Ranking Big Ten's top 10 position units in 2014

Take a moment to open your Big Ten football history books and think back to some of the top position units that have defined the conference’s excellence. Think back to when Penn State first adopted the name “Linebacker U.” Or Purdue’s “Den of Defensive Ends.”

This got me thinking about the upcoming season and what current position units have the chance to make a name for themselves.

Without further ado, here is a breakdown of my top 10 position units in the Big Ten.

[ MORE: Merriman: My 2014 Big Ten All-Breakout Team ]

1. Ohio State Defensive Line
After having to replace all four starters on the defensive line last season, Ohio State may have the top defensive line in the country. The Buckeyes return a pair of dominant defensive ends, in Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, who combined for 15.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss last season. On the interior, Ohio State has Michael Bennett, who was outstanding in 2013 and should be an All-Big Ten performers. Add in Adolphus Washington, one of the top up-and-coming defensive lineman in the conference, and you have the Big Ten’s top position unit – and maybe the best in the nation. Yes, this group is that good.

2. Nebraska Running Backs
You won’t find many backfields throughout college football as talented as the Huskers’ running back group. This group is led by Preseason All-American Ameer Abdullah, who led the conference in rushing last season. The talented senior tailback rushed for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while averaging 130 yards per game. Junior Imani Cross, the thunder to Abdullah’s lightning, is Nebraska’s goal-line back; in fact, Cross’ 10 rushing touchdowns ranked No. 10 in the Big Ten last season, and he scored on every 8.5 carries, which led the Big Ten. The Huskers also have Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor in the fold.

3. Michigan State Defensive Line
Just like Ohio State, the Spartans have a pretty special group of defensive linemen, which starts with Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. A preseason All-American candidate, Calhoun led the conference with four fumble recoveries in 2013, two of which were returned for touchdowns. His 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss also ranked among the Big Ten leaders. Opposite Calhoun is three-year starter Marcus Rush, who is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. Also in the defensive end mix is Demetrius Cooper, who was one of the Big Ten stars this spring. On the interior, look for Joel Heath and Damon Knox to have big seasons. That group is loaded with talent and depth and should be looked at as the strength of what was the nation’s top defense in 2013.

4. Wisconsin Running Backs
If James White was still around, this would potentially be the top running back unit in the nation this season. However, even with White off to the NFL, this group is stacked with talent, led by All-Big Ten running back Melvin Gordon. A likely Heisman Trophy candidate heading into this season, Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards last year, while averaging 7.8 yards per tote. He will share backfield duties with sophomore Corey Clement, who looked outstanding in a backup role en route to racking up 547 yards and seven touchdowns as the third option. These two combined for more than 2,200 yards last year. That’s impressive.

5. Penn State Tight Ends
Seeing a group of tight ends this high up on the list may surprise a few people, but then again, it’s not every day you see a trio of tight ends as dominant as what Penn State has right now. The Nittany Lions’ trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman combined to haul in 58 catches for 741 yards and nine touchdowns. Now, with Allen Robinson off to the NFL, there will be more passes to go around for this talented group. Don’t be surprised if this trio tops the 75 catch, 1,000 yard, 10 touchdown mark in 2014. They certainly have the talent to do it.

6. Maryland Wide Receivers
Maryland enters its first season in the Big Ten with a bevy of talented wide receivers. Leading the way is junior-to-be Stefon Diggs, who should be one of, if not, the top wideout in the conference this season. He is joined by the likes of Levern Jacobs, Amba Etta-Tawo, Deon Long and Nigel King. So, we ask, just how good is this group? Well, all five of these Maryland wideouts caught more than 30 passes, and all five recorded 450-or-more receiving yards in 2013. Now, that’s what we call “quality depth.”

7. Wisconsin Offensive Line
This group is consistently one of the best in the Big Ten on a yearly basis, so it’s no surprise to see them in this spot. All five projected starters on Wisconsin’s offensive line have plenty of playing experience, led by offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media in 2013. This group should pave the way for one of the explosive rushing attack featured at No. 4.

8. Michigan Cornerbacks
The Wolverines haven’t had a dominant defensive backfield in some time now, but that could change in 2014. Michigan returns both starting cornerbacks in Blake Countess and Ramon Taylor. Countess was a first-team All-Big Ten member last season, teaming up with Taylor for 10 interceptions. Joining that group will be sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who was beyond impressive this spring, as well as mega-recruit Jabrill Peppers, who is the No. 2-ranked prospect in the nation. This group is simply loaded with talent, from top to bottom.

9. Iowa Offensive Line
This is another group that seems to be among the top position groups every year, and this year shouldn’t be any different. The Hawkeyes’ offensive line is led by  Brandon Scherff, who was an All-Big Ten selection last season. Also returning is Andrew Donnal, who will likely make the move from guard to right tackle, and center Austin Blythe. This group helped pave the way for three 400-plus yard rushers last season, all of who return in 2014.

10. Indiana Quarterbacks
Yes, it is a bit rare to see a group of quarterbacks on a list like this, but when talking about talent and depth, you won’t find a better 1-2 QB punch in the Big Ten than Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. These guys split time at quarterback for the Hoosiers last season, and it worked to perfection. Sudfeld is more of a pocket passer, throwing for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, while Roberson is a dual-threat option, adding 423 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, to go along with his 1,128 yards and 15 touchdown strikes. This duo is interchangeable and gives Indiana coach Kevin Wilson options in his fast-paced, explosive offense.

About Sean Merriman BTN.com web editor Sean Merriman covers football and men’s basketball and provides original content for BTN.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BTNSean.

Originally from Farmington Hills, MI, I have worked at the Big Ten Network since 2012 and took over my role as web editor and blogger in August, 2013. Follow me on twitter for constant Big Ten updates @srmerriman. Thanks and enjoy!!

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16 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (16 Comments)
Ben on 6/5/2014 @ 4:38pm EDT Said:

Laurence Thomas is going to be a big part of the MSU D-line too. Much more than Joel Heath.

Ju Stimage on 6/5/2014 @ 8:55pm EDT Said:

Michigans DB? Kansas St , Ohio St and Indianas offense are laughing at this nonsense

Gurndogg on 6/6/2014 @ 12:33pm EDT Said:

I totally agree Ju even if you judge this on Peppers being there its still not as goood as MSU’s or OSU’s DB field look at OSU’s for a minute D. Grant is better than Blake then Reeves is better Taylor then safety Bell is better than anyone UM has then Powell & thats not even probably the best of OSU’s DB field as (CB’s) Apple, Conley, Webb, Lattmore &
(Safety) Smith, Burrows, Hooker could move past them. GO BUCK’s!!! OH—-

Brent Soenksen on 6/6/2014 @ 1:26pm EDT Said:

Joel Hale was moved to the offensive line…. months ago….

Jeremy on 6/6/2014 @ 2:46pm EDT Said:

How is Michigan’s secondary not on here? Blake Countess & Jabrill Peppers alone make it a formidable unit.

Big Ten Fan on 6/6/2014 @ 3:37pm EDT Said:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ohio State’s D-line is the best in the nation or even best in the conference. Michigan State and Penn State’s lines will have a lot to say about it before it is all said and done and right now, I would be comfortable putting Ohio State at #2 behind Penn State. PSU’s trio of ends in Barnes, Oliniyan and Bars are already better than Spence, Bosa and Washington and they have three more ends behind them. Inside it is more of the same. Better starters, better depth.

Then we have Michigan State. I would take Calhoun (best player in the Big Ten hands down) and Rush over Spence and Bosa. Sparty has more talent and more size inside as well even if they are breaking in new starters. Don’t sleep on Penn State’s running backs. Zwinak is the top power runner in the nation. Belton is fast, shifty and the league’s top receiver at the position and Akeel Lynch can do everything well.

Dustin Gilliland on 6/6/2014 @ 4:41pm EDT Said:

Joel Hale moved to the offensive line. Tommy Schutt will be the one to watch

Pops on 6/6/2014 @ 8:24pm EDT Said:

Wolverine cornerbacks over no fly zone?! Smh

Mary Brennan on 6/6/2014 @ 9:30pm EDT Said:

Nebraska’s Linebackers look to be a very stud group this season. And their D Line should rank up there among the best in the conference.

Justin on 6/6/2014 @ 9:36pm EDT Said:

I would add Michigan LBs to this list as well. Adding Peppers and Jourdan Lewis will help our DBs quite a bit this year.

Ken Laurent on 6/6/2014 @ 10:09pm EDT Said:

Nebraska’s Running Backs ahead of Wisconsin’s? Are you insane? James White had the most attempts last year, and the lowest yards per carry. What do you think Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement would have done with James’ 221 carries? Wisconsin backs rushed for nearly 2 more yards per carry. C’mon, man!

Brent Yarina, BTN.com Senior Editor on 6/7/2014 @ 12:44am EDT Said:

Joel Hale was incorrectly listed as a defensive lineman. The error has been fixed.

Scot Acocks on 6/7/2014 @ 3:08pm EDT Said:

It’s not Michigan’s entire secondary getting ranked here. It’s just their corners, and a lot of it is depending on how much Lewis and Stribling improve as backups and how much Peppers pans out as a freshman. They will be stacked. However, I agree with Justin in adding Michigan’s linebackers somewhere in the mix. They are probably just on the outside looking in on this list, because they are good, experienced, and deep. Oh well, I would rather be underrated than overrated anyway. Go Blue! 15-0 this year!! ;P

Wade on 6/7/2014 @ 6:26pm EDT Said:

Theres no denying Wiscy’s RB’s abilities…. But Abdullah is the leading returning rusher in the nation, not just the B10. Plus, Cross, Newby, and Taylor should all be able to add the type of depth that Wiscy has had lately.

Its really too close to call though, maybe thats why they’re only two spots apart on the list. Both units are going to be top 5 in the nation.

Michael Rockow on 6/8/2014 @ 8:53pm EDT Said:

Michigan’s DBs should be much better this year. Peppers makes them more physical and Channing Stribling has a year of experience – he might be the other CB. Also Michigan’s LBs are going to be good – Ryan is back and James Ross is solid. They’ll be great if Desmond Morgan improves. Which tells you just how bad the DLine was last year.

Cory Mullins on 6/12/2014 @ 12:54pm EDT Said:

This is a very diplomatic list. I can get with the recogntion of OSU as a top-end defensive line outfit. However….UM CB’s? Perhaps you can make an argument to sneak them in as an honorable mention. Did UM’s backfield crack the BTN top 10 position units in ’08 based on the impending arrival of Sam McGuffie? In watching almost all UM games last year, I didn’t find Countess or Taylor to be overwhelming (though Countess is very athletic). Didn’t watch Maryland football last year, but many pubs have them picked as a upset special for a few B1G teams next year, Spartans included. If we are isolating positions within team layers, I would have a tough time picking between MSU and OSU DE’s this season: Olaniyan is the best pass rusher in the conference.

It is nearly impossible to isolate the effectiveness of CB’s from the secondary as a whole, but in MSU’s scheme, its pretty easy to do – they are m-2-m or in deep quarters the majority of the game and DON’T GET BEAT.

Tre Waynes = Best CB in B1G.
And, Harlon Barnett, Duzzi and MD developing Darian Hicks = My vote for best CB pair in B1G

And Ken Laurent, I would tend to agree: Nebraska has a nice backfield, but Wisky is the class of the conference. Iowa line is a force, but I am going to take a waiver in picking them for a potential West champion like a lot of writers have; Ferentz can’t get out of his own way.