1. Ohio State – This is where it all begins for what should be a strong Buckeye defense. There’s lots of depth and talent, as end Solomon Thomas is the only loss. Tackle John Simon plays like his hair is on fire, using strength and effort to dominate. Want more? He has been described as being “Tebow-ish” by Urban Meyer. Coaches also think tackle Garrett Goebel is in store for a special season. Massive tackle Johnathan Hankins may be the top NFL prospect in the Big Ten. End Adam Bellamy comes off the edge with ferocity. Want more? End Nathan Williams is back after a knee injury ruined his 2011 season. Plus, Ohio State will welcome several monster recruits who could impact right away.
2. Michigan State – No doubt, massive tackle Jerel Worthy’s presence on the interior will be missed. But there’s still lots to like about what could be a dominating unit. The unabashed star is William Gholston, who may be the top end in the nation. At 6-7, 265 pounds, Gholston is a frightening sight off the edge who is a force vs. the run and the pass. His presence creates opportunities on the other end for Marcus Rush, who is coming off a strong debut season. Massive Tyler Hoover has moved inside, where his size can be used vs. the run in concert with 320-pound plugger Anthony Rashad White.
3. Purdue – This has been a productive area for a number of year in West Lafayette, as the Boilermakers have developed a reputation for churning out ends. The next great one figures to be Ryan Russell, a physical force off the edge who gets up field. The star now is tackle Kawann Short, who is projected to be a first-round draft pick. His combination of size and athletic ability is rare. Bruce Gaston is a more-than-capable sidekick for Short. Robert Maci is a blue-collar, no-frills end opposite Russell for a line that has a nice blend of size and depth.
4. Nebraska – Tackle Jared Crick will be missed, but he missed a lot of time last year and talent still dots the depth chart. Tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the lone senior in the projected two-deep, is an anchor inside who can stuff the run. The Cornhuskers also can count on Chase Rome, Thaddeus Randle, Kevin Williams and Todd Peat to be part of a deep rotation at tackle. The line goes four deep at end, led by Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah. Eric Martin was a spring surprise who is the team’s best pass rusher.
5. Penn State – Even without tackle Devon Still and end Jack Crawford, this group still could be good. Tackle Jordan Hill looks like the next star on an interior that also will include DaQuan Jones and James Terry. Everyone is cheering for Pete Massaro, a sixth-year player who has battled knee issues and could be the team’s top rusher if healthy. Sean Stanley is the other key end, possessing quickness off the edge. Deion Barnes will be part of the rotation on the edge.
6. Illinois – Yes, star end Whitney Mercilus left a year early for the NFL, where he was a first-round selection after helping the Illini rank fourth in the country in tackles for loss and sixth in sacks. But there’s still lots to work with, headlined by nose tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan. It will be important for end Justin Staples to pick up the pace so offenses can’t consistently double-team Buchanan, who is primed to be one of the Big Ten’s top defenders. He and Staples could be a deadly pass-rushing tandem. Spence is a big man who is quick off the ball and must be an anchor up front vs. the run for a line that lacks great size. Glenn Foster will team with Spence inside, but his lack of girth can be problematic.
7. Michigan – A standout unit has lots to prove after losing stalwarts in tackle Mike Martin and ends Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger. There is good size and strength inside. The staff is counting on massive William Campbell finally putting it all together to be a force at tackle. Fellow tackle Jibreel Black compensates for his lack of size with incredible strength. Beefy Quinton Washington also will see ample time inside. It’s important for Craig Roh, a former linebacker, to rush the passer. Some think speedy-but-undersized Brennen Beyer is a sleeper who could emerge as force off the edge. Frank Clark is cut from the same mold as Beyer for a unit with a lot to prove.
8. Wisconsin – There is room for improvement, as the unit must get stouter vs. the run and improve the pass rush. Still, this could be a strong group. It’s vital that end David Gilbert be healthy after suffering a ruinous foot injury in 2011. The Badgers need his presence on the edge as a pass rusher. Pat Muldoon and Brendan Kelly also will be key players on the edge for a line that’s in transition with Louis Nzegwu and Patrick Butrym gone. There’s good depth at tackle led by Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout, who all are capable of starting. Allen is a massive plug in the interior who is difficult to move and excels at mucking up the run.
9. Iowa – Lots of issues for a unit that struggled last season. Experience? Depth? Both are lacking. Tackle Steve Bigach must be a veteran presence on the inside along with gigantic Carl Davis. End Dominic Alvis is a key vet at end who must get a push up the field. Try-hard Joe Gaglione will be opposite Alvis. Tackle Darian Cooper is one of several youngsters who must play a big role for this line to excel. Dean Tsopanides is another who is more brawler than rusher. On the edge, massive Riley McMinn is a youngster who needs to bring the heat.
10. Northwestern – This typically is a mixed bag, as the Wildcats must get more heat after notching just 17 sacks last season. Gone are Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli. The staff needs speedy former linebacker Quentin Williams to emerge as a pass-rushing force. Fellow end Deonte Gibson could be a future star, flashing speed and athletic ability off the edge in the spring. Tyler Scott is another former linebacker who brings a dynamic skill set to end for a defense that needs playmakers. Northwestern likes its top three options at tackle in Chance Carter, Brian Arnfelt and Will Hampton. Carter lacks classic size but is a good athlete.
11. Indiana – A veteran unit must be more stout vs. the run after a disappointing 2011. Getting pushed around must stop. And it begins with tackle Adam Replogle, who has the experience to excel. Fellow tackle Larry Black has the requisite girth to stuff the run but must be more consistent. Who will bring the heat off the edge? Ryan Phillis and Bobby Richardson have the athletic ability to rush the passer, which was a glaring weakness last season. In fact, Richardson could be special if he continues to develop.
12. Minnesota – There is lots to prove for a unit that is long on inexperience and short on depth. It also hurts that Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs are gone. End Ben Perry is being counted on to rush off the edge. D.L. Wilhite must lead and produce at the other end for a team that hasn’t had a good pass rush in eons. If you are looking for a potential future star, check out tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who is built like a Coke machine and could be a future pro if he matures and works hard. Roland Johnson is set at nose. This group must avoid getting pushed around for Minnesota to have any hope for an average defense.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.