Best of the Big Ten: Defensive Line

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 03: Russell Wilson #16 of the Wisconsin Badgers is sacked by Denicos Allen #28 and William Gholston #2 of the Michigan State Spartans during the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Positional Breakdown
* Defensive Line
* Linebackers
* Secondary
* Receivers
* Running Backs
* Quarterbacks

College football is just over a month away, so there's still some time to pass before the season starts. Maize n Brew is counting down the best players in the Big Ten at each position -- there won't be any Michigan players featured, as this is intended to be a conference-wide preview -- and today it starts with the defensive line.

10.) Marcus Rush -- DE, Michigan State

Rush's teammate Will Gholston steals all of the headlines, but Gholston's fellow defensive end isn't too bad in his own right: he had a very impressive freshman season and received some freshman All-America accolades. He's not as physically impressive as Gholston, but he plays fast and has very good technique. Rush will likely demand more attention from opposing offensive lines this year with Jerel Worthy departed to the NFL, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him fly under the radar a bit yet again with Gholston terrorizing quarterbacks from the other side of the line.

9.) Baker Steinkuhler -- DT, Nebraska

Steinkuhler isn’t the star that Ndamukong Suh or Jared Crick were for Nebraska at the defensive tackle position, but he’s a very solid tackle in Bo Pelini’s 4-3 scheme: Steinkuhler is strong enough to hold up against double teams inside and let linebackers make the plays for him. He didn’t have the type of exceptional stats that would warrant a spot high on the list, but his ability to work well in Nebraska’s defense enabled Lavonte David to have an incredibly productive season at middle linebacker and he’ll likely work in a similar way to propel Will Compton to an excellent year.

8.) Cameron Meredith -- DE, Nebraska

Like his teammate, Meredith is very solid, if unspectacular. He’s been starting for most of his career at Nebraska, and he’s primarily played defensive end, but Meredith has shown the ability to play at any of the positions along the line. Meredith’s versatility is probably his biggest asset; he’s not an elite pass-rusher and he holds up adequately against the run, but his combination of skills has been good enough to keep him on the field. As a senior, he’ll start for the entire season again and will probably be in the running for some sort of All-Conference recognition.

7.) Akeem Spence -- DT, Illinois

Illinois has boasted some elite defensive line prospects in recent years – Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus have gone in the first round of the last two NFL Drafts – and the Illini boast some talented defensive linemen again this year. Unlike Liuget and Mercilus, Akeem Spence plays nose tackle; he has excellent athleticism, more than enough size at 300+ lbs and a very high ceiling. Illinois is undergoing a coaching change and will have a new defensive coordinator, but the Illini defensive line has been excellent for a few years and Spence should anchor the interior of the line before eventually going on to a career in the NFL.

6.) Jordan Hill -- DT, Penn State

Firstly, Jordan Hill is one of the Penn State seniors that have committed to stay in Happy Valley and finish out their career at Penn State, so he’s not going to transfer and play elsewhere in the Big Ten or in another conference. That’s great news for Penn State – Hill is a solid nose tackle who benefitted from lining up next to Devon Still (who wound up as an All-American), and even though Still is gone to the NFL, Hill should be able to put up some pretty decent numbers – he had eight TFL and 3.5 sacks last year – yet again.

5.) Michael Buchanan -- DE, Illinois

Last year, Whitney Mercilus came out of nowhere to lead the nation in sacks (16), and his heir apparent is Michael Buchanan, who elected to return to Illinois for his senior season. Buchanan was overshadowed by Mercilus last year, but turned in a very impressive season in his own right – 7.5 sacks, 13.5 TFL, and 64 tackles. As a speed rusher off of the edge, Buchanan will likely see much more attention from opposing offenses this year with Mercilus – the best DE in the country last year – gone. Still, Buchanan is the best pass-rusher in the Big Ten and will terrorize quarterbacks all year long.

4.) John Simon -- DE, Ohio State

In almost any other year, John Simon would probably be right near top the list, but with the amount of talent on defensive lines across the conference, he checks in at fourth. Simon is incredibly strong and very athletic: he consistently puts up outstanding numbers on the bench press and runs as quickly as most linebackers. That doesn’t mean that his skills don’t translate as well to the field; he did manage to notch seven sacks last year and is terrific against the run. Simon should contend for All-American honors this year for the Buckeyes, and could be the best defensive lineman in the conference at the end of the season.

3.) Jonathan Hankins -- DT, Ohio State

Hankins could very well be the best NFL prospect on this list – he's consistently rated in the top ten or fifteen draft-eligible prospects despite being a junior. His combination of size and speed at the nose tackle position is extremely impressive, as there aren't many nose tackles like Hankins that are both able to hold up against double teams inside and run down plays from the backside on outside runs. Based on potential alone, Hankins should be a first-team All-Big Ten selection and if he decides to go pro after the season, he'll likely be drafted early in the first round.

2.) William Gholston -- DE, Michigan State

Will Gholston might have the highest ceiling of any player at any position in the Big Ten. He has elite size for an end at 6’7 275 lbs, but he’s still lightning quick off of the snap. As a strongside end, he doesn’t have the opportunity to tally gaudy numbers, but Gholston still managed five tackles and 16 TFL as a sophomore last year. He’s easily the most hyped defensive lineman in the conference – his consistency wasn’t great and infamously had some personal fouls against Michigan last year – but if Gholston can put it together and utilize his talent, he could very well be the best defensive end in the country.

1.) Kawann Short -- DT, Purdue

There’s a number of excellent nose tackles on this list, but Kawann Short is easily the best of the bunch. Despite playing on a rather mediocre defense at Purdue and despite constantly receiving double teams from opposing offenses, Short uses his impressive quickness and great instincts to put up amazing numbers: 6.5 sacks and 17 TFL are incredible for a nose tackle. His run-stopping ability is unparalleled in the Big Ten, and he tallied the fourth-most sacks of any returning player in the Big Ten despite playing at the nose. Short turned down a shot at the NFL last year and is mostly underrated because he doesn’t play for a big name team, but he should garner more attention and more accolades this year.


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