Penn State's D-Line tops in Big Ten
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The rankings switch to the defenses today, and things begin up front. Like their offensive trench mates, defensive linemen are best graded as a unit, so that's where we'll start. But because there are so many standouts in the Big Ten, I'll follow-up with individual rankings for interior linemen and defensive ends. Examining the personnel at Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, defensive line is arguably the league's strongest position group.
Here's the rundown:
1. Penn State -- It's tight at the top, but the Nittany Lions get the nod with an experienced and talented group. Defensive ends Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines lead the way after combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season. Aaron Maybin provides depth at end, and the interior line features Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and the reinstated Chris Baker.
2. Illinois -- Coach Ron Zook was extremely high on this group coming out of the spring, and for good reason. The Illini are stacked at end with All-Big Ten selection Will Davis, Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher. They must replace mainstay Chris Norwell at defensive tackle, but former walk-on David Lindquist comes off a strong 2007 in which he recorded 4.5 sacks.
3. Ohio State -- It's rare to see the Buckeyes outside of the top two, but they certainly have the talent to jump up the list. The main concern is the loss of defensive end Vernon Gholston, who tied for third nationally in sacks last fall. But the Buckeyes have a capable replacement in Lawrence Wilson, who returns after breaking his leg in the 2007 opener. Blossoming end Cameron Heyward helps the pass rush, and Ohio State has four capable interior linemen.
4. Michigan -- All four starters are back, and the line should be Michigan's strongest position group entering the season. End Brandon Graham had a strong summer after recording 8.5 sacks last season. He'll team with Tim Jamison to provide a formidable pass rush. The Wolverines will use multiple fronts but should operate mostly out of the 4-3, giving senior tackles Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson the chance to do damage.
5. Wisconsin -- Health and depth are the major questions entering camp, but there's little doubt the Badgers have loads of talent up front. End Matt Shaughnessy earned second-team all-conference honors last season and should have a stellar senior year if he recovers from a broken fibula. Senior tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk also come off injuries, as does end Kirk DeCremer, who recorded 5.5 sacks as a freshman.
6. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes boast the league's best interior line with senior tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. King has started the last 32 games, and Kroul's starts streak stands at 37. If Iowa can find disruptive pass rushers to bookend King and Kroul, it will shoot up the list. The spotlight will be on sophomores Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn, who had their moments as reserves last fall.
7. Indiana -- Greg Middleton headlines the group after leading the nation in sacks last season with 16. Indiana's challenges will be identifying a second pass-rushing threat and becoming sturdier against the run (159.7 ypg allowed in 2007). Junior end Jammie Kirlew recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season, numbers that should increase with the double-teams Middleton will draw. Senior Greg Brown and the Burrus twins (Keith and Kevin) must solidify the interior.
8. Purdue -- Cliff Avril's departure hurts, but the Boilermakers return several experienced players up front and could easily leapfrog some teams by the end of the season. Seniors Alex Magee and Ryan Baker could be the best defensive tackle tandem in coach Joe Tiller's tenure, and Keyon Brown finished last season with 2.5 sacks in the Motor City Bowl.
9. Michigan State -- I'd be surprised if Michigan State doesn't jump up the list, but it's hard to minimize the losses of standout ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, steps into one spot and gives the Spartans a proven pass rusher. Hopes are high for tackle Justin Kershaw in his senior season, and sophomores Antonio Jeremiah and Oren Wilson will compete at the other tackle spot.
10. Northwestern -- With four multiyear starters back for the fall, the Wildcats should be much higher on the list. But a disappointing 2007 season leaves the group with plenty to prove. Tackle John Gill is a fail-safe NFL prospect and 6-7 end Corey Wootton provides size on the edge, but the line simply doesn't make enough plays. Northwestern must finish off sacks after collecting only 18 last season, and senior end Kevin Mims must step up opposite Wootton.
11. Minnesota -- This will be a familiar spot for Gophers defenders until they prove otherwise. Minnesota generated a league-low 11 sacks last season and got gashed for 229.3 rushing yards per game. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg tries to regain his 2006 form (10 sacks) after a disappointing junior season. New coordinator Ted Roof must find two capable tackles and could look to the team's crop of junior-college transfers.