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Ranking the Big Ten Positional Groups: Defensive Line

by Sal Soothsayer | Posted on Thursday, July 10th, 2014

We continue our week-long analysis of the Big Ten by taking a closer look at the defensive line, the best unit top to bottom in the Big Ten Conference.


Monday – Offensive Backfield
Tuesday – Receivers
Wednesday – Offensive Line
Thursday – Defensive Line
Friday – Linebackers
Saturday – Secondary
Sunday – The Coaches


A premium has been placed on defensive linemen in the NFL draft in recent years and for good reason.  The ability to put pressure on the quarterback has been proven one of the most effective ways of stopping the contemporary passing attacks.

Ohio State's Noah Spence is one of the best pass-rushers in the country. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

Ohio State’s Noah Spence is one of the best pass-rushers in the country. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

The best units from top to bottom…

1. Ohio State – This much heralded unit is not only the best in the Conference but should have one of the two best in the nation along with Florida State.  The entire three deep (yes you read that right) returns for the Buckeyes.  Junior DE Noah Spence (6’3, 252, 14.5 tfl), sophomore DE Joey Bosa (6’5, 285, 7.5 sacks)  and senior DT Michael Bennett (6’2, 288) were all All-Big Ten performers in 2013.  The unit will be bolstered by junior DT Adolphus Washington (6’2, 288, 4 tfl), junior DT Chris Carter (6’4, 342, 21 gms played) and three other lineman who have started at least one game in their careers.

2. Nebraska -  The Nebraska defensive line might be a top five unit nationally in 2014.  Junior DE Randy Gregory (6’6, 245) is the headliner of the group after coming off of a year where he had 10.5 sacks.  Gregory’s supporting cast shouldn’t be overlooked.  Opposite Gregory will start sophomore Greg McMullen (6’3, 280) who appeared in 11 games last year.  On the inside it looks like the Huskers will play three sophomores in Vincent Valentine (6’3, 320, 21 tkl), Maliek Collins (6’2, 300) who started a game last year as a true frosh along with Kevin Maurice (6’3, 280).   In 2014 the defense came up with 39 sacks and the defensive line is the keystone of the Huskers defense.

3. Michigan State – The Big Ten might have three of the top ten defensive lines in the nation and Sparty should not be overlooked here.  In a year the defensive line in the Big Ten is littered with stars none might shine brighter than Spartan junior DE Shilique Calhoun who is the received All-American accolades last season.  The other DE position will be manned by returning starter senior Marcus Rush (6’2, 255, 5 sacks).  On the inside should start two juniors, NT Damon Knox (6’4, 275, 2 starts) and DT Joel Heath (6’6, 289, 14 games played).   Last year the Spartans allowed just 2.8 ypc and they could match that behind the strength of this unit.

4. Iowa – There is no substitute for game experience and the Hawkeyes have it on the DL as they return seven of the eight-man two-deep from last season.  Senior DT Carl Davis is a stud in the middle of the Iowa DL.  Davis (6’5, 315) started all 13 games and finished with 42 tackles last year which earned him multiple All-Conference honors.  Alongside Davis will start fellow senior Louis Trinca-Pasat (6’3, 290, 13 starts, 38 tackles).  Junior Darian Cooper (6’2, 282, 52 tkls in 2 years) looks to be the next man in the DT rotation.  On the outside Iowa returns junior starter Drew Ott (6’4, 270, 50 tkls, 6.5 tfl) and senior DE Mike Hardy (6’5, 280, 34 tkls, 5 tfl) moves into the starting lineup for the first time.

5. Maryland – It’s hard to imagine a defensive line as accomplished as the Terrapins could be overlooked but expect that to be the case in 2014.  The Terps return their four most accomplished lineman headlined by DE Andre Monroe (5’11, 275) who has 14.5 career sacks.  The next two DE in the rotation are junior Quinton Jefferson (13 starts, 7.5 tfl) and sophomore Roman Braglio (10 games, 3.5 tfl).  On the interior senior NT Darius Kilgo (6’3, 310, 23 career starts) and Keith Bowers (7.5 tfl) will play a major role.  This group should be among the top thirty nationally if they live up to expectations.

6. Penn State – Like most of the Big Ten, the strength of Penn State’s defense should be up front in 2014 but it will be intriguing to see how they perform without the services of long-time coach Larry Johnson who left for Ohio State.  Penn State returns both starting DE in senior CJ Olaniyan (6’3, 252, 50 tkls, 5 sacks) and former frosh All-American, junior Deion Barnes (6’4, 255).  Two new starters will man the interior in sophomore NT Austin Johnson (6’4, 313, 2 starts last year) and DT junior Anthony Zettel (6’4, 274, 4 sacks).  Depth could be a minor concern as redshirt frosh and true frosh look to play a major role on the two-deep.

7. Michigan – The Wolverines return two starters but also bring in a host of highly touted players vying for a spot on the two-deep.  The DL with the most upside is returning senior starter DE Frank Clark (6’2, 270) who has 17 career starts and over 80 career tackles.  Opposite Clark is the other returning starter, senior DE Brennen Beyer (6’3, 256, 21 career starts).  On the interior two big sophomores take the starting reigns in NT Willie Henry (6’2, 297, 32 tkls) and highly touted DT Chris Wormley (6’4, 292, 19 tkls, 2.5 sacks).

8. Rutgers – The injury-plagued Scarlet Knights DL has a lot of upside and it starts in the middle with returning junior starter DT Darius Hamilton (6’4, 260, 48 tkls, 7 tfl).  The NT position will be manned by experienced senior Kenneth Kirksey (6’1, 275, 20 career games played) who played in only three games last year before suffering a season ending injury.  He will have to hold off promising red-shirt freshman Sebastian Joseph (6’4, 275).  Junior DE Djwany Mera (6’4, 260, 13 starts last year) will man one end while the other looks to be a battle between experience, senior David Milewski (6’4, 250) and youth, sophomore Quanzell Lambert (6’1, 230).  The Scarlet Knights look to get a boost from the return of sophomore Julian Pinnix-Odrick (6’5, 250) who was injured all last year but may prove to be Rutgers best pass rusher.

9. Minnesota – This unit is very strong and although the need to replace Ra’Shede Hageman they return three starters and others who have game experience.  The marquee player on the Golden Gophers DL will be junior DE Theiren Cockran (6’6, 238, 7.5 sacks) who earned All-Conference recognition last year.  Opposite Cockran is soon to be three-year starter senior Michael Amaefula (6’2, 244, 29 career starts).  At the NT is veteran senior Cameron Botticelli (6’5, 290, 24 career starts) and the DT should be manned by junior Scott Ekpe (6’4, 281, 34 career tkls).  Others who are sure to see time are promising DE sophomore Hendrick Ekep (6’5, 251, 10 tkls as a true frosh) and junior DE Alex Keith (6’3, 237, 34 career tkls).

10. Northwestern – The Wildcats are very experienced upfront as they return two full-time starters and two others who started games last year for Northwestern.  The return of senior DT Sean McEvilly (6’5, 290) will lift the Wildcats.  Last year McEvilly suffered a season ending injury after the Ohio State game.   Opposite McEvilly will return starting senior DT Chance Carter (6’3, 295, 34 tkls).  At DE Northwestern should have an effective three man rotation.  Returning starter, junior DE Dean Lowry (6’6, 265, 33 tkls) is the most experienced of the group.  Junior DE Deonte Giblson (6’3, 260, 7 tfl) started three games last year.  SophomoreDE  Ifeadi Ogenigbo (6’3, 235) has displayed the most upside as a pass rusher after getting to the quarterback for 5.5 sacks in his freshman campaign.

11. Wisconsin – You don’t think of the Badgers having a hard time controlling the defensive line of scrimmage but that could be the case this season as Wisconsin loses their top four DL in their three man front.  Expected to start in the middle at NT this year is senior Warren Herring (6’3, 294) the most experienced of the group he put up 17 tackles and four sacks last year.  At the DE position expect junior Jake Keefer (6’3, 265) and promising RS-Frosh Chikwe Obasih (6’2, 245) to win the starting jobs.  DE will receive support from senior Konrad Zagzebski (6’3, 278, 4 career starts).

12. Indiana – Two promising sophomores man the interior for the Hoosiers and they could determine how effective the Indiana defense is.  Returning starter at NT is Ralph Green III (6’5, 325, 25, tlks) and he will be accompanied by classmate Darius Latham (6’5, 325, 22 tkls) as these two space-eaters will try to free up the defensive ends and linebackers.  Senior Bobby Richardson (6’3, 288) is the returning starter at DE as Indiana shifts to a more traditional 3-4 this season.

13. Illinois – The Fighting Illini will be led upfront by senior NT Austin Teitsma (6’2, 290, 53 tkls).  Teitsma has a host of DL with playing experience that will accompany him this season.  Junior College transfer Jihad Ward (6’6, 285) and junior Teko Powell (6’3, 295, 6 career starts) should man the other DT position.  The DE should see promising freshman Paul James (6’4, 240) win the job and he will receive competition from junior Joe Fotu (6’3, 275).

14. Purdue – The Boilermakers look to shift to more of a true 3-4 from a hybrid look they incorporated without much success last season.  Purdue’s only returning starter is senior DE Ryan Russell (6’5, 275) who has 35 starts and over 100 tackles in his career.   Along with Russell there will be some youth as it seems sophomore DE Jake Replogle (6’4, 240) will win the other starting position after appearing in seven games as a true frosh.  In the middle should be sophomore NT Ra’Zahn Howard (6’4, 315) who appeared in six games last year as a true frosh.

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