Last week, I took a look at the Big Ten's top candidates to record 1,000 rushing yards or more in 2011. The spotlight now turns to defense and the league's strongest position group in recent years.
I thought about setting the bar at 10 sacks or more, but eight seems more appropriate. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan was the only Big Ten player to rack up eight or more sacks in 2010, finishing with 12.5. Five players eclipsed eight sacks in 2009: Kerrigan, Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield, Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, Michigan DE Brandon Graham and Michigan State LB Greg Jones.
Let's look at the likeliest candidates to reach eight sacks or more this fall.
1. Nebraska DT Jared Crick: Crick enters the season as the Big Ten's most decorated defensive lineman and a strong candidate for preseason defensive player of the year. He already has reached eight sacks in a season, recording 9.5 in 2010 to go along with 17 tackles for loss, which are just incredible totals for an interior lineman. Although Crick likely will face plenty of double-teams this fall, he should get to the quarterback enough.
2. Northwestern DE Vince Browne: Browne has put up numbers throughout his career, tying for second in the Big Ten in sacks with seven last fall. The senior can rack up stats in bunches, especially in nonconference play. If he can become just as effective against Big Ten squads, he should have a very strong season and contend for all-conference honors.
3. Purdue DT Kawann Short: Overshadowed by Kerrigan last season, Short quietly put together an extremely impressive season for an interior lineman, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Although Kerrigan's presence clearly helped Short make plays in 2010, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior has made strides and should once again wreak havoc.
4. Ohio State DEs Nathan Williams or John Simon: Williams recorded 4.5 sacks in 2010 and gives Ohio State a speed-rusher on the edge. I expect him to take a big step forward this fall. The same goes for Simon, who can play both line spots but likely will spend more time on the outside. Ohio State has extremely high hopes for the brutally strong Simon, and he could become a star this fall. While I'd be surprised if both players reach eight sacks, one seems likely to do so.
5. Iowa DT Mike Daniels: Daniels put up some nice numbers last season -- 11 tackles for loss, four sacks -- and should be more productive as he takes the lead with the Hawkeyes' defensive line this fall. After starting eight games in 2010, Daniels will see an increased role as Iowa tries to replace standout linemen Karl Klug, Clayborn and Christian Ballard.
6. Nebraska LB Lavonte David: Don't count out Big Ten linebackers from recording eight sacks or more, and Nebraska's David certainly seems capable of reaching the milestone. David had six sacks, 15 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries in 2010. Nebraska isn't afraid to blitz him, and he'll do some damage in opposing backfields this fall.
7. A Michigan defensive lineman: The switch to the 4-3 and Greg Mattison's arrival as coordinator should spark Michigan's pass rush this fall. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and tackle Mike Martin are two players I could see reaching eight sacks this fall. Van Bergen will have to double his total and Martin must make an even bigger jump, but both men should benefit from the offseason changes.
Also keep an eye on these potential Big Ten sack-masters:
Indiana DE Darius Johnson
Michigan State DEs William Gholston and Tyler Hoover
Penn State DT Devon Still
Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy
Wisconsin DE Louis Nzegwu
Nebraska DE Cameron Meredith
We'll continue the series Tuesday with a look at the Big Ten's 3,000-yard passers in 2011.