DB rankings: Spartans' 'No Fly Zone' tops B1G

Few schools have played defense as well as Michigan State in recent years. And a big reason for the success has been the secondary, a unit known for its aggressive, press-man coverage. MSU will have another talented secondary in 2014. In fact, it will be the best in the conference. Here’s a look at Big Ten defensive backfields.

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1. Michigan State. This group has become famous for its “No Fly Zone” moniker. Expect more standout play even with CB Darqueze Dennard gone. Trae Waynes is the new star corner. He’ll partner with Darian Hicks. Lots of competition at the safety spots with Jalyn Powell and RJ Williamson competing at strong safety and Kurtis Drummond and Demetrious Cox at free safety.

2. Michigan. This could be a special group with the arrival of heralded CB Jabrill Peppers. He’ll battle Blake Countess, Ray Taylor, Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis in a deep position. This group must eliminate the big plays. To that end, look for more aggressive play. FS Jarrod Wilson is back to start. The other safety spot will be a battle among Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas.

3. Penn State. Lots to like with three starters back in CBs Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas along with S Adrian Amos. Lucas emerged as a star last season, while Amos has 25 career starts to his credit. Ryan Keiser is primed to claim the other safety slot. Depth is good with CB Da’Quan Davis and S Malik Golden.

[ MORE: Penn State paces Big Ten offensive backfield rankings ]

4. Nebraska. This group will build around S Corey Cooper and CB Josh Mitchell, who’s light in the pants but can hit. Cooper paced the Cornhuskers with 91 tackles last season. Who will start opposite Cooper? Ex-LB Nathan Gerry or LeRoy Alexander will battle. Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell are the candidates to join Mitchell at corner. Charles Jackson is the nickel back.

5. Northwestern. This could be a very good secondary. Ibraheim Campbell may be the top safety in the Big Ten. He’ll team with hard-hitting Traveon Henry to give the Wildcats a rugged tandem in the back end. Entering his third year as a starter, CB Nick VanHoose is among the best at the position in the league. Matthew Harris looks like the other corner. Overall depth is good with CBs Daniel Jones and Dwight White and S Godwin Igwebuike.

6. Ohio State. Losing CB Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett hurts, but talent looms in the back end of this defense. The staff likes Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell—last year’s nickel back–at the safety slots. Bell may be a star. Doran Grant—the only starter back–and Armani Reeves are the corners. Cameron Burrows is another good cover man.

[ MORE: Ohio State tops Big Ten defensive line rankings ]

7. Iowa. There’s a mix of experience and youth here, with two starters back in SS John Lowdermilk and CB Desmond King. Sean Draper and Maurice Fleming are battling to start opposite King. Jordan Lomax figures to lock down the free safety slot after opening 2013 as a starting corner.

8. Wisconsin. This group has a nice cornerback duo to build around in rising star Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary. Devin Gaulden also is capable after coming on in the spring. The safety spots need to be watched. Michael Caputo looks good after moving back to the position following a spring switch to linebacker. Leo Musso, Peniel Jean and Austin Hudson are other options at safety.

9. Maryland. The Terps have one of the league’s better safety duos in Sean Davis (SS) and Anthony Nixon (FS). Davis paced the Terps with 102 tackles in 2013. CB Will Likely was a true freshman star last season, making 70 stops with a team-best six passes broken up. Senior Jeremiah Johnson, who missed most of last season but started 12 games as a sophomore, is opposite Likely.

[ MORE: Brandon Scheff, Iowa top Big Ten offensive line rankings ]

10. Minnesota. This group lacks experience, but there’s talent for what was one of the most underrated units in the Big Ten in 2013. S Brock Vereen will be missed. First up to replace him: Antonio Thompson. Cedric Thompson is back to play the other safety slot after leading the team with 79 tackles. Eric Murray is the team’s top corner who broke up 10 passes in 2013. Ex-safety Derrick Wells should lineup opposite Murray.

11. Indiana. Long a weakness, this group has potential. The corner tandem of Michael Hunter and Tim Bennett is back. Bennett is an ex-safety who paced the nation with 20 passes broken up in 2013. SS Mark Murphy plays downhill. FS Antonio Allen is an emerging star who is coming off a knee injury. And keep an eye on youngsters Chase Dutra (S) and Rashard Fant (CB).

12. Purdue. This unit has a chance to be good with three starters back. There is experience at cornerback with Frankie Williams and Anthony Brown. Williams can cover. Brown was second on the club with 69 tackles in 2013. SS Landon Feichter is the heart, soul and guts of this unit—if not the defense. What he lacks in skill he compensates for with effort. Like Feichter, FS Taylor Richards is a returning starter who has a nose for the ball.

[ MORE: Newcomer Terps boast Big Ten’s best receiving corps ]

13. Rutgers. There’s nice potential. Lorenzo Waters and Deion Stephenson can run and hit from their safety spots. Anthony Cioffi could start at one cornerback spot. The other corner spot is up for grabs between Gareef Glashen and Nadir Barnwell. Depth is thin.

14. Illinois. On a defense littered with question, this unit is the biggest unknown. Experience is minimal, as only one senior dots the two-deep. Big plays? They were few in 2013, as this group produced just two picks and forced no fumbles. There are some intriguing options at corner in V’Angelo Bentley, Caleb Day, Eaton Spence and Darius Mosely. Zane Petty and Taylor Barton are the lone safeties with experience.

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.


Your Opinion?
Show Comments (10 Comments)
Scott on 7/8/2014 @ 11:58am EDT Said:

2013 first team All Big Ten safety Kurtis Drummond isn’t really facing much competition to keep his starting job at Michigan State, is he?

Gary on 7/8/2014 @ 6:17pm EDT Said:

You have Michigan based on a recruit that hasn’t ever played a down at this level and Penn State a team returning a good chunk but nothing earth shattering, AHEAD of Nebraska despite last year’s output vs returning players/experience? A team that loses two proven seniors but ALL players filling 1st team slots have more playing time than any other team YOU ranked of ahead of their squad. Last year was Nebraska’s worst pass efficiency defense finish in the last 5 years and every player you’ll see start in the secondary has significant playing time in conference play. The leading safety is a top 25 all conference player. Josh Mitchell has been a repeated starter and the product of several highlight reels. Nathan Gerry had multiple starts and loads of playing time at LB last year as a FRESHMAN. His natural position is safety. Add the talent of Cockrell or Jonathan Rose, both players that were significantly on the field last year, and you get a typical Bo Pelini top 20% pass efficiency defense. I’m betting that you’ll be one of every pundit to be wrong in the prediction game as most are every year.

People are sleeping on Nebraska this year. This is probably the best well rounded group of talent and experience that will suit up on saturday’s in Bo’s tenure. They’ve pretty much been predicted as 1, 2, or 3 in all position groups except special teams (specifically punt returns), yet they’re being picked as 4th to 6th in conference. While MSU may have had a “no fly zone” group of players last year. Nebraska’s secondary is consistently a no fly zone under Pelini.

I revoke your license to predict.

Joe Courtney on 7/8/2014 @ 7:33pm EDT Said:

Maryland piece was very inaccurate. First, it’s Anthony Nixon, not Nelson. Second, calling Jeremiah Johnson inexperienced is just incorrect. He’s a senior, He was higher on the depth chart last year than Likely before he was injured, and would have started along side the now Jets corner Dexter McDougle. He’s probably going to be Maryland’s #1 corner this year despite Likely’s stellar freshman campaign. He’s definitely not the weak link of this secondary, if anything our depth after Johnson and Likely is what could hurt us. I’m not even upset with where you ranked them, but these inaccuracies show that you spent about 30 seconds putting together the Maryland section.

Doug on 7/8/2014 @ 7:57pm EDT Said:

Gary, BTN is all about Michigan all the time, you should be used to it by now

Josh on 7/8/2014 @ 9:22pm EDT Said:

@Gary Even Phil Steele picked Michigan’s DBs as the best in the B1G in his magazine, though, and Countess is the headliner of the unit, not Peppers. The BTN already gave Nebraska the best linebackers title for the preseason, so it is unlikely that they have the best cornerbacks too.

bob jones on 7/8/2014 @ 9:31pm EDT Said:

Huskers being overlooked mainly because they have underperformed for a decade or more. They have a lot to prove and first and foremost must quit beating themselves. This year however, they are loaded. If they can stay relatively healthy and Armstrong can progress as expected at QB, and their punt return game can be just average instead of an embarrassment, they will be very tough to beat. Big season ahead for the Huskers, very big.

JP on 7/9/2014 @ 10:48am EDT Said:

Narduzzi should get his due, as he has been, about being a great defensive coach and just “reloading”. However, so should Bo Pelini when it comes to pass defense. Every year one of the best in the country and half of his 6 years were in a passing conference (Big 12).

RUChoppin on 7/9/2014 @ 3:03pm EDT Said:

Ian Thomas will have a hard time starting at one cornerback spot for Rutgers, seeing as he left the team a month ago.

Hawk Fan on 7/9/2014 @ 3:55pm EDT Said:

Stop Whinning its just rankings, besides your nothing special anymore🙂

JP on 7/10/2014 @ 10:10am EDT Said:

@allhawk fans
You’d know about not having a special program. You were fortunate last year to play against a back up O line and 3rd string walk on QB. Wait and see.