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Athlon Sports ranks the best Big Ten defensive linemen of the BCS Era.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Big Ten is all about physical line play on both sides of the ball. Stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback is one of the quickest ways to find yourself in B1G contention at year's end.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06)
The Wolverines' terror off the edge posted 12 sacks as a senior en route to the Lombardi and Hendricks Awards as the nation’s best lineman and defensive end respectively. He was a unanimous All-American before being drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Steelers. His 10 career forced fumbles are seventh all-time in Big Ten history and his work on the ’06 Michigan team that started 11-0 before losing to Ohio State in memorable fashion earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Woodley also was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lott, Outland and Nagurski awards as well.
2. Tamba Hali, Penn State (2002-05)
A unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Hali pushed Penn State to its last Big Ten championship as well as a win in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. He led the Big Ten with 17.0 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks and added 65 total tackles for a team that lost just once (in the final second) all season. The undersized end was picked 20th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft and has blossomed into one of the league’s top edge players.
3. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin (2009-10)
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 was dominant in his short stint in Madison. After originally signing with Central Michigan as a tight end, Watt emerged as a hidden gem for the Badgers. He posted an absurd 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a number of big blocked kicks (see Arizona State). He won the Lott Trophy given to the most impactful defensive player in college football in 2010 before being picked with the 11th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. He is arguably the best defensive end on the planet right now.
4. Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10)
A beast off the edge cut from the same mold as Watt in terms of size and athleticism, few have ever been as productive as Kerrigan. The Boilermakers star is seventh all-time in Big Ten history with 33.5 sacks and his 14 forced fumbles are the most in league history by anyone (his seven forced fumbles in 2009 are tied for third all-time in league history). He was named ’10 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus All-American. In his final season in West Lafayette, he won the Bill Willis Award by posting 70 tackles, 26 for a loss and 12.5 sacks.
5. Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin (2001-04)
“The Eraser” did it all for the Badgers during his time in Madison. He finished with 124 tackles, 25.5 for a loss, 18 sacks and seven forced fumbles. James won the 2004 Hendricks Award given to the nation’s best defensive end and the Bill Willis Award given to the nation’s top defensive lineman. The Wisconsin star was a consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik award in ’04 as well. He was the 18th pick of the 2005 NFL Draft.
6. Courtney Brown, Penn State (1996-99)
The Outback Bowl’s MVP (1999) earned a long list of honors during his time at Penn State. He was a consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was a two-time All-Big Ten selection. In 1999, he posted 29.0 tackles for a loss, third-best in Big Ten history. His 70 career tackles for a loss also rank third all-time in conference history while his 33 career sacks rank ninth. Brown was the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 2000 NFL Draft. His lack of pro success doesn’t take away from his elite college career.
7. Will Smith, Ohio State (2000-03)
One of the most talented players to ever suit up in the Big Ten, Smith’s career had it all. He won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2003 and finished his career with 167 tackles, 21 sacks and five forced fumbles in 37 starts (51 games). Smith was one of the stars on a Buckeyes defense that topped Miami for the 2002 BCS National Championship.
8. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (2009-11)
Mercilus didn’t blossom until his junior season but what a season it was. After playing every game of his first two years with little fanfare, Mercilus burst onto the national scene with one of the greatest single-seasons in Big Ten history. He led the nation in sacks (16.0, fourth all-time in Big Ten History) and his nine forced fumbles established a new conference record. He was a consensus All-American, won the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end and the Willis Award for the nation’s best defensive lineman. The Fighting Illini rush end was named the CFPA Defensive Performer of the Year and was the 26th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.
9. Tom Burke, Wisconsin (1995-98)
One the Big Ten’s greatest sack artists helped lead Wisconsin to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl championship during his historic and record-setting senior season. Burke earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors by setting a conference record with 22 sacks (No. 2 is Lamanzer Williams with 18.5) and 31 tackles for a loss in 1998. He was a consensus All-American and third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. His five sacks against Iowa in ’98 are tied for second-best in Big Ten history. He claimed the Bill Willis Trophy that year as well.
10. Jared DeVries, Iowa (1995-98)
Only one player in Big Ten history has more sacks than DeVries’ 42 career QB takedowns and his name is Simeon Rice (44.5). Playing at the same time as Burke, the Hawkeyes' star end is the Big Ten’s all-time leader in tackles for a loss with 78 career stops behind the line of scrimmage. He was a consensus All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten performer. He was a third-round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
Just missed the cut:
11. Devon Still, Penn State (2009-11)
Still became one of just two defensive tackles to ever win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors when he dominated the league in 2011. He posted 55 tackles, 17.0 for a loss and 4.5 sacks during his junior season, earning consensus All-American honors in the process. Still was a finalist for the Outland and Bednarik awards and became a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2012 NFL Draft.
12. Michael Haynes, Penn State (1999-02)
Haynes was named the 2002 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year after posting 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles as a senior. Those numbers were good for ninth and third all-time in league history. He was an All-American and picked in the first round by the Chicago Bears.
13. John Simon, DE, Ohio State (2009-12)
A stalwart of consistency for the Buckeyes, this workout warrior came to play every game. He wasn’t the most talented or the biggest but he was one of the best, finishing his career with 154 tackles, 42 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks. He was a captain, leader and played in 51 games during his time in Columbus. Simon was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
14. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa (2007-10)
It took until his third year on campus as a redshirt junior, but Clayborn became a star along the Hawkeyes' defensive line. He led Iowa to an Orange Bowl bid and was named that game's MVP as Iowa earned its first and only BCS bowl win over Georgia Tech. He was a consensus All-American and eventually was picked in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
15. Jared Odrick Penn State (2006-09)
Odrick was the first defensive tackle to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors with his dominant 2009 campaign. The two-time All-Big Ten selection posted 41 tackles, 10 for a loss and six sacks during his All-American senior season. Odrick was a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Best of the rest:
16. Jerel Worthy, Michigan State (2009-11)
Freshman All-American who blossomed into a consensus All-American, starting nearly every game of his career.
17. Brandon Graham, DE, Michigan (2006-09)
Led the nation in tackles for a loss as a senior (26.0), was an All-American and first-round draft pick.
18. Shaun Phillips, Purdue (2000-03)
Seventh all-time in Big Ten history with 33.5 sacks and ninth all-time with 60.5 tackles for a loss.
19. Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State (2003-06)
Consensus All-American who helped lead Ohio State to perfect regular season, Big Ten title and BCS title game.
20. Adewale Ogunleye, Indiana (1996-99)
His 34.5 sacks are sixth all-time in Big Ten history and his 64 tackles for a loss are seventh.
21. Anthony Spencer, Purdue (2003-06)
Led the nation with 26.5 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles as a senior before becoming a first-round pick.
22. Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota (2009-13)
Stud up the middle for a Gophers team that returned to the postseason for the first time in years.
22. Wendell Bryant, Wisconsin (1998-01)
Set Wisconsin single-game record with five sacks against Purdue in 2001. Two-time B1G Lineman of the Year.
23. Anttaj Hawthorne, Wisconsin (2001-04)
Started 41 straight games and earned All-Big Ten honors three straight years. Posted 42 TFL and 12 sacks.
25. Greg Middleton, Indiana (2006-09)
His 16 sacks in 2007 are tied for fourth all-time in Big Ten history. Peaked early in his career.