Oftentimes when we think of star power, we immediately turn to the offensive side of the ball – specifically, to quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. But in the Big Ten in 2014, if there’s one position group that boasts legitimate star power, it’s the defensive linemen. There are a number of players that could realistically earn All-America honors at season’s end.
But it’s not all about the big names. There’s talent throughout. The top eight units are all strong, which makes for some difficult ranking decisions, and Nos. 4 through 8 are all somewhat muddled. But enough with the prefacing. Let’s get to it.
1. Ohio State – In Michael Bennett, Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, the Buckeyes have arguably three of the five best defensive linemen in the conference. In a word, that’s menacing.
2. Michigan State – The Spartans will be weaker up the middle, with both defensive tackles from a year ago having departed, but Shilique Calhoun is a stud and opposite him, Marcus Rush shouldn’t be overlooked. The D-line will once again be a strength in East Lansing.
3. Nebraska – The Huskers’ depth took a hit when defensive tackle Aaron Curry decided to transfer, but this is still a very strong front four. Randy Gregory is one of the best defensive ends in the nation, let alone the conference.
4. Penn State – Penn State’s defensive line was up there with the best in the Big Ten a year ago, and though they lose two starting tackles, most notably DaQuan Jones, it should be there once again. The scholarship restrictions may have curtailed the Nittany Lions’ depth a bit, but this is still a formidable unit.
5. Iowa – Defensive tackle Carl Davis is a force to be reckoned with, and this is a very sturdy group. The one thing it lacks is an explosive pass-rusher – a big reason why the Hawkeyes should be stronger against the run than the pass.
6. Maryland – This is one of the most experienced groups in the conference. The Terps run a hybrid defense, but the base is a 3-4 scheme, and though undersized, Andre Monroe is a very effective 3-4 end. The lack of size across their defensive front is a worry though.
7. Michigan – There are question marks on the interior for the Wolverines, as two unproven sophomores look set to start at tackle. But Frank Clark will look to push himself into the same sentence as Gregory, Calhoun, Spence and Bosa – if he’s not there already – and there’s certainly no dearth of edge rushers.
8. Northwestern – The Wildcats’ one big loss on the defensive line was Tyler Scott, but they should be just fine at defensive end. Dean Lowry’s improvement has been consistent, and Ifeadi Odenigbo should have an even greater impact than he did last season. The problem is through the middle. Sean McEvilly is a capable Big Ten starter, but somebody else must step up alongside him. Northwestern’s defensive front should be better than it was last year, but staying relatively healthy is imperative.
9. Wisconsin – If you’re at all familiar with the Big Ten, you’ve probably heard: Wisconsin returns nobody from last year’s starting front seven. And thus, the Badgers’ defensive line is one of the key mysteries that needs to be solved to help decide the Big Ten West race. But there are promising players who will step in, and in year two of the new 3-4 scheme, they won’t be as bad as some suspect.
10. Minnesota – With athletic freak Ra’Shede Hageman last year, this Gophers D-line was in the upper tier of the Big Ten. But with Hageman now gone, the question is, how much of that success was solely due to him, and how much was due to the unit as a whole? Nearly everybody else returns, so if the answer is the latter option, Minnesota will be just fine.
11. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights’ move to the Big Ten is cause for concern with regards to the defensive line. This is a decent group, with two returning starters, but the four projected starting linemen, on average, weigh roughly 255 pounds, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the physicality of their new conference.
12. Indiana – The defensive line is probably IU’s strength on this side of the ball, but as part of a defense that was absolutely dreadful in 2013, that’s not saying much. Could the shift to the 3-4 be the saving grace? The personnel seemingly fits the new system, but that’s probably too much to ask, and at the least, there’ll be an adjustment period.
13. Illinois – There’s an interesting mix of experience and unknown here – multiple JUCO transfers figure to see playing time – but there’s not too much reason to believe the Illini will be significantly better up front than they were a year ago.
14. Purdue – Only one starter returns on the defensive line for the Boilermakers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fresh faces and a fresh approach are imperative.
Why Northwestern should be higher: For all the talk of last year’s struggles, NU’s defensive front still put a good amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and at times played really well. If Odenigbo breaks out, the pass rush could be imposing, and with McEvilly healthy, the interior of the line will be solid, with the potential to be more than solid.
Why Northwestern should be lower: There’s actually a pretty simple argument. Minnesota comes in at No. 10, but let’s superficially compare the Wildcats and the Gophers. Both lose their best lineman from a year ago, but Minnesota was probably the better unit in 2013. So, naturally they should be better in 2014.
Second thoughts: Just to be clear, there are tons of holes to be poked in that argument. And it’s not one I would make. I actually think I'm low on Northwestern here, but it’s tough to place NU much higher. Improvement could be in the offing, but let’s hold back judgment until we see evidence of progression on the field.