We've discussed departing players and key replacements, previewed spring practices and analyzed the state of each Big Ten program. Now, we're looking at the conference's position groups.
As part of an ongoing series this week, we're ranking the top three Big Ten teams at each respective position -- in addition to finding the team that could surprise and the squad that needs to step up most. Next up: defensive backs.
Big Ten teams with best defensive backs
Why Iowa has the best DBs: For Iowa, losing Jordan Lomax hurts, but Hawkeyes fans get to enjoy one more season of the great Desmond King at cornerback. King won the Jim Thorpe Award for nation's best defensive back last season after he tied the single-season school record with eight interceptions, which ranked second in the nation. He added 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups. Rather than declare for the NFL draft, King opted to return for his senior season, which instantly lifted Iowa's secondary. Greg Mabin will fill the other cornerback spot after contributing 54 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions a year ago. Safety Miles Taylor also returns after posting 69 tackles and should be even better in his junior season. Iowa still needs to determine who will fill the free safety spot previously occupied by Lomax. Sophomore Brandon Snyder appears to have the upper hand there. This group could prove to be just as strong as last season, when Iowa led the Big Ten with 19 interceptions.
Why Michigan State and Michigan are the runners-up: Michigan State returns three of its four starters in the secondary, and the unit could become one of the Spartans' biggest strengths. The safety tandem of Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson could be special. Nicholson ranked third on the team in tackles with 83, while Cox was fourth with 79. Both players tied for the team high with three interceptions. Cornerback Darian Hicks ranked second in total tackles (90), and he probably is to be paired with Vayante Copeland, who began last season as a starter before suffering a fractured vertebra in his neck in the second game.
Michigan ranked first in the Big Ten in pass defense last season and returns cornerback Jourdan Lewis. He finished second in the Big Ten in passes defended (22), which established a school record and earned him second-team All-American accolades. Jabrill Peppers has moved from safety to linebacker, but the back end should still be formidable. Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas are the leading candidates for the safety positions. Hill ranked fifth on the team in total tackles last season (46) and is penciled in at strong safety. Thomas has played four different positions at Michigan, including cornerback and linebacker, but has settled in at free safety. Cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, a fifth-year senior, provide even more experience.
Team that could surprise: Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin lost three starters from its secondary -- Tanner McEvoy, Michael Caputo and Darius Hillary -- who combined for 151 tackles and eight of the team's 12 interceptions. That's a lot of talent and experience to replace, but the Badgers remain confident there will be no drop-off. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton is the only returning starter, though the rest of the players set to take the field earned plenty of time in a backup role last season. At safety, Leo Musso, D'Cota Dixon and Arrington Farrar are battling for the starting spots. Derrick Tindal is likely to start at cornerback opposite Shelton, with Natrell Jamerson vying for time as well. Musso, Dixon and Jamerson played in all 13 games last season, while Farrar and Tindal played in 12. Players spoke glowingly about new defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard, a former Badgers standout who recently completed a 10-year NFL career. He has provided the unit with optimism and a fresh perspective, which could help the secondary be better than some might expect.
Team that needs to step up: Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana allowed a Big Ten-worst 313.8 yards passing per game and 32 touchdowns last season. That's a pretty astounding mark given that some teams consider it a failure when they surrender 300 yards passing once during a season. The Hoosiers gave up at least 300 yards passing on six occasions, including more than 400 yards three times. Indiana returns cornerback Rashard Fant, which is a good place to start because he led the conference in passes defended last season with 23. Cornerback Andre Brown, along with safeties Chase Dutra and Jonathan Crawford all have plenty of experience. Crawford finished second on the team in tackles (76) and led the Hoosiers in interceptions (four). The addition of junior college transfer Jayme Thompson will also be key as Indiana operates out of a 4-2-5 system under new defensive coordinator Tom Allen. The key now will be to put everything together to give the Hoosiers a chance in Big Ten play.