Big Ten media days are exactly two weeks away. Preseason practice begins soon after. So we're getting a jump on the festivities by examining and ranking each of the position groups around the league.
Up next in this series: Defensive backs.
Best of the best: Wisconsin
The Badgers have only grown stronger in the secondary since we examined this position in the spring. Fifth-year senior Tanner McEvoy returned to the defensive backfield to play safety in the Outback Bowl against Auburn. McEvoy, an elite athlete who set a school record with 17 straight completions last year against Western Illinois during the second of his five straight starts at quarterback, settled nicely alongside Michael Caputo in April. McEvoy unseated Lubern Figaro, a part-time starter as a true freshman last year. Caputo is a star, and Sojourn Shelton enjoyed an excellent spring, pairing with veteran Darius Hillary to form a solid cornerback duo.
Next up: Ohio State and Minnesota
Similar to the situation at most position groups, no Big Ten team can top the Buckeyes in the defensive backfield. Junior safety Vonn Bell, after starting 14 games a year ago, has entered the conversation among the best playmakers in the game. Bell teams with Tyvis Powell, another breakout performer last season as a sophomore. Eli Apple returns at corner, and Gareon Conley likely takes over for the departed Doran Grant. Talented redshirt freshman Marshon Lattimore also joins the mix.
At Minnesota, the headliners are cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray, seniors who take a backseat to no pair in the Big Ten. The Gophers ranked 18th nationally in pass defense in 2014 and intercepted 15 passes.
The Hawkeyes were strong up front on defense last year, contributing to a pass defense that ranked seventh nationally in allowing 175.9 yards per game. But don’t overlook the play of the defensive backs. Cornerback Desmond King and safety Jordan Lomax lead the group. King intercepted three passes in 2014 as quarterbacks avoided him after a standout freshman season in 2013. Lomax, a senior, is a former cornerback with strong skills in coverage. His 92 tackles as a junior and team-high six pass breakups show the versatility for which Iowa is looking.
Problem for a contender: Michigan State
The Spartans uncharacteristically ranked 11th in the Big Ten last year in pass defense. More telling, perhaps, it ranked third in the league defensively in third-down conversion rate and third in percentage of completions allowed that gained 10 yards/more or a touchdown. So the sky is not falling on the MSU secondary. But without Trae Waynes, Kurtis Drummond and veteran coordinator Pat Narduzzi, a rebuilding effort is underway in East Lansing. Safety R.J. Williamson and corner Darian Hicks started regularly in 2014; Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox also earned valuable playing time. The Week 2 meeting with Oregon will tell us if the difference-makers exist in the Michigan State secondary to help its bid for the College Football Playoff.