But lots of top talent returns for the conference up front, led by what may be the top end in the nation in Michigan State’s William Gholston. Here’s my ranking of the top 10 defensive linemen in the Big Ten.
1. William Gholston, E, 6-7, 275, Jr., Michigan State – A pterodactyl off the edge, Gholston has emerged as one of the top ends in the nation. He showed flashes as a true freshman in 2010 and dominated last season in earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. He has 17 career tackles for loss. All together now, let’s say “Next Bubba Smith.”
2. John Simon, T, 6-2, 260, Sr. Ohio State – A relentless force who plays with power and strength, Simon is a tough player to handle. Simon probably was the top player on the Buckeye defense last season. Now, he’s one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten—if not the nation. Simon is a great leader who has been described as a football junky. And, check out this praise from new coach Urban Meyer, who called Simon “Tebow-ish.” Is there higher praise in the universe?
3. Kawann Short, T, 6-3, 310 Sr., Purdue – He enters his senior season ranked 15th in school annals in career tackles for loss, with 33.5, and is tied for 15th with 12.5 career sacks. Short—projected by most to be a first-round NFL pick in 2013–is a force on the interior who excels at breaking the double-team, getting penetration and disrupting the timing of offenses. A good athlete, Short was a high school hoop teammate of former Boilermaker great E’Twaun Moore.
4. Johnathan Hankins, T, 6-4, 317, Jr., Ohio State – The big fella showed flashes as a true freshman in 2010. Hankins has slowly changed his body and gotten stronger to emerge as one of the strongest interior forces in the Big Ten. Don’t let Hankins’ size fool you—he is quick off the snap, which makes blocking him that much more difficult. He could be Ohio State’s top tackle since “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson back in 1992. And that is saying something.
5. Michael Buchanan, E, 6-6, 240, Sr., Illinois – The rangy Buchanan is a force off the edge for an Illini program that has produced first-round draft picks on the defensive line each of the past two seasons (Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus). Buchanan could be the next. He was a consensus second-team All-Big Ten selection last season after ranking fourth in the Big Ten in sacks.
6. Cameron Meredith, E, 6-4, 265, Sr., Nebraska – An honorable All-Big Ten selection by the media last season, Meredith must become a driving force for a line that has lost Jared Crick. Meredith has been a fixture each of the past two seasons, making 27 starts in a row. He has shown versatility, playing end, tackle and in a stand-up mode while proving to be effective stopping the run and rushing the passer.
7. Marcus Rush, E, 6-2, 250, So., Michigan State – He was one of the nation’s top newcomers last season. As a redshirt freshman, Rush netted consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. He finished second among Spartan defensive linemen in tackles last season and paced all Big Ten freshmen in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (12.0). Rush also broke up five passes. He will form a deadly duo with William Gholston.
8. Baker Steinkuhler, T, 6-6, 290, Sr., Nebraska – Entering his third season as a starter, Steinkuhler will be an anchor inside for the Cornhusker front. He netted honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades in 2011 when he notched 40 tackles, five stops for loss and two sacks and two passes broken up. He also was honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2010. The son of former Nebraska great Dean, Steinkuhler must be a leader as much as he is a playmaker this fall for the Blackshirt defense.
9. Jordan Hill, T, 6-1, 298, Sr., Penn State – He is primed for a big send-off as the new lynchpin of the line with stud tackle Devon Still gone. Hill is a powerful presence on the interior who plays like his hair is on fire. He also has shown versatility by starting at end. But Hill is best suited to play inside, where he should be one of the top tackles in the Big Ten in 2012.
10. Craig Roh, E , 6-5, 269, Sr., Michigan– Roh will be counted on to pressure the passer after ranking second on the team in sacks last season. He is switching from weak-side to strong-side end, where his bulk will be put to good use stopping the run. Roh also must be a leader for a Michigan line that is in flux without Mike Martin.
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