With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.
Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?
Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, next up will be the linebackers.
Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana
A top spot on defense is obviously unfamiliar ground for the Hoosiers recently, but with the league’s most productive tackler returning for a unit that new coach Tom Allen has helped find a higher level, it’s deserved heading into this season. Tegray Scales isn’t exactly a secret within the Big Ten, though he remains undervalued nationally for all the ways he can contribute at linebacker and his decision to return for another campaign was a huge boost for Indiana after losing Marcus Oliver to the NFL draft. But counting hybrid defensive back Marcelino Ball as a member of this group, the Hoosiers should still be in position to roll out one of the league's best groups with junior-college signee Mike McGinnis and returning veterans Dameon Willis and Chris Covington all vying for playing time.
Iowa is in a similarly strong position, with Josey Jewell electing to come back for another year after finishing just behind Scales in total tackles last season. With Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on hand, the Hawkeyes have three seniors to lean on and anchor the defense -- guys who combined for 284 tackles a year ago.
Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
Given the rich tradition of both programs at this position, it’s no surprise that the Badgers and Buckeyes are in the mix and more than capable of rising up to potentially become the best unit in the Big Ten. Both have key losses to address this spring that are currently keeping them just outside of the top spots, though, and just how painless the transition without Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel turns out will be key.
Wisconsin addressed one of those outside spots with a rare junior college pickup, and the pressure will be on Andrew Van Ginkel right away to contribute. But the Badgers are loaded on the inside with four proven commodities, and throwing a healthy Jack Cichy back in the mix could be huge for new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are loaded on the outside with Jerome Baker and Chris Worley coming back after breakout campaigns. And while the picture isn’t clear yet in the middle, Dante Booker's return from an injury that kept him on the shelf virtually all of last season could provide a solution. And if not, maybe four-star freshman Baron Browning, who is already on campus, could find his way into that role.
Team that could surprise: Maryland
The Terrapins appear to be growing nicely under DJ Durkin and appear to have plenty of potential to move up the ranks in the Big Ten based on the recent signing class that unexpectedly finished in the top 20 in the nation. And with more teams lighting up the scoreboard in the East Division recently, putting together a solid corps of linebackers, like the one led by Jermaine Carter, could be crucial in taking a step forward. Jalen Brooks is also on hand with some experience, and if leading tackler Shane Cockerille is cleared again after being ruled ineligible for the bowl game last year, the Terrapins have the makings of a defense that could turn a few heads.
Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue
The Scarlet Knights finished last in the Big Ten in both rush and total defense in Chris Ash’s first season with the program, which won’t sit well with a coach who has made his name on that side of the football. The linebackers weren’t solely to blame and Trevor Morris did some impressive work at times while piling up 102 tackles, but Rutgers clearly needs to take a step forward at the second level.
If not for the Scarlet Knights, Purdue would have finished in the basement in both of those key categories, putting another item on the list of improvements Jeff Brohm needs to work on in his debut season. The Boilermakers have a solid building block in Markus Bailey, and he still has room to improve after posting 97 tackles and snagging four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.