Positional Breakdown* Defensive Line
* Running Backs
Continuing our series on the best players in the Big Ten, we'll finish up with the defense and break down the best defensive backs in the conference. While there's some elite defensive tackles, a few very athletic defensive ends, and a cast of very productive linebackers in the conference, there's considerably less top-shelf talent in Big Ten secondaries. With the dearth of elite passers and, well, competent receivers across the conference, it's unlikely that the general lack of playmakers in the defensive backfields will result in more scoring. Although there are a few elite players, there just isn't the same amount of NFL-ready players in the secondary that there are along the defensive lines of the Big Ten, but there still are some solid veterans (and I think we all know of one player in particular here) and some promising young talent.
Oh, and since Kenny Demens was included in the linebackers post, I'm just going ahead and including Michigan players in the rest of the position groups. It's good to see a familiar frame of reference for these other guys, and it does make for an interesting debate when a Michigan player is ranked too lowly or too highly (although, as Fouad said in his last post: "[the] standard 'this is just an offseason list and the exact order isn't worth quibbling about' caveats apply.") The post that didn't include Michigan players was the defensive line, and since Craig Roh was really the only potential Michigan player on the list (and a fringe one at that), it's not too big of a loss. I digress; onto the rankings:
10.) JT Floyd -- CB, Michigan
Floyd has had a very interesting career at Michigan thus far, to say the very least. He survived the amazing secondary attrition under Rich Rodriguez, emerged as a starter at corner by default as a sophomore, suffered under the horrible coaching and schematics of a very bad defensive coaching staff, and eventually turned it around last year to have a pretty solid season. His contribution to a resurgent Michigan defense is often understated, but Floyd will never be a spectacular player -- his lack of speed limits his potential -- but he can still be a capable boundary corner.
It's hard not to consider Blake Countess a better corner prospect than Floyd, but he's fresh off of a not-so-good Sugar Bowl performance and still has quite a bit of work to do before becoming an elite player. Fortunately he has a lot of the tools needed to be one of the best corners in the conference, he's just not there yet.
9.) Darqueze Dennard -- CB, Michigan State
Even though he's less well-known than his fellow Spartan Johnny Adams, Darqueze Dennard has been quietly having an impressive career in East Lansing. Dennard was thrust into starter duty as a freshman -- he started two games and played in four others -- but cemented that starting role as a sophomore last year. He merited an honorable mention All Big-Ten selection, but saved his best game for the end of the year, intercepting two passes from Georgia's Aaron Murray in the Outback Bowl. Dennard is part of a star-studded MSU secondary so he won't gain the hype that a few teammates will get, but he could benefit from teams throwing away from Adams.
8.) Terry Hawthorne -- CB, Illinois
The guy that ran down Roy Roundtree that one time Terry Hawthorne has seemingly been at Illinois forever, but he's around for his senior year under first-year coach Tim Beckman. Hawthorne was one of those elite -- or at least close to it -- high school prospects that Ron Zook was able to attract to Illinois: he was a four star, Top-100 player to Rivals who claimed an offer from Oklahoma. Impressively, he's started games since his freshman year, and even though his sophomore season was limited by injury, he still has had a productive career. Hawthorne is incredibly fast (just ask Roundtree), and has some decent coverage skills, but hasn't put together an elite year yet.
7.) Ibraheim Campbell -- S, Northwestern
Ibraheim Campbell might be the youngest player on this list -- he will be entering his sophomore season this year -- but he led the Wildcats in tackles as a redshirt freshman and finished on many Freshman All-American lists at the end of the season. Northwestern's defense struggled mightily last year, and there's been some attrition with both starting corners and All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters departing, so Campbell will have a lot of pressure to anchor the defensive backfield. He's very good in run support from the strong safety position and has the athleticism to be an upper-tier player, but he's still fairly young and will again compete on a less-than-stellar defense.
6.) CJ Barnett -- S, Ohio State
Another hard hitter, Barnett is the best player of an Ohio State secondary that underachieved last year (or performed at a level that was quite a bit lower than it's been in a decade) although he had a pretty decent season: 75 tackles and two interceptions is pretty good. He only played in two games due to injury in 2010, but rebounded nicely to perform at a high level -- he was named to the Second-Team All-Big Ten. All of Ohio State's secondary -- and most of its whole defense for that matter -- is back this year, so even though there's a coaching change, the OSU secondary should be improved this year as Barnett contends for more All-Conference honors.
5.) Jordan Kovacs -- S, Michigan
It's really hard to give an objective analysis of Kovacs, as his on-field performance is inextricably linked to his status as a former walk-on. Judged as a player who was brought in without any expectations whatsoever, Kovacs has been outstanding: multiple years starting and fairly consistent numbers are basically unheard of for a walk-on. Disregarding the context -- which makes Kovacs look more impressive to Michigan fans than he really is -- Kovacs is still a very good player; he's an elite tackler in the box and is very instinctive and able in run support. Pass coverage, particularly in the deep half, will be a struggle for Kovacs, but his tackling ability alone is extremely impressive, regardless of his status as a former walk-on.
4.) Micah Hyde -- CB, Iowa
Hyde would have been higher on this list after 2010 -- a year in which he had 82 tackles and two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns -- but a botched position switch at the start of 2011 hurt his season a bit. After the departure of Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, two very good safeties, Kirk Ferentz moved Hyde to safety, but that move only lasted two games and Hyde started the rest of the year at corner. He still finished with Second-Team All-Big Ten honors and wound up with three interceptions on the season, and his senior season should be more consistent: Hyde will be playing the whole season at corner.
3.) Isaiah Lewis -- S, Michigan State
Isaiah Lewis checks in as the best safety in the Big Ten on this list; the junior played in all thirteen games as a freshman but cemented his starting spot last year and finished with Second-Team All-Big Ten honors. Lewis is a slightly undersized strong safety who's very capable in run support -- he's a big hitter despite his size -- but also had four interceptions last year, two of which were returned for touchdowns (and one of those sealed MSU's win over Michigan). He's primed for another big season in 2012, as he could possibly play his way into an All-American type season if he gets enough hype.
2.) Ricardo Allen -- CB, Purdue
Earlier this week, I ranked Purdue DT Kawann Short as the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten. This time, a Purdue player doesn't get the top spot, but that's two elite players on a defense that isn't very good. Allen has been a phenomenal playmaker for his whole career in West Lafayette: he was named as a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection in both his true freshman and sophomore seasons and has had five interceptions in those two years (two of which went for touchdowns). Purdue's defense should improve this year -- a lot of it depends on the status of LB Dwayne Beckford -- but Allen should be one of the best playmakers in the secondary for any Big Ten team this fall.
1.) Johnny Adams -- CB, Michigan State
Michigan State has the best safety in the Big Ten, and they also have the best corner: Adams is the best pure cover corner in the league, stands out in run support, and has the type of speed and tenacity that elite corners tend to have. There are a few knocks on Adams; 5'11" is tall enough but certainly not ideal, and he doesn't have as many interceptions as Lewis, but overall, it's hard to put anyone above Adams in terms of talent in the secondary. It's his final season in East Lansing and Adams might be the best player on the Big Ten's best defense. He's certainly up there, even with guys like Will Gholston, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Isaiah Lewis on the team.