This year marks the Big Ten's 120th anniversary so, all this week, we're cracking open the history books and looking back at some of the conference's best players. We're ranking the top 5 all-time B1G players at each position and, every day, we'll give you an offensive position and a defensive position.
These lists aren't based on NFL success or failure. They're based on each player's college career and how it was viewed in his respective time period. And, once again, we're considering every player who came from a team currently in the Big Ten. In other words, no need to remind us that Nebraska didn't officially join the Big Ten until 2011.
Up next: Cornerbacks.
1. Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1995-1997: He's not just the best cornerback in the Big Ten; he's the best college cornerback to ever play the game. In 1995, he was the Big Ten freshman of the year. In 1996, he was the Chevrolet Defensive Player of the Year. And, in 1997, of course, he became the first -- and, so far, only -- true defensive player to win the Heisman. Woodson dominated from the very beginning, as he earned the starting job by Week 2 of his rookie year. Former Wolverines head coach Lloyd Carr went so far as to say that Woodson is "right there" as one of the geatest U-M players of all-time: "Charles Woodson was certainly the greatest player that I coached at Michigan," he said. Woodson won just about every major award -- such as the Bednarik, Camp, Nagurski, Tatum and Thorpe -- and he's still revered in Ann Arbor. (Even his local $150 wine-tasting event recently sold out.) We may never again see another defensive player win the Heisman.
2. Nile Kinnick, Iowa, 1937-1939: He did absolutely everything for the Hawkeyes -- run, pass, kick, punt, tackle, deflect, return -- and, in 1939, he turned in one of the most dominant seasons in college football history. But, since this list is simply about cornerbacks, we'll stick to his defensive exploits here. Kinnick earned a spot on both Sports Illustrated's and Walter Camp's all-century teams as a defensive back. And he intercepted eight passes in 1939, a school record that Desmond King tied last season but that has never been broken. He didn't fare as well in 1938 because he recorded "just" seven interceptions -- but that might have something to do with the fact he probably played the entire year with a broken ankle. "I used to watch him wince in pain when he punted," said one teammate. Today, Iowa's stadium is named after Kinnick and his statue stands just outside. Deservedly so.
3. Rod Woodson, Purdue, 1983-1986: He played both safety and corner, but his best season for the Boilermakers came when he was at this position. He was recently elected into the College Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first true B1G cornerback to earn that honor. And he was so fast on the gridiron that he became a two-time All-American in track and even qualified for the Olympic trials. He never won more than seven games a season with Purdue, but he still turned in some especially memorable games. Against No. 2 Ohio State in 1984, Woodson racked up 20 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in a 28-23 upset. "If he's not the best player in this conference, I don't believe I've seen him," former Purdue coach Leon Burtnett once said. "I wouldn't trade anybody in the country for Rod Woodson."
4. Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin, 1998-2000: You can't get much more consistent than Fletcher. He had seven interceptions for three straight seasons, and he made three straight All-B1G first-teams. He was a two-time All-American and, when he wasn't named All-American as a freshman, he still led the nation in picks anyway. "I don't think there's any question he's the best," Wisconsin assistant Todd Bradford said, back in 2000. "He's the best guy right now. He was the best guy when the season started. He'll be the best guy (in college) as long as he's playing." Fletcher declared early for the NFL draft after his junior season, but he didn't have much left to accomplish individually. He won back-to-back Rose Bowls, intercepting a fourth-quarter pass in 1999 and returning it for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, and he won both the Thorpe and Tatum awards. He's still fourth all-time in the conference with 21 interceptions and first among cornerbacks.
5. Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, Ohio State, 1952-1955: Like Kinnick, Cassady might be more well-known for what he accomplished on offense -- but that doesn't mean he was a slouch on defense. According to both the NCAA and Ohio History Central, Cassady either never had a pass completed on him during his entire career. Or he never allowed a completion during Big Ten competition. Either way, that's pretty hard to top. "Hop is the most inspirational player I have ever seen," former coach Woody Hayes once said. The Cincinatti Enquirer even put him as DB on their all-century Ohio State team, saying the Heisman winner was "just as good on defense." It's hard to measure 1950s players against current competition, but it's just as hard to bet against a College Football Hall of Famer and one of the Buckeyes' best.
Honorable mentions: Antoine Winfield, Ohio State; Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State; Shawn Springs, Ohio State; Prince Amukamara, Nebraska; Troy Vincent, Wisconsin; Eugene Wilson, Illinois; Ralph Brown, Nebraska; George Taliaferro, Indiana; Lynn Chandnois, Michigan State; Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State; Desmond King, Iowa