Big Ten: Justin Harrison
Arrelious Benn, WR: He never reached the heights many thought he would after winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2007, but Benn still led Illinois in receiving yards for three consecutive seasons. Illinois' inconsistent offense hurt Benn last season, but his obvious talent and presence on the perimeter will be missed as the Illini transition to a new system under coordinator Paul Petrino this fall.
Jon Asamoah, OG: Like Indiana's Rodger Saffold, Asamoah was one of the Big Ten's more underrated linemen, in large part because his team struggled. But Asamoah provided a veteran presence up front and had the combination of superior skill and intelligence. The NFL clearly liked what it saw in Asamoah, a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in April.
Martez Wilson, LB: Wilson's 2009 season never got on track as he missed all but one game with a herniated disk in his neck. He seemed to be settling in well as the team's middle linebacker last summer and has a chance in 2010 to have the breakout season many have been waiting for. Wilson has the size and the skills to be special, but he's got to get it done on the field.
Clay Nurse, DE: Nurse was a presence on the defensive line down the stretch last season, leading Illinois in sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and quarterback hurries (3). He's got the personality and attitude to be a valuable leader along the front four this fall, as Illinois tries to improve a group that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks (19) in 2009.
Chandler Whitmer, QB: Jacob Charest's post-spring departure puts Whitmer, a true freshman, in the backup role behind Nathan Scheelhaase. Good thing that Whitmer enrolled early and went through spring practice with Petrino and the other quarterbacks. He drew praise from the coaches and displays good maturity both on and off the field.
Earnest Thomas, S: The one-time UCLA commit could be a factor right away in a secondary that has some competition but few lock-down certainties. The 6-1, 195-pound Thomas was highly recruited coming out of Michigan and will help Illinois at a position (safety) that hasn't be secure since Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell departed following the 2008 Rose Bowl.
More revolving door ...
2009 overall record: 3-9
2009 conference record: 2-6 (9th)
Offense: 5, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2
RB Mikel LeShoure, WR Jarred Fayson, LT Jeff Allen, DT Corey Liuget, DE Clay Nurse, LB Ian Thomas, LB Martez Wilson, CB Tavon Wilson
QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, LG Jon Asamoah, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Jeff Cumberland, DE Doug Pilcher, S Garrett Edwards
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mikel LeShoure* (734 yards)
Passing: Juice Williams (1,632 yards)
Receiving: Arrelious Benn (490 yards)
Tackles: Ian Thomas* (95)
Sacks: Clay Nurse* (5.5)
Interceptions: Garrett Edwards, Tavon Wilson*, Russell Ellington*, Doug Pilcher, Terry Hawthorne* (1)
1. Scheelhaase steps up: Illinois didn't announce its starting quarterback this spring, but anyone who watched practice or talked with the coaches knew that redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase took the lead. Scheelhaase is an exceptional athlete who shows good maturity and made big plays in several spring scrimmages. He still needs work as a passer but brings some dynamic skills to the backfield.
2. Jenkins emerges at receiver: A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois after a disappointing 2009 season. He comes out of spring practice as the team's No. 1 wideout and a potential successor to Arrelious Benn. Jenkins was "a changed man," according to head coach Ron Zook, and clicked immediately with new offensive coordinator/receivers coach Paul Petrino. He should be a major asset for the new starting quarterback this fall.
3. Defensive line builds depth: Illinois loses veteran defensive lineman Doug Pilcher but the squad should be better and deeper up front in 2010. Zook singled out defensive tackles Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. They join returning starters Corey Liguet and Clay Nurse, who participated in everything but full-contact drills this spring following shoulder surgery. Liuget and Nurse are natural leaders up front, and if Josh Brent returns from his academic struggles, Illinois could be very good along the line.
1. Quarterback: Jacob Charest isn't out of the race for the top job, but he'll need to close the gap with Scheelhaase during the summer and early in preseason camp. True freshman Chandler Whitmer is also in the mix, though the coaches say he's behind Charest and Scheelhaase. Illinois has some good leadership at other spots (receiver, defensive line, linebacker), but it must identify the No. 1 guy at the top position on the field.
2. Offensive line: Corey Lewis' torn ACL could be a big blow for a group adjusting to a new offense and new assignments for the guards and tackles (strong side/weak side). Illinois needs a strong preseason camp from Ryan Palmer, the favorite to fill the starting spot opposite Jeff Allen. The Illini need to run the ball with their talented backs and protect their young quarterbacks as well as they can, so building chemistry along the line is huge.
3. Safety squeeze: I still think Illinois' defense hasn't been the same since safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison departed following the 2007 season. The Illini look pretty solid at cornerback with Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and several others, but the safety spot remains a question mark. Travon Bellamy and Supo Sanni are the top options coming out of spring, but they must continue to be pushed, especially if Walter Aikens isn't reinstated.
Whether he could revive his once-promising football career remained to be seen.
Henry, a safety who recently enrolled at Illinois, is a 25-year-old college junior. He lost almost five of those years to an armed robbery conviction that confined him in several prisons. When his younger brother, Arrelious Benn, took the field as a star freshman wide receiver at Illinois in 2007, Henry watched from behind bars in Glenville, W.Va.
Though Henry stayed in shape while serving time, he focused more on preparing himself for life on the outside. He took classes and got certified for HVAC repair (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). He had been a solid football player in high school in Washington D.C., but he didn't know if he could return to the sport.
"When things weren't going well, I kept my head up and told myself to have faith in God and faith in myself, to know that I wouldn't quit," Henry said. "I kept pushing, I kept pushing. It was a crazy experience. A second shot at football is having somebody take a chance on you, and I couldn't guarantee that somebody would.
"I had control over myself. I knew I would do everything it took to get myself in the right position to have success, but I didn't know if anybody was going to say yes or no."
College of DuPage in suburban Chicago said yes, and Henry spent two seasons there. In 2009, he served as a team captain and earned first-team NCJAA All-America honors after recording 88 tackles and four interceptions.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Henry is now taking classes at Illinois, and he'll participate in spring practice beginning in late March.
"It's exciting and I'm just so thankful for this chance," he said. "Everyone doesn't get a second chance, everyone doesn't get this opportunity, so you've got to take full advantage of it."
Henry credits Benn for helping him reach this point. And while the brothers won't reunite in Champaign -- Benn declared for the NFL draft in December -- Henry continues to have plenty of support.
"I call him a good assistant coach," Henry said. "He helps me out, telling me, 'This is what you've got to do to get here, this is what you've got to eat to get here, this is how you've got to take care of your body.'"
Benn maintained ridiculously low body fat totals by adhering to a disciplined diet that featured no red meat or fried foods. The approach has rubbed off on Henry.
"Growing up with my mom, we weren't McDonald's kids," Henry said. "Certain stuff we didn't do [before college], but as far as the fried foods, he's disciplined on a different scale than I am."
Henry has met with new Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who will begin installing his system this spring. Illinois ranked 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense last season, and the safety spot has been shaky since the departures of Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison after the Rose Bowl run in 2007.
"This defense is new to everyone, not just new to me," Henry said. "Spring ball's going to be spent getting a feel for the defense and getting the chemistry together. Some of the things he was naming in his defense go right with my strengths.
"I'm going to have a great opportunity to play here and have fun with his defense."
Here's a look:
Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.
Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.
Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.
Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.
Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.
Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.
Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.
Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.
Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.
Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.
Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.
Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.
Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.
Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.
Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.
Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.
Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.
Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.
Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.
Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.
Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.
Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.
Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.
Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.
Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.
Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.
Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.
Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
No one expected another Rose Bowl appearance from Illinois this fall. But no one expected this, either.
A year after reaching Pasadena, Illinois will stay home for the holidays, the product of a 5-7 record that once seemed unthinkable for a preseason top 20 squad. Despite returning key parts from the Rose Bowl team, the Illini were plagued by inconsistency on the field and some disciplinary issues off of it. They lost to teams with inferior talent and won consecutive games only once, against Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette in September.
Head coach Ron Zook insisted throughout the season that the 2008 Illinois team was better than its predecessor, and at times he seemed right.
Quarterback Juice Williams carried the team through the first half of the year, setting total offense records at three different venues (Edward Jones Dome, Michigan Stadium and Memorial Stadium). Wideout Arrelious Benn surged midway through the season and Brit Miller transitioned well to middle linebacker, leading the Big Ten in tackles (132).
But the Illini never stayed on track. They missed star running back Rashard Mendenhall and safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. Williams threw nine interceptions in his last five games. A defensive line that Zook called the team's strength entering the season struggled against the run. The team appeared fractured at times, as a fight between running back Mikel LeShoure and wideout Jeff Cumberland left LeShoure with a broken jaw. Other players missed time due to suspension or leave of absence.
Illinois returns plenty of talent for 2009, but the Illini must build better chemistry and consistency to get back to the top of the league.
Offensive MVP -- Wide receiver Arrelious Benn
Williams had this award locked up midway through the fall, but his tumultuous finish gives the nod to Benn, who was fabulous in Big Ten play. He led the league in receiving yards (1,055) and racked up 794 yards in conference games. The dynamic sophomore had the most receptions in Big Ten play (45) and topped the chart in yards per catch (17.6).
Defensive MVP -- Linebacker Brit Miller
Miller deserved better performances from those around him after stepping in nicely for All-American J Leman at middle linebacker. The senior led the Big Ten and ranked fifth nationally in tackles (132, 11 tpg). He also led Illinois in sacks (6) and had a fumble return for a touchdown. The Illini defense regressed this fall, but Miller certainly did his part.
Turning point -- Nov. 8 vs. Western Michigan (at Detroit)
A major bowl game was off the table, but Illinois could have reached bowl eligibility and set up a strong finish by beating Western Michigan in Detroit. Coming off an emotion-charged win against rival Iowa, the Illini offense flat-lined in the first half and showed up too late for a rally. A 23-17 loss at Ford Field kicked off a three-game slide to close the season.
Williams and all his weapons return on offense, but the departure of coordinator Mike Locksley to New Mexico could bring some growing pains. The bigger losses will be on the defensive side, as Miller graduates and cornerback Vontae Davis likely enters the NFL draft. But the talent will be there for a turnaround in Champaign. If Illinois can build better team unity, it should rejoin the top half of the league.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I didn't get a chance to have the regular Friday mailbag, so here are a few items before the early kickoffs.
Andy from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Michigan has a very capable running back in Sam McGuffie who I think will be the future of the position. However, we have seen Brandon Minor break several large runs this year and Carlos Brown has also exhibited great speed. Why is Rich Rod not giving our veteran running backs a little better look out there? Do you think he should be working them into the slot position, direct snaps, etc...? It seems like a bit of a waste of talent. Thanks!
Adam Rittenberg: Rodriguez saw last week the benefit of having multiple running backs in the game. Junior Kevin Grady provided a big lift in short-yardage situations, and Minor had the big touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Brown won't be available today with a sprained foot, but Minor, Grady and Michael Shaw should see time alongside McGuffie. You're absolutely right. Michigan needs its veteran running backs in the game, even if McGuffie is the future. Both Brown and Minor have value, and they both should be used more as the season progresses.
Brian from Baltimore writes: How arrogant is Beanie Wells that he could even think for a minute that he can win the Heisman? Even in the games he's played in, he hasn't posted Heisman worthy numbers.
Adam Rittenberg: Wells might come off that way, but I see it as confidence more than anything, which is never bad. He wants to carry the load for this team, and quite frankly, Ohio State needed someone to step up after the first few games. It will be nearly impossible for Wells to even be in the Heisman discussion, but he still believes he's one of the best players int the country, and more important, so do his teammates. Beanie Wells is the best leader on that team, not the seniors.
Bob from Parts Unknown writes: Adam As you cover the Big 10 - doesnt the completion percentage of Brian Hoyer depend on the receivers helping catch balls in the game. I have watched all the games and certainly there are incomplete passes....but also too many drops from a young receiving corps - something the media all questioned going into the season. So isn't Hoyer overall performance a bit better than his stats show.
Adam Rittenberg: Dropped passes are definitely a factor for Michigan State and several other teams (Wisconsin), but it would take an awful lot of drops to put the completion percentage at 46.5 percent. To his credit, Hoyer hasn't made a lot of mistakes, just two interceptions in 157 pass attempts, but I just can't see Michigan State making a serious run at the Big Ten title without its quarterback completing better than 50 percent of his passes. Hoyer manages a game very well, but he's got to make more plays. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham are solid receivers and should be used more.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.
Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). Linebackers Russell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy, who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."
Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety after Roderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).
Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."
Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.
Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.
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.