Big Ten media days are around the corner, and preseason practice will begin right after. So we're getting a jump on the festivities by examining and ranking each of the position groups around the league.
Next up: Defensive line
Best of the best: Michigan State and Ohio State
You can't really go wrong with Ohio State's Joey Bosa or Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun. But those standouts aren't the only reason these teams are at the top when it comes to the defensive line. Take a closer look at the Buckeyes, for example. Sure, they lose defensive end Steve Miller and defensive tackle Michael Bennett. But Tyquan Lewis broke out in the spring at defensive end, and Tommy Schutt looks to be next in line when it comes to first-year starting seniors who make an impact at OSU (Miller and Curtis Grant are among the past to do so). True freshman Jashon Cornell has also turned heads early, while Sam Hubbard has already impressed enough to earn playing time. Bosa went so far as to say this a few months ago: "Last year, we didn't feel too comfortable with putting some backups in. But this year is a completely different feeling, we have a bunch of guys ready to go."
It's not all that different over at Michigan State. Mark Dantonio needed to find a replacement for underrated defensive end Marcus Rush, but big things are expected out of LB-turned-DT-turned-DE Lawrence Thomas, who's already on the Nagurski Trophy watch list. Malik McDowell is also a favorite "breakout" pick on the Spartans (just look here and here). These two teams both boast standout players and a whole lot of depth. They're the easy top picks.
Next up: Penn State
Penn State has one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation at defensive tackle, with first-team preseason All-American Anthony Zettel and severely underrated 325-pound Austin Johnson. Zettel brings the speed and playmaking ability, while Johnson takes on the double-teams and stuffs the run. That alone is enough to put the Nittany Lions near the top of the B1G defensive lines, but big things are also expected out of the two first-year starters at defensive end. Carl Nassib is a 6-foot-6, 270-pound athlete who's quick enough to drop into coverage, and Garrett Sickels is an above-average end who played in every game last season. Put it all together, and there's no reason why Bob Shoop's defense shouldn't once again be at or near the top of the conference when it comes to stopping the run. Like Zettel last season, Nassib might even turn out to be the defensive surprise of the Big Ten.
Sleepers: Minnesota and Rutgers
Neither team ranked within the top 70 in stopping the run last year, so there's a lot of room to improve this season. The Scarlet Knights still don't have the size of the other B1G squads, but they do have defensive tackle Darius Hamilton who's played in 37 career games and defensive end Kemoko Turay who, as a backup last season, had 7.5 sacks and three blocked kicks. It's scary to think what he might accomplish as an every-down player. At Minnesota, Theiren Cockran and Steven Richardson -- who combined for 13 tackles-for-loss and six sacks -- both return, as do the injured Ekpe Bros. The Gophers had to deal with quite a few injures on the line last season, so more players are battle-tested and prepared this season. They could surprise.
Problem for a contender: Iowa
There are some question marks on just about every defensive line in the B1G, but what makes Iowa unique is the fact that it loses two all-conference players in defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis-Trinca Pasat. Defensive end Drew Ott is obviously a talented player, but can he replicate his production from 2014? He started off hot but, during the Hawkeyes' hardest stretch in the last five games, he didn't record a single sack. How's he going to fare without the interior drawing away some double-teams? Iowa has potential -- Nate Meier is solid at the other end -- but there are more question marks than answers right now.