Ranking the Best Defensive Lines
Let's get to work.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
At Utah, Urban Meyer had Kyle Whittingham, who rose to the head position upon UM's departure and hasn't relinquished it yet. At Florida, he had Strong and Mattison. The defensive side at Ohio State hasn't had a right-hand man to model itself after, so it's been a unit that resembles Meyer himself - built on star-powered athleticism, but missing a key defensive mind, it falls apart on the back end, where anticipation and control are at their most essential. On the front lines, though, the Buckeyes are a Meyer-made monster: Joey Bosa (four-star, Rivals 6.0), Noah Spence (five-star, Rivals 6.1), Michael Bennett (four-star, Rivals 6.0), and Adolphus Washington (five-star, Rivals 6.1) have all produced for the Buckeyes.
This group has been called the deepest and the best in the Big Ten, and it's fair to see why. However, the star of the unit is coach Larry Johnson, a first-year member on the staff after spending 18 seasons with the Nittany Lions. He was named interim coach after Bill O'Brien stepped down, but then was passed up by Franklin (after being passed up by O'Brien). Johnson is already putting his fingerprints on the unit and wants to rotate his players in and out of the game more. Given that the line is deeper than any other position that OSU has, this should be both safe and effective.
The loss of Jamal Marcus (transfer, academic problems) is a real blow; he was a true sophomore last season and had his best game of the year at the end against Clemson, getting six tackles in a start for the suspended Noah. As well, the recruiting behind the four current starters hasn't been nearly as frightening; without Marcus, the back-ups are more competent than they are explosive. Still, this is an extremely good group, and Michigan better have a good offensive line by the time November rolls around. Perhaps this is arrogance, or just confidence, but I think it's worth noting their speed, which is so vaunted whenever they're brought up, comes from the fact that all four starting linemen could shadow as defensive ends... none of them weigh 290 lbs. A physical ground game would be the ticket to taking the pressure off the QB.
2. Michigan State Spartans
State is another program with at least one tackle (Washington for OSU, Heath for MSU) who brings end experience to the interior. The biggest difference is State's starting line is composed entirely of developed, hard-working athletes: all mid- and low-three-star guys. They have a little more explosion in their second line - Demetrius Cooper is the first end off the bench, and they have Malik McDowell (one of three blue-chip freshmen tackles, which might push McDowell outside) and Brandon Clemons, a tackle that Mark Dantonio figures to lean on. "He goes 295, 300 (pounds) and he's active and he's athletic. He's got to play well, but he's a solid player."
3. Michigan Wolverines
In a bit of a flip from the Huskers, the M Men have shown they can defend the run but need to improve their ability to stifle the pass game. They also lose Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington, but the leadership could be better with seniors Brennen Beyer, Frank Clark, and Jake Ryan quarterbacking the front seven. With a good mix of veteran composure and young legs (Henry, Charlton, Ojemudia, and even Pip), this unit could be special.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes are less explosive and athletic than the Wolverines but they're a reliable and tough run-defending unit. The ends - Drew Ott and Mike Hardy are the likely starters - are weight-room products who can absorb blocks, contain and keep the linebackers clean, but they will probably not be doing reverse spin tackles or air-flip sacks any time soon. There is a little bit of speed off the edge from Nate Meier, a 6'2", 244 lb. former linebacker, but he hasn't put it together yet and will probably just be depth. They were tied for 77th in sacks a year ago, just ahead of Eastern Michigan, and it will probably be more of the same again.
The engine for Iowa's defense, though, will be coming from inside, with two powerful, mobile players in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat (affectionately known as LTP). What Iowa lacked in sacks, it made up for in the 19th-ranked rush defense, very few penalties and a lot of 3rd-and-long. Against most of the B1G West, that'll do just fine, but with their lack of speed and the talent of CD and LTP, an offense like Indiana's or Northwestern's could make them stumble. It's a great line, but it's also one that some teams will enjoy playing tempo against while doubling one of the tackles.
5. Nebraska Cornhuskers
DiNardo has put the front four for Nebraska up with Ohio State, and weakside end juco transfer Randy Gregory is the biggest reason why. He's become a star of the Big Ten, seemingly during the off-season after coming on late and then being put high on various draft boards. At 6'6" and less than 250 lbs., he earned 10 sacks in 8 games but needs to work on his run blocking.
That's a situation shared by the rest of the line, as they could get pushed off the line but were still athletic enough to cause some damage. Vincent Valentine is a light-footed 320-pounder who played marvelously for a true freshman, but for all his flashes needs to improve his technique to man the middle more effectively. The SDE position is a bit of a mystery without Avery Moss, and it would be easy to see this season as a bridge year for most of the line (they're pretty young) if it weren't for Gregory probably departing. And outside of a few guys like McMullen and Collins, who will see extensive time, the depth on their line could gain a few pounds.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions had a solid run defense last season, and while the playmaking of DaQuan Jones will be sorely missed, this team returns a relatively deep, experienced group that will have to overcome the loss of Larry Johnson to Ohio State. Coach Chaos will try to do something about that, despite the fact that Coach Franklin is siphoning off some of the D-line's depth (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) for the offensive line. Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan could be drafted after this season, and Austin Johnson is a rising star in his sophomore year. Deion Barnes earned Freshman of the Year honors in 2012, but disappointed last year, and Anthony Zettel is a technician playing undersized at the three-tech. This is a blue-collar group that doesn't get much attention, but they'll be a strength for Penn State.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers
I do not want to see what Minnesota will do when they start getting blue-chip recruits. Ra'Shede Hageman will be an NFL star, and most of the rest of their veteran linemen were once two-star players. And unfortunately for Minnesota and Big Ten fans, and luckily for their opponents, they don't have a single four-star lineman, or even a well-liked three-star lineman, on the team. So, they'll keep making a Big Ten defense (22.2 points per game) the hard way.
Theiren Cockran returns, and he got more sacks (7.5) than the rest of the Minnesota defensive line (5.0). But the losses of Hageman and Roland Johnson will mean that the interior is thin on experience, and while this was a tremendously well-coached unit, it also was not an exceptional one - perhaps their best strength would be attacking the run when they know it's coming. Betting on a solid Gopher line in '14 is an easy gamble, but the simple fact is they need players who don't primarily have MAC offers if they want to take a bigger step forward. In the meantime, it's a matter of waiting for the next disruptive playmaker to emerge from an anonymous bunch of solid, high-effort big men.
8. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers are transitioning to a new front; they have a new defensive coordinator and brought in a D-line coach/Indiana alum who was having a lot of success at Bowling Green. In short, this is a tough unit to predict and the last time a Hoosiers defense was on the field, they were surrendering 36 points to the Boilermakers - the seventh consecutive game allowing 35 or more (in fact, the only team they faced that didn't put up 35 on them was Penn State, in a 44-24 loss for the Nittany Lions). The Hoosiers had the 115th-ranked rush defense, were 120th in total defense and time of possession, and 87th in sacks.
Enter Brian Knorr. Knorr's 3-4 defense will utilize Darius Latham and Ralph Green - two 325-pound tackles who fit in perfectly at guard - to great effect. Linebacker is a bit of a question mark, and it may be the team's undoing; however, while Indiana gets no respect on the defensive side, this should actually be a solid line and all reports have been positive - not only are the players embracing the scheme, there's depth, size and enough time (this is another young group) to grow into the scheme and the attitude necessary. And Knorr should be hitting the right buttons to get them to work and believe.
"Our players have been told over and over that they're one of the worst defenses in the league and in the country, so I think they're beat up a little bit confidence-wise. So the key is for us to restore that confidence and restore that challenge and set some standards we're going to abide by. With confidence, you gain a little bit of swag and start feeling good about yourself. To be able to have a good spring and have these guys feeling better about themselves would be the best thing for this defense."
9. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers had an elite front seven in 2013: not one of their opponents (not even Ohio State) managed 4.5 yards a carry on them (well, after all, they had Chris Borland). They've been hit by a lot of attrition on the line, with four key players gone. The best nose guard they have, Warren Herring, is undersized at 294 lbs. and is a better fit outside (last year's starter, Beau Allen, was 325). Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman, is expected to contribute in a big way and for all the team's departures, the overall depth isn't bad. Don't let the ranking tell the only story - this is still a solid Big Ten unit, and probably sturdy right up to but not beyond its two-deep. That's a far cry from where the Badgers were a year ago, though.
10. Northwestern Wildcats
Depth in the middle is an issue for Fitzgerald; another would be lack of playmakers. Tyler Scott's 10.0 TFL's and 6.0 sacks are gone, but the line will benefit from coming out of "green" territory. It wasn't a great line last year (50th in sacks, 52nd in TFL's and 68th in scoring defense), but it wasn't bad, either, and could take a step forward. The Wildcats have had a run of bad luck regarding off-season injuries, and that continued again with four defensive linemen needing surgery before 2014.
11. Maryland Terrapins
The Terps, who run a 3-4, actually have a starting 300-pound lineman. I'm so proud. That's Darius Kilgo, their nose tackle, who's a sturdy player and a leader up front. By B1G 3-4 standards, they are a bit undersized, but not to the extent of the teams below them. They should have a decent two-deep, but after those six it's just redshirt freshmen who will need time to develop, which gives them no room for error. Terps fans had better pray for good health during the conference slate.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini were 116th last year against the run, but advanced stats show that's less on the linemen and more on the backers behind them. They are a bit undersized, but not incredibly. They have a good veteran group, and a lot of experience. Half of their returning line is (admittedly pretty good) two-star players, but Illinois has done a relatively decent job with what they've had.
13. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue had a player, Rashad Frazier, who was a mid-three-star recruit from the state of Ohio. He signed with Purdue, but later changed his mind and gave up his full-ride scholarship to transfer to Ohio State and pay his own way, where he's now a minimally used defensive end for the Buckeyes. This shows how hard it can be for a program like Purdue to get off the ground.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
This article worries me. Confidence among the players is key, and even if Kyle Flood has said behind closed doors that they need to recruit more beef to play the lines, he would still want the linemen that he has to believe they can take on guards and centers that have 20-30 pounds on them. And, speed might be an advantage for them, as Quanzell Lambert says. But most everything that goes on in practice - coverages, establishing an attitude, even working on offense - becomes almost irrelevant if teams can run up the middle for five yards consistently. The Knights do have a few guys down their depth chart at 280 lbs., but it's a pretty thin group. One of their freshman ends is less than 230.
Hitting the Links Likes Power Football
To their credit, many of the comments push back against this (and I did enjoy the third comment), but I've heard something like this from several Buckeye fans, in light of their winning streak that wasn't getting respect nationally. Since it captures the thinking of a part of the Buckeye fan base, I figured it deserved a highlight.
I missed this one pretty hard last Thursday - Tre Roberson is transferring to Illinois State. He wanted more playing time and a chance to lead a team. He finishes his Indiana career with 59.7%, 2,433 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, as well as 982 yards rushing. The first of many death knells to my 25 playmakers. Unfortunately for Indiana, this comes after the third-string quarterback, Cam Coffman, transferred in January to Wyoming. Teams always need to be ready for this kind of turnover during injury season, but it being transfer season has to hurt.
I know, this topic has been beaten around a lot, but there are a lot of interesting quotes in here from our O-linemen.
Coaches can now schedule up to ten hours a week with their players during the summer. On the one hand, this forces the question of how much is too much, for either the players (who are students) or the coaches. On the other hand, this solves a problem many had had with freshmen not being able to see their coaches for the first couple months when they arrive in the summer.
You may know of Ty Montgomery, Stanford's wide receiver (958 yards), All-American kick returner (1091 yards), running back (159 yards), and All-world defender (1 tackle). Get to know a little more about him with this nice piece from the San Jose Mercury News.
I respected this take on Gallon and where he fits in with his new team.
The recently departed Stanford DC is trying to continue what James Franklin built. During the initial part of the SEC's run, the SEC was top-heavy and not very deep at all - now, it's as deep as it's ever been. Tennessee has two straight top-10 recruiting classes (#5 in '14, #7 in '15), the Mississippi programs have been recruiting very well, and Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Auburn have combined for 29 blue-chip players so far in '15. Impressive stuff.
...take a look at the most impressive business card I've ever seen.
Byron Cowart is the #1 recruit in the 2015 class, according to Rivals. He's a Florida defensive end with measurables like Da'Shawn Hand. This piece talks about his and his mom's relationships with Georgia, and while the article references another former #1 pick as an example (Robert Nkemdiche), Big Ten fans would immediately think of Malik McDowell. It's a complicated side of recruiting that doesn't get a lot of attention.
ESPN looks at the best offensive line-producing teams in the 2000s. Four Big Ten teams make the top ten, and you'll be happy to see where Michigan is. It's a well-deserved spot; I've mentioned before that UM is the only program to have two Rimington Trophy winners, and both of those came in the last fifteen years.
I had had a link a while ago about WR Damore'ea Stringfellow transferring to Nebraska. He's been talked about pretty highly; as a freshman last season, he had one 8-catch, 147-yard game against UCLA, but never cracked 4 catches or 47 yards in any other game and had 259 yards total. After signing (non-binding) transfer documents, he kept looking around at other schools apparently, including Alabama, of which he had this to say: "They may have the number one draft pick every other year, or whatever. But it's all business ... Alabama was just all work." Obvious comment is obvious.
Dres Anderson Sr. is probably the best offensive player they have, and one of the three or four best receivers in the Pac-12. Wilson hasn't put it all together yet - he has a career 23-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio - but he's only a junior and has tons of experience. They also have a rising sophomore running back in Bubba Poole (607/4.1), who had 100-yard games against Stanford and Oregon State. Still, the offense is not meant to be the team's only weapon; it just has to chew up yards and clock. Whittingham's defensive line loses a couple pieces but has always been stout. They were second in the country last year in sacks and 20th in rush defense.
Lynch is sometimes forgotten behind the speedy Bill Belton and the always-pointed-forward, lumbering Zach Zwinack. But Lynch is another great runner for James Franklin.
This is less a highlight and more of a wave of headaches, but there's a terrific block from David Molk and great running at the end from Gardner (if you forget that he's supposed to be a quarterback). We ended up winning 58-0, so there's that.
It's been a while (and it feels longer) since Michigan's dominated somebody, but this is a little reminder of what we can do if we get it together. I want to see Funchess fighting that hard against Michigan State, and not just Central Michigan.