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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This will be the first of three parts as I break down the Big Ten defensive backs. Check back for rankings of safeties and cornerbacks. Despite losing several standout cornerbacks (Justin King, Jack Ikegwuonu, Terrell Vinson), the league returns a bunch of top-end players and teams have filled in the gaps nicely.
Here's the rundown:
1. Ohio State -- All four starters are back, led by Thorpe Award frontrunner Malcolm Jenkins, who likely would have been a first- or second-round draft pick had he left school after last season. Fellow cornerback Donald Washington is suspended for the first two games but should make a significant impact when he returns. Ohio State would like more interceptions from safeties Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman, who had none last year but still combined to break up nine passes.
2. Penn State -- King's ability to shut down an opponent's top receiver will be missed, but Penn State still has good depth at cornerback with emerging junior A.J. Wallace, returning starter Lydell Sargeant and Tony Davis, who started every game at corner in 2006 before moving to safety during an injury-plagued junior season. Anthony Scirrotto is arguably the top playmaking safety in the conference with 10 career interceptions.
3. Michigan -- The Wolverines might feature the league's best cornerback tandem in senior Morgan Trent and sophomore Donovan Warren, who combined for 93 tackles and 13 pass breakups last season. They need some help at safety after the loss of all-conference selection Jamar Adams, but Stevie Brown played well as a reserve last year and Brandon Harrison has experience and versatility.
4. Michigan State -- Safety Otis Wiley backslid a bit last year but should recapture the form of 2006, when he ranked seventh in the Big Ten in tackles and had 10 pass breakups. The Spartans ranked fourth in the league in pass defense last year and have good depth at cornerback behind veteran Kendell Davis-Clark.
5. Illinois -- Vontae Davis will push Jenkins for the title of Big Ten's best cornerback. He ranked sixth in the league in both interceptions and pass breakups last year. Dere Hicks and Miami Thomas provide depth at the other corner spot, but Illinois must replace safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, who combined for 155 tackles, six interceptions and 24 pass breakups last season. If guys like Travon Bellamy, Nate Bussey and Bo Flowers perform, this group will move up the list.
6. Iowa -- There's hope here despite the losses of starting cornerbacks Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada, both honorable mention All-Big Ten selections last season. Senior Bradley Fletcher received ample experience the last two years, but the Hawkeyes would like another solid corner or two to emerge. Both starting safeties return to brace the unit.
7. Wisconsin -- Shane Carter is a budding star at safety after leading the league with seven interceptions last season, but much like other areas on the Badgers' depth chart, health has been a bugaboo. If cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry bounce back from ACL injuries, the unit should be strong. If not, there will be plenty of pressure on young defensive backs like Mario Goins and Jay Valai.
8. Purdue -- The Boilermakers lost their best cover man (Vinson) from a unit that ranked seventh in the league against the pass last season. To avoid a drop off, they need better play from Royce Adams and continued production from David Pender. If safety Torri Williams can finally stay healthy after a rash of ailments, Purdue's secondary should be stable.
9. Northwestern -- This unit no longer has any excuse to be a liability. Safety Brendan Smith returns from a shoulder injury to provide the playmaking punch the Wildcats sorely lacked last season. Smith and Brad Phillips form an experienced tandem at safety, while junior cornerback Sherrick McManis should benefit from an inconsistent first season as the starter. If Justan Vaughn or a redshirt freshman (Jordan Mabin, Michael Bolden) solidify the other corner spot, Northwestern should be respectable.
10. Indiana -- Leading tackler Austin Thomas returns at strong safety, but cornerback is the biggest question on the team. The Hoosiers lost both starting corners, including all-conference performer Tracy Porter, who ranked second in the league with six interceptions. Six players are in the mix for the two jobs, including senior Chris Phillips. If the cornerback spot is stabilized, Indiana should leapfrog several teams.
11. Minnesota -- The personnel is there for a turnaround, but it's tough to rank the Gophers much higher without seeing junior-college transfers Tramaine Brock, Trae Simmons and Simoni Lawrence. If those players perform like coach Tim Brewster thinks they will, Minnesota will be much improved. Brock brings a much-needed edge to the back four. But the Gophers can't rely much on returning players after last season's disaster.