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.
This is not your grandfather’s Big Ten, or even your father’s Big Ten. The bruising, brawling trademark brand of ground-tethered Midwest football has given way to a broader schematic trend towards the passing game. Naturally, that makes secondary one of the most important positions on the field. Defensive backs are the ones responsible, and increasingly less so – what with every innovative offensive coordinator and complex five-receiver set – for stopping these air attacks in their tracks. It takes talented individual players, excellent communication and intuitive coverages and playcalling from the sidelines to put it all together, and the Big Ten has a hearty heaping of each among its members. There are good secondaries, improving groups and ones that are just plain awful. Some teams still haven’t caught on.
Teams to watch (Northwestern Excluded)
Nebraska – The persisting ineffectiveness of Nebraska’s defense under Bo Pelini continues to boggle the mind. For yet another season, the Huskers don’t look to have what it takes to field the sort of elite defense Pelini was brought in five years ago precisely because his defensive credentials, dating back to his days at LSU and beyond, suggested he could. The secondary could be this defense’s saving grace. Stanley Jean-Baptiste is an All-Conference type corner. Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson will step up at safety. Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose, a sophomore, is a young corner with great potential.
Wisconsin – The biggest crack in new coach Gary Anderson’s first-year roster could lie in the defensive backfield, where the Badgers lose three starters – among them honorable mention All-Big Ten corners Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith. The Badgers will attempt to bounce back with some new young faces. At cornerback, Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary will compete for one starting spot, and Peniel Jean will likely start on the other side. One starter, senior safety Dezmen Southward, returns, which should provide some stability as the Badgers patch things together in the midst of a semi-transition year in the back end of their defense.
Ohio State – There is no debate: Ohio State has the best secondary in the Big Ten. This is fairly obvious, you see, OSU’s pass defense supremacy over the rest of its own conference. Bradley Roby is a name you should know by now, a junior cornerback most believe will be a first-round pick the moment he leaves Columbus. C.J. Barnett enters 2013 with 24 career starts, the most of any Buckeyes player on the defensive side of the ball. Fellow senior Christian Bryant will team with Barnett to help form one of the most experienced – between Bryant and Barnett, Ohio State returns a combined 46 starts to its starting safety group – and most reliable safety tandems in the Big Ten.
Penn State – Every secondary has questions. Doubts. Perceived weaknesses. Penn State is not exempt from that distinction. But the positives arguably outweigh the more dubious aspects of this DB group. To wit: junior Adrian Amos is moving to his natural position at safety, and veterans Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong offer depth and experience. The Nittany Lions’ latest depth chart release has two sophomores, Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams, pegged as starters at cornerback. There is some risk in rolling out a relatively young and inexperienced pair of cornerbacks right from the jump, but if it means improving upon last year’s pass defense, all the better.
Where does NU fit in?
Before we dig into where Northwestern ranks amongst other Big Ten secondaries, let’s all agree to settle on one thing: this year’s group of defensive backs is better than last year’s. Why? Ibraheim Campbell, for one, is a rising star who in spring practice looked even better than he did during the season, when he received honorable mention all Big Ten honors – and he’ll have a more serviceable safety counterpart helping him every step of the way in sophomore Traveon Henry. At cornerback, Nick Vanhoose is a solid lockdown cover man; his ability to stay on the field, rather than his actual individual performance, is the biggest concern. The other corner spot has yet to be resolved, but the list of candidates – C.J. Bryant, Dwight White, Daniel Jones, Jarrell Williams or any of the four freshman corners entering the mix this season – looks more credible than last year’s assemblage of cover men.
Wrap everything together, and you see a secondary that, unlike many of the NU teams of recent seasons, possesses the talent and athleticism to prevent gutting lapses in the face of desperate last-gasp passing barrages. Northwestern’s inability to protect leads in the fourth quarter has arguably been its biggest flaw in recent seasons. This secondary, with the talent and depth and youthful potential on hand, should alleviate that annual rite of frustration. Just to give you some frame of subjective reference: I’m more optimistic about this DB group than most. In the pecking order of other Big Ten defensive backfields, I say Northwestern belongs at No. 4.
Way too early All-Big Ten team
In A four-DB scheme:
Bradley Roby, Ohio state CB
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State CB
Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State S
Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern S
Way too early power rankings
1. Ohio State, 2. Michigan, 3. Michigan State, 4. Northwestern, 5. Nebraska, 6. Penn State, 7. Wisconsin, 8. Minnesota, 9. Purdue, 10. Iowa, 11. Illinois, 12. Indiana