[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with the 3-Point Stance, looking at defensive tiers in the Big Ten, the best OL recruiting programs in recent years, and Group of Five offensive linemen to keep an eye on.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— Let’s break down the defense in the Power Five with the Big Ten up first.
Elite: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa
As long as Jim Leonhard is the defensive coordinator for the Badgers, their unit is going to be among the best of the best in the nation. Wisconsin has finished in the top six nationally in total defense in four of his five seasons as DC. So while they're losing eight starters from last year's team which finished top in the country in total defense, they're going to be outstanding once again. The biggest news for them is that they get another year of dominant OLB Nick Herbig. I have him as a top-five edge rusher in the country entering the season, and don't be surprised when he leads the Big Ten in sacks this season. Keeanu Benton is a really good nose tackle, and Jordan Turner is poised to be the next great inside linebacker in the Badgers' system. They bulked up their secondary with four big portal additions, including All-Pac 12 corner Jay Shaw. Another outstanding unit for Wisconsin
The Buckeyes have as much talent as anyone on the defensive side of the ball, led by corner Denzel Burke. OSU is pushing LSU for the title of DBU these days, and the addition of Oklahoma State's Tanner McCalister is just adding to that legacy. He should be special this season. Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer and Javontae Jean-Baptiste are an outstanding rotation of edge rushers. Should be another excellent year for the Buckeyes.
Iowa seemingly always has an excellent unit under Phil Parker, and this year should be no different. Jack Campbell is the best linebacker they've had since Josey Jewell, and he's going to be on the shortlist for the Butkus award come season's end. Next to him is Seth Benson who is no slouch either. All-American Riley Moss returns at corner, and he's the definition of a ballhawk. And even though he won't start, all eyes will be on true freshman Xavier Nwankpa, as he's one of the top DB recruits to ever come to Iowa City. They've got two very solid defensive ends in Lukas Van Ness and Joe Evans, who are a perfect fit for their 4-3 defense. And Noah Shannon at defensive tackle is someone who remains overlooked despite being consistently strong up front.
Good But Not Great: Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota
The Nittany Lions lost some key players, including Arnold Ebiketie, but have a lot of upside returning. That starts with five-star true freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton, who is expected to compete for snaps right away on the edge. Maryland transfer Chop Robinson is also a possibility at pass rusher, as well as Adisa Isaac, who returns after missing all of 2021 with an injury. On the inside, PJ Mustipher and his 330 lb. frame also return from injury, and he'll be a key piece. The linebackers are the biggest question mark, especially in the middle, as Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King are both competing for the starting spot. Curtis Jacobs returns at one outside spot across from Jonathan Sutherland, who moves down from safety to OLB. They can afford to do that, though, because the Nittany Lions' secondary is the strength of the defense. Corner Joey Porter Jr. is one of the best cornerbacks in the conference, and former four-star Kalen King has big upside across from him. Ji'Ayir Brown leads the safeties and could be all-Big 10 in 2022.
It's hard to replace one elite edge rusher, much less two. And that's what the Wolverines need to do this season after seeing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo leave for the pros after stellar 2021 campaigns. The good news is they still have Mazi Smith, and he's going to have to step up and be the leader of this defense from the interior. Behind him, Mason Graham has promise. No one can possibly replace Hutchinson, but Mike Morris will try and do his best, while Taylor Upshaw and Jaylen Harrell will work to take over for Ojabo on the edge. Linebackers Junior Colson and Nikahi Hill-Green got a lot of experience in 2021, which they will both need as they step into full-time starter roles this year. Rod Moore and RJ Moten were both big time recruits who can be impact players at safety while DJ Turner and Gemon Green should man the corner spots. There are absolutely question marks for the Wolverines, but I'm betting on the talent.
Minnesota was a revelation last season on defense, finishing in the top ten in scoring and total defense, and they should be strong once again. They added Beanie Bishop and Ryan Stapp through the transfer portal to join Justin Walley at corner, as well as Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden at safety. They also get back Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker, and he's a potential all-Big Ten guy. The issue will be up front as they have to replace Boye Mafe and others. They're hoping that Clemson transfer Darnell Jeffries will step up on the inside and Vandy transfer Lorenza Surgers can join Thomas Rusher and Jay Joyner to get a pass rush.
That'll Do: Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan State, Nebraska
The Illini's defense in 2021 was far superior to their offense, finishing in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense, and that is more than likely going to be the case again in 2022. But that's not necessarily saying much, as their offense is pretty poor. We'll start with the good, where they have two young DEs in Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer'zahn Newton, who had solid redshirt freshmen seasons. They get back most of their defensive backfield led by Sidney Brown and Devin Witherspoon, but do lose safety Kirby Joseph, who was far and away the best player from last year's unit. The linebackers will suffer, though, after losing Owen Carney Jr. and Jake Hansen, last year's two top players on that unit.
The loss of George Karlaftis cannot be overstated. He was a one-man wrecking crew up front, and he's irreplaceable. His little brother Yanni Karlaftis has some serious upside on the edge, but doesn't possess the brawn and physicality of the first-rounder. Last year's team was excellent against the pass, giving up just a tick over 200 yards per game through the air, and they should be solid again in the defensive backfield, if not better. They will get a healthy Cory Trice back at corner to go next to Jabari Brown, in addition to transfers Reece Taylor (Indiana) and Tee Denson (Kansas State). The big concern, though, is the run defense, specifically up the middle. The Boilermakers brought in Penn State's Cole Brevard to help solidify the DT spot, but LB is still an issue.
A solid group coming back for Rutgers this season, starting with Aaron Lewis, who is a really good pass rusher. He and Kyonte Hamilton should both be menacing on third down. The Scarlet Knights are also strong on the back end, with the return of Max Melton and Kessawn Abraham at corner and hopefully a healthy Christian Braswell. The issue for the Knights is at linebacker, due to injuries to Mohamed Toure and Moses Walker both suffered during spring. The only player with any starting experience at all is Tyreem Powell, but even he is still very green. If they're able to take the pressure off of their linebackers with good play from Mayan Ahanotu and Ifeanyi Maijeh on the interior of the defensive line, they could take a step forward, but if they're pressed to do more than the basics, it could be a long season.
The Spartans are one of the most variable groups on this group - they've got a bonafide star at defensive tackle in Jacob Slade, but not a ton of upper-echelon talent outside of him. Next to Slade, Simeon Barrow started 10 games in 2021 at defensive tackle should be solid once again. Mel Tucker was highly active in the portal again, and brought in Khris Bogle from Florida who should start immediately at defensive end. MLB Cal Haladay was a freshman All-American in 2021 and should continue to grow, but there are definite question marks around him. UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon looks like he'll start as well, as will fellow transfer Austin Brule from Mississippi State. The defensive backfield last season was very porous though, and so despite almost everyone returning as well as the addition of Ameer Speed from Georgia, that's going to be their Achilles heel. They should take a step forward from their genuinely poor unit last season to being close to league average, but they're not going to get to elite.
I had the Cornhuskers on the borderline of tier four, but left them in tier three for the time being. They have very good linebackers led by Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, who combined for over 200 tackles last season. Starters Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor are also both back at OLB. However, they're all going to be getting extra work this season as they have to reconstruct the defensive line from scratch. They made a splash bringing in Ochaun Mathis from TCU, and he'll join Ty Robinson and Alabama transfer Stephon Wynn as the presumed starters. In the defensive backfield, Quinton Newsome returns at corner and is solid but doesn't generate many turnovers. Safety Myles Farmer also returns after splitting time last season, but they will need transfers Omar Brown, Tommi Hill, and DeShaun Singleton to step up quickly.
Cross Your Fingers and Pray: Maryland, Indiana, Northwestern
While the Terrapins might have an explosive offense in 2022, there's a good chance their defense gives up just as many points. They're on their fourth defensive coordinator since 2019 and have no real identity. Add on to that the fact that they lost some of the best players from their vaunted 2021 class (including Branden Jennings, that class' top recruit), and you've got a recipe for disaster. The only unit that might be league average is their cornerbacks, where their top three of Deonte Banks, Jakorian Bennett, and Tarheeb Still all return. At linebacker, they need to hope that West Virginia transfer Vandarius Cowan is ready to go from the jump and that true freshman Jaishawn Barham is physically ready because they're very thin. The Terps are also thin up front but will get a jolt if Durell Nchami is able to stay healthy. He's a big body with explosive power.
The Hoosiers had a season to forget in 2021, and they're still picking up the pieces. Outside of the return of cornerback Taiwan Mullen, there's not a ton to write home about. Fellow corner Jaylin Wiliams joins Mullen to form a solid pairing on the outside, and safety Devon Matthews is at least a competent Big Ten starter. However, the front seven is about as poor as you're going to find in the conference. They brought in two transfers at defensive tackle in Cal's JH Tevis and UCLA's Myles Jackson, but they're both still relatively unproven in their collegiate careers. Micah McFadden is simply not replaceable by anyone on the current roster. They're hoping that Miami transfer Bradley Jennings can help and that Cam Jones will continue to grow. But that's a lot of ifs for a team that is going to struggle offensively as well. The one bright spot for this team could be true freshman linebacker Dasan McCullough, who is one of the top recruits in the history of the program. He has a chance to be special.
Losing Brandon Joseph to the portal was devastating to a unit that was already under the gun. So while Pat Fitzgerald has been able to pull a rabbit out of his hat more than once during his tenure in Evanston, it doesn't look like that's going to happen with this unit in 2022. As always, the Wildcats have a stud linebacker. Bryce Gallagher is one of the best MLBs in the conference, but outside of him, there's not a ton of talent anywhere. They brought in two transfers on the interior of the line in Taishan Holmes (UMass) and Ryan Johnson (Stanford) who should hopefully make an impact. The secondary returns three starters in AJ Hampton, Cameron Mitchell, and Coco Azema, but they are going to seriously miss Joseph's playmaking ability.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— The best offensive line recruiting programs recently including the portal? Sorry Wisconsin.
— It’s a close battle between Georgia and Alabama but the Dawgs get the nod with more five star caliber players overall. Broderick Jones is the next first rounder for them.
— Alabama just picks and chooses it seems at OL and they don’t lose many battles. The ones they do lose are mainly to UGA.
3. Notre Dame
— Notre Dame fights for the label of OLU and from Quenton Nelson to Ronnie Stanley to the group now they just recruit nationally among the best.
4. Texas A&M
— The Aggies low key land a ton of great linemen with Bryce Foster the next great one. Four and five stars are common since Jimbo Fisher took over.
5. Ohio State
— The Buckeyes can land them from Florida to California and own the Midwest aside from the rare battle with Notre Dame and Michigan.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— And finally the big uglies don’t get enough attention so here’s some for the Group of Five OL to watch.
1. Donovan Jennings, USF
— He’s overlooked by many but is as consistent as they come and brings great experience. He’s arguably the most consistent player on the roster since 2018.
2. Cooper Hodges, App State
— He’s physical, is always putting players on their backs and has been one of the best in his conference since 2019.
3. Patrick Paul, Houston
— He’s a two time all conference performer and has the most NFL upside of anyone on this list at 6-7 and 315 pounds.
4. Jake Renfro, Cincinnati
— Renfro is a leader and a huge piece of the puzzle as the Bearcats rebuild. As the center he’s the leader of the offensive line and has made 19 straight starts.
5. John Okukwu, Boise State
— He has 37 career starts and is the veteran of the offense and a guy you can count on game in and game out.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]