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Around The Big Ten: Defensive Line

Now that summer has nearly arrived, we’re inching closer and closer to football. This post marks the start of our newest series: a look at how each of the Wildcats’ units stands put up against other units in the Big Ten. Next up is the defensive line.

Conference Overview

The proliferation of spread offenses in the Big Ten has made elite defensive line play a main priority for any of the league’s defenses. That applies for any conference, but when you need to devise ways to stop Taylor Martinez one week, Braxton Miller the next and Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian and Devin Gardner and all the rest, building a strong and versatile front is the best place to start. There is no magic bullet for D-line success, other than, maybe, what Urban Meyer has managed to do in the midst of one year on the job: recruit really, really well. As such, the Buckeyes enter 2013 a level above the rest in terms of D-line quality. There are plenty of bright spots to go around, but no one matches the speed, power, and unseen youthful potential the Buckeyes have to offer in the trenches. They will get sacks. They will stuff the run. And next year, when more of Meyer’s super recruits roll into Columbus, they’ll feed the beast and start all over again.

Teams to Watch (NU Excluded) 

Michigan State – Through all the superficial disappointment of Michigan State’s 7-5 season, a huge miss on the 9-11 win season many foresaw entering last year, one thing was as strong and consistent as any MSU supporter could have realistically hoped: the defense. The Spartans ranked fourth nationally in total defense last season, and after losing end William Gholston and tackle Anthony White, they could be in line for some typical roster turnover-induced regression. Junior Marcus Rush will need to command the lead pass-rushing role Gholston occupied last season, and tackles Tyler Hoover and James Kittridge will be charged with maintaining the Spartans’ stingy run D. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun could be a force at one end spot. If there is a decline in production, it should be negligible.

Michigan – All dispatches from Wolverines HQ have gushed about the athletic potential of end Frank Clark, a 6’2’’, 277-pound dynamo with great power and speed off the edge. Replacing tackle William Campbell and end Craig Roh won’t be easy, but Brady Hoke has talented youngsters waiting in the wings, starting with freshman end and all-name-team all-star Taco Charlton. Another player to watch: sophomore tackle Ondre Pipkins, who reportedly shed over 30 pounds in the past year and should provide useful depth at tackle. Sophomore end Mario Ojemudia brings some of the same speed-rushing qualities that define Clark’s skillset, only packaged in a slighter frame (6’3’’, 244 pounds). The Wolverines will have a good mix of speed, strength and power to throw at opposing Big Ten offenses this season.

Ohio State – I’ve made my reverence for the OSU’s defensive line patently obvious. How could I possibly be so convinced, when the Buckeyes are replacing all four starters along their defensive front? Sophomores Noah Spence and and Adolphus Washington are why. Tackle Tommy Schutt is why. Juniors Michael Bennett and Joel Hale complementing a wave of talented youth with valuable experience is why. Recruiting rankings aren’t perfect predictive formulas, and it’s entirely possible Schutt and Washington and Spence fall well short of their lofty high school credentials, but until a large sample of games says otherwise, until they turn out to be merely average, rather than immediately potent, I’m more inclined to believe the D-line talent amassed in Meyer’s first recruiting cycle will, in fact, excel. That cycle begins this season.

Surprise Unit

Purdue – Losing Kawann Short is a natural demerit on this line’s abilities for most outside observers, and that’s not an unreasonable opinion to have when looking at Purdue’s 2013 defensive line. Short was good. He cannot be replaced by any one single player. The talent he left behind, though, should ensure his loss is well accounted for. Senior Bruce Gaston posted 30 tackles and seven tackles for loss last season, and with Short out of the way, is ready to become the next space-devouring Boilermakers’ tackle. Touted 2012 recruit Ryan Watson was given the “Most Improved Player” award at the conclusion of Purdue’s spring workouts, and should push Brandon Taylor and Ryan Isaac for playing time alongside Gaston. At end, Jalani Phillips, juco transfer Greg Latta and junior Ryan Russell, an agile edge-rusher with good strength and size (6’5’’, 275 pounds), are capable options.

Where does NU fit in?

The catalyst for Northwestern’s collective defensive improvement last season was the defensive line. Brian Arnfelt led the charge at tackle, Tyler Scott evolved into one of the Big Ten’s best pass rushers and NU played with more intensity and consistent bite in the trenches than at any point in recent memory. Defensive end remains a strong point for the Wildcats: Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Scott and quite possibly freshman Eric Joraskie give NU a deep and potent pass-rushing rotation. Inside is where problems could arise. With Arnfelt gone, the Wildcats bring back just three players with game experience: McEvily, Will Hampton and Chance Carter. Greg Kuhar, Conor Mahoney and C.J. Robbins, who is expected double as a defensive end, comprise NU’s tackle reserves.

One injury or one drastic slip in performance could force the Wildcats to rely on a completely unproven player, which isn’t necessarily the worst possible development – these guys need to get their game reps in at some point, anyway. But it could shake up the stability that held NU’s line together throughout last season. I fear the loss of Arnfelt stretches well beyond his own individual production. It also leaves the Wildcats without the emotionally uplifting effect he had on teammates, the leadership he provided, and the tenacious mentality he helped instill in a young group. That insecurity at tackle pushes the Wildcats down a few slots lower than they otherwise might have been. Ranking them sixth feels just about right.

Way too early All-Big Ten team

In a 4-3 scheme:

DE -- Tyler Scott, Northwestern

DT – Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota

DT – Beau Allen, Wisconsin

DE – Marcus Rush, Michigan State

Way too early Power Rankings

1. Ohio State, 2. Michigan State, 3. Michigan, 4. Wisconsin, 5. Penn State, 6. Northwestern, 7. Purdue, 8. Nebraska, 9. Minnesota, 10. Iowa, 11. Illinois, 12. Indiana