Unit Rankings: Ohio State highlights Big Ten East defensive backfields

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Unit Rankings: Ohio State highlights Big Ten East defensive backfields

This is the last line of defense, the one remaining obstacle between an offense and paydirt, and the Big Ten East figures to feature some very talented defensive backfields.

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Some questions loom for a Michigan State secondary that has been the Big Ten’s benchmark in recent years.

Here’s how the defensive backfields in the Big Ten East stack up:

1. Ohio State. Talent never is an issue in Columbus. The secondary is no exception. This unit is in good shape with just one starter gone in corner Doran Grant, an NFL pick. Gareon Conley is primed to take over the spot; Eli Apple is back at the other cornerback slot. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better safety tandem than Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, a key team leader. Depth is good. Keep an eye on CB Damon Webb.

2. Maryland. This is the best part of a defense that is littered with questions. Corner Will Likely is just 5-7, 175 pounds, but he’s a giant of a player. In fact, he may be the Terps’ top talent. He had two pick-sixes last year. Converted safety Sean Davis is the other corner. He paced the team with 115 tackles in 2014. Look for more man coverage from these guys in a new 4-3 scheme run by a new coordinator. A.J. Hendy is back from suspension to wreak havoc at strong safety. He’ll team with hard-hitting free safety Anthony Nixon to give Maryland a potent tandem. Depth is good.

3. Penn State. This group looks good. Jordan Lucas is a rising star who has moved from corner to strong safety. Marcus Allen is back to reprise his role as the starting free safety coming off a strong debut season. He looks like a future star. The corner spots look solid. Trevor Williams is a returning starter. He’ll be opposite Grant Haley, the lone new starter in the secondary. Depth is good with players like Malik Golden, Troy Apke and Christian Campbell.

4. Michigan. This unit has undergone change. Jabrill Peppers dipped his toe into action last year before redshirting due to injury. Now, the wraps will come off the mega-talent, who is transitioning from cornerback to strong safety. Free safety Jarrod Wilson is back to start again. The Wolverines are set at one corner with diminutive Jourdan Lewis, a returning starter. Wayne Lyons—a grad transfer from Stanford–is expected to start opposite Wilson after Blake Countess bolted.

5. Michigan State. The front seven is good. The back end? Stay tuned, as the famed “No Fly Zone” looks for answers. Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond is gone, as well as Trae Waynes, the No. 11 pick in the NFL draft. Still, the safety spots look good with rising star Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson, who has something to prove. Getting big-play plays from the cornerbacks is critical to the success of this defense, which has produced first-round picks at CB each of the last two years in Darqueze Dennard in 2014 and Waynes in 2015. Demetrious Cox, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson are the front-runners at position that requires lots of man coverage.

6. Rutgers. There is potential for a unit that has athletic ability even with the departures of key players in safeties Lorenzo Waters and Gareef Glashen. But inexperience may be an issue. Nadir Barnwell is a returning starter at cornerback. But he may lose out to Dre Boggs and Blessuan Austin. Each has the size and attitude to play the key spot. There are good options at safety in Miami (Fla.) transfer Kiy Hester, Delon Stephenson, Davon Jacobs and Anthony Cioffi.

7. Indiana. Everyone in Bloomington has their fingers crossed, as IU replaces four starters. It was a huge blow when star safety Antonio Allen was dismissed following his stunning June arrest on drug charges. He was the team’s top returning tackler and a big hitter. Chase Dutra is primed to start at free safety. Tony Fields figures in at Allen’s strong safety spot. Ben Bach and Noel Padmore are heating up at corner along with Kenny Mullen and Rashard Fant, a touted prospect. Keep an eye on incoming freshmen Tyler Green and Jonathan Crawford.

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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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