Dienhart: Here's how I rank Big Ten defensive lines

The biggest difference between the SEC and Big Ten isn’t speed at the skill-positions on offense. Nope. It’s on defense—along the line, in particular. The Big Ten has some big fellas who can make plays and get up the field—just not the depth and breadth of the SEC. But, the situation is improving. Here is my ranking of the Big Ten defensive lines.

1. Ohio State. Hard to think this unit could rank this high with all four starters—John Simon, Nathan Williams, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel–from last year gone. But, it’s true. The Buckeyes are loaded with great young players up front, all of whom got their feet wet last season. “Leo” Noah Spence, end Adolphus Washington and tackle Tommy Schutt are all sophomores on the rise. Look for veteran tackle Michael Bennett, a junior, to start alongside junior nose man Joel Hale, with Spence and Washington at the ends. Speaking of Washington, he may be the best of the bunch.

[ RELATED: Check out all of Dienhart’s 2013 unit rankings ]

2. Wisconsin. The Badgers will operate out of a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Dave Aranda. And he’ll have plenty of talent to choose from up front. Massive senior Beau Allen (335 pounds) and his long, flowing hair will line up on the nose.  And a pair of seniors will start at end, with Pat Muldoon on one side and Ethan Hemer—a former walk on–on the other. Hemer (319) is a big end. Stopping the run shouldn’t be an issue for this front; but pass rushing may be. Sophomore Jake Keefer may help.

3. Michigan State. Yes, end William Gholston is gone along with tackle Anthony Rashad White. But this still will be a strong front. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun looks primed to be a force at end opposite junior Marcus Rush, a pass-rusher deluxe. Junior James Kittridge and senior Tyler Hoover are big forces on the inside at tackle. Keep an eye on sophomore Lawrence Thomas, a former fullback who may have found a home. Senior Micajah Reynolds is a big veteran inside.

4. Michigan. Not long ago, this was an area of weakness. Now, the Wolverines have a deep and talented group. End Craig Roh and tackle William Campbell are gone. Junior Frank Clark needs to emerge as a force off the edge. He’s capable. Sit back and watch. Sophomore end Mario Ojemudia also could break out. Jibreel Black (3-technique) and Quinton Washington (nose) should form a nice tackle tandem. Massive sophomore Ondre Pipkins also will play a big role inside. Keep an eye on true freshman end Taco Charlton, an uber-athletic early enrollee.

5. Northwestern. This could be one of the Wildcats’ better fronts in years, even with tackle Brian Arnfelt and end Quentin Williams gone. Senior end Tyler Scott is one of the Big Ten’s top pass rushers. He’s the Big Ten’s leading returning sacker (9). Junior tackle Sean McEvilly is an anchor inside. Junior Chance Carter could break out alongside McEvilly at tackle. Sophomores Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson will battle to play opposite Scott. Each is capable. Keep an eye on athletic redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, one of the biggest recruits in recent school history. He could be a third-down pass rusher.

6. Penn State. Losing tackle Jordan Hill hurts. End Sean Stanley also is gone. But there’s talent. It begins with sophomore end Deion Barnes, who was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012. He just makes plays up field. Junior C.J. Olaniyan and sophomore Anthony Zettel also will play big roles. And keep an eye on junior Brad Bars. Inside, there are some worries. Big senior DaQuan Jones will hold down one spot. Junior Kyle Baublitz is back after moving inside from end last season. Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson has promise.

7. Nebraska. This unit is under pressure to improve. Tackle Baker Steinkuhler and ends Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin are gone. Senior end Jason Ankrah is one of the few vets. Who will join him up front? This group will be impacted significantly by a raft of newcomers, including JC transfer pass rusher Randy Gregory. Redshirt freshman ends Avery Moss and Greg McMullen need to impact. Inside, senior Thad Randle needs to plug the run, but he seemingly always battles injury. Sophomores Kevin Williams and Aaron Curry need to make moves. Fans are salivating to see massive redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine, a run-stuffer. His time has arrived.

8. Purdue. Tackle Kawann Short’s playmaking on the inside will be missed. He’s off to the NFL. But talent remains. Junior end Ryan Russell is primed to breakout into a pass-rushing force. Senior Bruce Gaston could be the next Boilermaker tackle drafted. Sawed-off senior tackle Brandon Taylor is difficult to wedge from the hole. Sophomore Ryan Watson—the top Purdue recruit in 2012–is a youngster to watch inside. Former JC transfer Greg Latta, a senior, and junior Jalani Phillips are other options at end.

9. Iowa. This unit has lagged in recent years. Where are the playmakers? And vets Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach are gone. A pass rusher is needed. Senior end Dominic Alvis may be the guy. Maybe not. Sophomore Drew Ott looks like the other end. Big junior Carl Davis needs to muck up the works on the inside at a tackle spot that features decent depth. Sophomore Darian Cooper has shown promise early on the inside, along with Louis Trinca-Pasat. Redshirt freshmen end Faith Ekakitie and tackle Jaleel Johnson could make early impacts.

10. Minnesota. This group begins and ends with senior tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a monster of a man and future first-round draft choice who almost turned pro. Junior Cameron Botticelli, a former walk-on, will figure in on the interior. Aside from Hageman, size is an issue inside. The search is on for a pass rusher with D.L. Wilhite gone; he was one of the Big Ten’s best. Sophomore Theiren Cockran may be a playmaker. Junior Michael Amaefula looks to start opposite Cockran.

11. Illinois. Lots of work to do with the likes of end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence gone as NFL draft picks. The lone starter back is senior end Tim Kynard. Who is gonna make plays? Former linebacker Houston Bates may be a guy at the other end. Junior Jake Howe figures in on the nose. Can he stuff the run? Redshirt freshman tackle Vontrell Williams could emerge. Junior tackle Austin Teitsma has bulked up. Keep an eye on JC transfer Abens Cajuste, who could play end or tackle. He’s special.

12. Indiana. It’s a constant struggle for this unit. Veteran tackles Larry Black, Jr., and Adam Replogle are gone. They were stalwarts. Junior end Ryan Phillis is the closest thing to a playmaker on this front. Fellow junior end Bobby Richardson has shown an ability to be a difference-maker. The staff likes sophomore end Zack Shaw. Inside, redshirt freshman Ralphael Green and sophomore Alex Todd bring beef for a unit that too often gets run over.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (12 Comments)
Doug on 5/31/2013 @ 11:22am EDT Said:

MSU is too low and Michigan is too high, but otherwise it looks good, sorry Dhani.

K. John on 5/31/2013 @ 12:10pm EDT Said:

Michigan State gets the overall edge thanks to depth and addition by subtraction (Gholston) but as far as quality in the starters, Penn State is second to none with the top returning end and tackle in the Big Ten. Don’t be surprised when Austin Johnson is the top interior linemen in the league at season’s end.

1a. Michigan State
1b. Penn State

Next in line

Big Brother on 5/31/2013 @ 12:45pm EDT Said:

Frank Clark is a better DE than anyone MSU has left on their team. he weighs 277 lbs and yet is fast enough to run with the receivers with a 4.64 40 time. he should terrorize Maxwell badly this year against MSU’s anemic OL

Josh on 5/31/2013 @ 12:58pm EDT Said:

Wish you gave a reason why you said that. Since you didn’t, I will dub that you are wearing green-and-white goggles.

OSU looks to have a good defensive line, but I don’t think they are #1 since Simon and Hankins are significant losses. Wisconsin is also questionable; too hard to expect what will come from this new defense. Michigan State is definitely in the top 3 if not #1, they always have a good defensive line. Michigan at #4 is reasonable since Michigan has had great defense ever since Hoke and Mattison have been hired. Rest seem good.

Brian B. on 5/31/2013 @ 1:44pm EDT Said:

You pick the team that lost every starter from last year as the best in the conference? I think Urban Meyer is second only to Saban, but there will be some drop off from last year. The B1G is down but experience will still count for something. As far as MSU and PSU their defenses are talented, but not enough to shoulder the load of offenses that will struggle. I am not a Michigan fan but I think they will have the better season.

Common Sense on 5/31/2013 @ 2:53pm EDT Said:

Black and Washington have MSU speed Doug, MSU defensive line is good at #3 but I would say Michigans is even better maybe # 2. BTW the helmet voting is righteous check out Yarinas explanation it explains everything.

bob jones on 5/31/2013 @ 4:13pm EDT Said:

Nebraska has huge questions at the D line, they could end up the best or the worst in the conference, lots of promising, but still unproven newcomers are needed to step up. This group will likely decide whether the Huskers have another decent season or a great season. Huskers were embarrassed a few times last season by their lack of run stopping ability up front, some of it brought on by injury, they really need to see several of the young guys step up. The talent seems to be there, hopefully it develops in a hurry. As Dick Vermeil once said,”it’s time to take off the diapers.”

huskerfanbb on 5/31/2013 @ 6:02pm EDT Said:

Worst of Dienhardt’s rankings so far.

OSU’s talent is completely unproven, no way are they #1. Urban’s genius is on the offensive side of the ball–not defense. #4 would be generous.

Wisconsin switching schemes will hurt them, especially early. #2 is pretty heady territory unless their pass rush can be a lot better than it looks like it is going to be.

Penn State is too low, and MSU probably is, also, even though both lost some talent.

Nebraska couldn’t stop anybody on the ground last year, especially after Steinkuhler went down. #7 here seems pretty optimistic, too, although the ones he has below them don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either.

Josh on 5/31/2013 @ 6:16pm EDT Said:

IU brought in 3 four-star recruits on the Dline. They should be fine at DE, but DT is a question mark.

Brian B. on 5/31/2013 @ 8:44pm EDT Said:

I agree Bob, a lot of questions for a young Husker D. The one guarantee is that they will be A LOT more athletic at almost every position in the front seven. Combine that with experience in the secondary and a softer schedule, and I see Nebraska as a serious contender for the CCG again.

Rob G. on 5/31/2013 @ 8:51pm EDT Said:

Nebraska really needs more consistent play from the defensive line. At times it looks like they get overpowered by opposing offensive lines and just wear down. The offense is championship caliber but can’t keep expecting to win the game in a shootout every week. At some point, the defense needs to step up and stop somebody if Nebraska is going to make that step from a good season to a great one. I like the young talent that is there, hopefully they play the way they are capable of in 2013.

shookwriter27 on 5/31/2013 @ 10:47pm EDT Said:

I think Greg Colby, Illinois’ d-line coach, will really help these players.