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Big Ten Positional Rankings: Defensive Backs

Throughout the month, we’ve been rolling out Big Ten positional power rankings to gage how Northwestern stacks up with the rest of the conference. It’s also a good opportunity to educate yourself on the rest of the conference. Naturally, these rankings will be subjective, and therefore up for debate, but the idea is to assess each unit and project its strength for the coming season. There’ll also be a section at the end of each set of rankings to analyze Northwestern’s standing. Should you disagree with the assessments though, let your opinion be heard in the comments. Last but not least is the defensive backs.

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The Rankings

1. Michigan State – Despite the losses of Darqueze Dennard, one of the best cornerbacks to come through the Big Ten in some time, and Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State’s secondary will remain strong. Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes are studs, and last year’s top four backups are all back in 2014.

2. Michigan – There’s quite a bit of talent here, but questions have recently arisen. Blake Countess might be the top corner in the conference, and he’s the highest rated player in the Wolverine defensive backfield. But the man generating all of the buzz is true freshman Jabrill Peppers, arguably the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2014, and it’s he who has caused some uncertainty. There were even rumblings that Countess and/or fellow veteran Raymon Taylor might not even start, making way for Peppers and sophomore Jourdan Lewis. But it looks like Peppers will be the nickel corner, with Countess and Taylor on the outside. Regardless of who starts, the depth chart has four capable corners, which lends itself to a rotation of sorts. Combine that with serviceable safeties, and this is a strong unit.

3. Northwestern – This is unequivocally Northwestern’s best position group. When we evaluate position groups, there are three buzz words – talent, experience and depth – and NU has all three. All four starters return, and there’s nothing to suggest all four can’t have their best years yet. Ibraheim Campbell is one of the most accomplished safeties in the conference; Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose don’t garner much hype, but are both above average starters; and Matthew Harris is a budding star. Plus, Keith Watkins will surprise in a nickelback role, and the 2013 recruiting class was thoroughly stocked with defensive backs, meaning there is plenty of insurance at all four spots.

4. Wisconsin – There’s going to be a decent amount of pressure on this Badgers secondary with so much turnover on the front seven. But this is a group that can absorb and withstand it. Both starting corners are back, as is safety Michael Caputo, their second-leading tackler from a year ago.

5. Maryland – This is yet another experienced group for the Terps. Safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon have built up a good amount of familiarity with each other, and there are three starting-caliber corners on the roster.

6. Penn State – The Nittany Lions still lack considerable depth in the defensive backfield, and they do lose an impact player in safety Malcolm Willis, but this could be their best group of defensive backs in a while. In Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas they have playmakers at safety and cornerback, and James Franklin regularly had good secondaries at Vanderbilt, so this could end up being a group PSU looks to as a strength.

7. Minnesota – This is one of only a few places where Minnesota figures to be better equipped in 2014 compared to last season. The Gophers lose Brock Vereen to the NFL, but three starters return, plus CB Briean Boddy-Caolhoun, who missed most of last year due to injury. All four starters will be upperclassmen with starting experience, and both corners, especially Eric Murray, are very capable in coverage.

8. Iowa – The Hawkeyes lose two full time starters, but sophomore Desmond King looks like he could be the next lockdown Iowa cornerback. The safeties are solid enough, and with an inexperienced linebacking corps in front of them, will need to be strong in run support. Overall, the expectation should be a similar level of play to last year.

9. Ohio State – One of the biggest surprises of 2013 was just how poor Ohio State’s pass defense was. The Buckeye’s D-line was a strength, and they had two NFL draft picks in the secondary, but routinely gave up big chunks of yardage through the air. This unit has a new look in 2014, which includes a new position coach, and with a player of Bradley Roby’s caliber gone, you would expect regression. But surely they’ll improve upon last year. After all, this is Ohio State, and the next man up is almost always talented. But let’s wait for proof of improvement rather than blindly project it.

10. Nebraska – SS Corey Cooper is right up there with Drummond and Campbell among the top safeties in the Big Ten, but surrounding him are potential weak spots. The Cornhuskers’ losses are unprecedented, and replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be one of the stories of their season.

11. Rutgers – Three of four starters are back for the Scarlet Knights, but this is a secondary that struggled mightily in 2013. It should be better this time around, but predicting any significant improvement is a bit too optimistic.

12. Indiana – For a defense that was so porous in 2013, there’s actually a fair amount to like about Indiana on this side of the ball in 2014. The secondary is by no means great, and actually might be the weakest defensive unit of the three, but they are experienced and get sophomore Antonio Allen back from injury. Improvement seems imminent.

13. Illinois – The Illini pass defense was atrocious a year ago, and to seemingly confound the problem, arguably their best defensive back, Earnest Thomas, moves to their "STAR" position. To make a long story short, everybody is back from last year’s secondary, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. They can’t possibly be so bad again though.

14. Purdue – Rather than analyze these Purdue defensive backs, I have a question… When was the last time one Big Ten team had so many position groups that ranked at or near the bottom of the conference. Purdue literally has no unit that is even average. That’s shocking. Anyways, as for this secondary… let’s just say it fits the pattern.

Second Guessing

Why Northwestern should be higher: A lot of this could hinge on the cornerbacks. I think the general assumption is that the VanHoose-Harris pairing is a slightly above average set of starting corners, but if both can make a jump – a scenario which is by no means out of the question – I could see this group being in the argument for best secondary in the Big Ten.

Why Northwestern should be lower: Outside of Campbell, no NU defensive back has really broken out yet. At the least, Henry, VanHoose and Harris are average Big Ten starters… but what if that is in fact all that they are? Three average starters and one above average starter wouldn't make this a top-three unit.

Second thoughts: Honestly, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have the Wildcats at No. 2. I’m really high on this defense as a whole, and particularly this secondary.

Previous Rankings:
Quarterbacks
Running Backs
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Offensive Lines
Defensive Lines
Linebackers