Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, June 17, 2015

Big Ten West can?t match the star power and proven ability of its East Division counterpart. But there still is plenty of talent-and potential. And it all begins with a monster tackle tandem at Nebraska.

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1. Nebraska. Yes, star end Randy Gregory turned pro early. Still, the Cornhuskers have one of the best tackle tandems in the nation in Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins, who paced the team in TFLs in 2014. These are big men with speed who can collapse the pocket and stuff the run. Reserves Kevin Williams and Kevin Maurice are capable. Who will bring the heat with Gregory gone? Line coach Hank Hughes needs to find his man. End Greg McMullen is back, but he?s more of a run-stuffer. Ditto ex-walk-on Jack Gangwish. Keep an eye on Freedom Akinmoladun.

2. Minnesota. Underrated line coach Jeff Phelps will build his front around fireplug tackle Steve Richardson, a freshman sensation in 2014, and lithe end Theiren Cockran, one of the league?s better pass rushers. There are some good options for the other spots, including the Ekpe brothers-tackle Scott and end Hendrick. Andrew Stelter will get a shot next to Richardson at tackle on a line that has good depth.

3. Wisconsin. No real stars for line coach Inoke Breckterfield, but lots of good players. The three-man front looks solid. End Chikwe Obasih is the lone returning starter after emerging in 2014. Jake Keefer is the other end, with Arthur Goldberg on the nose. Alec James is another proven end, while Conor Sheehy backs up Goldberg. This unit helped the Badgers rank No. 23 in the nation vs. the run last season (126.1 ypg).

4. Northwestern. There is depth and good potential, beginning with senior end Dean Lowry. He?s the star of the group and an anchor vs. the run. Deonte Gibson is back to start at the other end with Ifeadi Odenigbo also on the edge and seemingly on the precipice of finally living up to his hype. He can bring the heat, but can he stop the run? End Xavier Washington got his feet wet as a freshman last season. Keep an eye on him. Greg Kuhar is an anchor at tackle, with Sean McEvilly back after injury ruined his 2014.

5. Iowa. The Hawkeyes are set on the edge with Nate Meier and Drew Ott back at end. Meier is undersized but explosive. Ott has been compared to ex-Hawkeye star Aaron Kampman. Ott is one of the Big Ten?s best who has 10.5 career sacks. Inside, Iowa lost Carl Davis (NFL draft pick) and Louis Trinca-Pasat (NFL free agent). That?s a tough blow for sage line coach Reese Morgan. Athletic Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata-a prep wrestling stud–are next up. Talented Faith Ekakitie also is in the mix.

6. Purdue. D-line coach Rubin Carter likes its option inside at tackle, one of the strong areas on the club. Jake Replogle is the best of the bunch up front. He led the team with 10.5 TLFs last year. Nose tackle Ra?Zahn Howard is a load but needs to stay in shape. Ryan Watson is a veteran. The end spots are a bit of a worry. Ryan Russell is gone, off the NFL. It?s hoped undersized Gelen Robinson becomes a pass-rushing force. And Evan Panfil needs to emerge on the other ends. John Strauser and Antoine Miles are in the mix for an end position that is on the spot.

7. Illinois. The Illini have been a sieve vs. the run under Tim Beckman, ranking 95th, 116th and 115th in the nation vs. the run, respectively, each of the last three years. But the bleeding may be stopping. End Jihad Ward is all man, and super strong nose man Rob Bain is tough to wedge from the line. He teams with Teko Powell to give Illinois an anchor inside. Athletic Dawuane Smoot is opposite Ward in a hybrid ?Leo? slot. The arrival of new line coach and co-coordinator Mike Phair from the NFL also should pay dividends.


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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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