 13 starts. Minnesota must be better against the run after finishing 72nd last season, and the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Hageman takes up a lot of room in the interior line. Although the Gophers need safety Brock Vereen and others to stay on the field, Hageman has the superstar potential the defense has lacked and would be a very tough piece to replace.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: Put aside the fact Shazier earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after recording 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, 11 pass breakups and an interception in a breakout sophomore season. He's also the only member of Ohio State's defensive front seven with meaningful starting experience. The Buckeyes lose all four starting linemen, and while there's optimism about talented younger players stepping into larger roles, there's more concern about the depth at linebacker. Ohio State needs Shazier's production, playmaking ability and leadership to bind the defense together at it chases a national championship this season.
Dezmen Southward, S, Wisconsin: Here's the thing about the Badgers. Yes, most of their coaches are new, but most of their players aren't. They return capable pieces at wide receiver, tight end, running back, quarterback and offensive line. All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland also is back, along with several veteran defensive linemen. But the secondary could be a major problem, especially if Southward, the lone returning starter from the 2012 team, can't stay on the field. Southward recorded 69 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season and will provide leadership for a new-look back four this season.
It's time to vote. Make yours count.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer