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Top 10 Big Ten Defensive Backs of the BCS Era

Darqueze Dennard

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 known for power running games, hard-hitting linebackers and big hog mollies along the offensive line. However, the conference also claims five Thorpe Award winners — given to the nation's top defensive back — on four different teams during the 16-year BCS Era. 

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Antoine Winfield, Ohio State (1995-98)
Winfield might be the most underrated defensive back in the history of all levels of football. The consensus All-American helped Ohio State win 43 games in four years and nearly (or should have) played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1998. He was given the Thorpe and Tatum honors as a senior as the nation’s top defensive back before being selected 23rd overall in the 1999 NFL Draft.

2. Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000)
The Badgers’ coverman has as complete a resume as any during the BCS Era. He was a two-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection. He helped Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and was the only Big Ten defensive back of the BCS Era to be named the outright Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He holds UW’s all-time record with 21 interceptions and was named the nation’s top defensive back with the Thorpe and Tatum Trophies as a senior in 2000. He was a first-round pick in 2001.

3. Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002)
The Buckeyes safety was a rare three-time All-American, three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick and was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 for the BCS National Champions. Doss started 40 of 50 possible career games and was named the 2002 Fiesta Bowl MVP. He finished his career with 331 career tackles, eight interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and 6.0 sacks. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.

4. Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State (2005-08)
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a long tradition of great defensive backs and Jenkins is one of the most decorated. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick, including twice as a starter for two unbeaten regular-season teams that made it to the BCS National Championship Game in both 2006 and ’07. He was a two-time All-American, Jim Thorpe winner and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

5. Bob Sanders, Iowa (2000-03)
One of the hardest hitting players to ever suit up, Sanders made big plays all over the field during his time in Iowa City. He helped lead Iowa to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and was an All-American as a senior in '03. He finished his career with 348 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and 13 forced fumbles (he led the nation in FF with six as a senior). The Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he went on to two Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl.

6. Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99)
The Florida native was a tackling machine for the Golden Gophers, finishing his career with an NCAA-record 584 total tackles and 414 solo stops He was a two-time, first-team All-American and won the 1999 Thorpe Award and Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. Carter also was a return specialist, totaling over 1,800 combined punt and kick return yards. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Gophers increased their win total every year of his four-year, 46-game career.

7. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin (2001-04)
A cult hero walk-on in Madison, Leonhard was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick before even earning his first collegiate scholarship before his senior season. He went on to a third first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American honors in his final season. He led the nation with a Big Ten single-season record 11 interceptions as a sophomore and broke the Big Ten record for punt return yardage with 1,347 yards (since broken). He played every game of his career, starting 39 times and registering 281 tackles and a Wisconsin-record 21 career interceptions (tied with Fletcher) — which is good for fourth all-time in Big Ten history and the most by any B1G player during the BCS Era.

8. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13)
Dennard was the nation’s best cover corner on a team that won a school-record 13 games, the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl. Dennard posted 62 tackles and four interceptions en route to winning the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He was obviously named the Tatum-Woodson B1G DB of the Year and finished his four-year career with 167 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 10 INTs, 26 passes defended and, most importantly, 42 wins.

9. Leon Hall, Michigan (2003-06)
He never missed a game in his four-year, 50-game career and led Michigan to three Rose Bowl appearances. He is Michigan’s all-time leader with 43 passes broken up and also picked off 12 career passes. Hall was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore, second-team All-Big Ten as a junior and a consensus All-American and Thorpe Award finalist as a senior. The Michigan great was the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

10. Vontae Davis, Illinois (2006-08)
A three-year player for Illinois, Davis was a freshman All-American in his first season. He started all 12 games, making 56 tackles and earning first-team All-Big Ten honors while leading the Illini back to the Rose Bowl. He made 78 tackles as a junior and earned first-team Big Ten honors a second time. Davis was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Just missed the cut:

11. Donte Whitner, Ohio State (2003-05)
Donte “Hitner” was a big hitter before getting to the NFL. He contributed as a true freshman but entered the starting lineup as a sophomore. He posted 143 tackles in two seasons as the starter, including All-American and All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He departed early for the NFL and was the eighth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

12. Marlin Jackson, Michigan (2001-04)
A hybrid safety-cornerback, Jackson was an All-American and senior captain for the Wolverines in 2004. He is second all-time in school history in passes broken up and was a first-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

13. Tracy Porter, Indiana (2004-07)
Arguably the best defensive back in school history, Porter is No. 2 in Indiana history with 16 interceptions and No. 1 with 413 return yards (third all-time in B1G history). He is the only player in IU history to return a punt, interception and fumble for a touchdown. He posted 212 tackles, was a first-team All-Big Ten pick and was taken in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

14. Chris Gamble, Ohio State (2001-03)
He played three ways for the undefeated BCS champs in 2002, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in the process. He played in 38 career games, starting 18 on defense and 12 on offense and was one of the most explosive players to play in the Big Ten. He left school early and was a first-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

15. Nate Clements, Ohio State (1998-2000)
The top flight coverman started 24 of his possible 36 career games at Ohio State, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He posted 177 tackles, seven interceptions and was a first-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft after leaving school early.

16. Stuart Schweigert, Purdue (2000-03)
He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for the Big Ten champs in his first season. He set the Purdue interception record with 17 and was a two-time, first-ream All-Big Ten pick as well as a two-time, second-team selection. He posted 360 career tackles and went to four bowl games.

17. Will Allen, Ohio State (2000-03)
Sitting behind Doss most of career, Allen only got one year to showcase his ability. He was a big member of the 2002 BCS title team but played mostly in nickel packages. In his one year as a starter, he earned consensus All-American honors and was a fourth-round pick.

18. Bernard Pollard, Purdue (2003-05)
The Bonecrusher was a great player but didn’t always get along with Joe Tiller. He posted 254 tackles in three years and set a school record with five blocked kicks. Had he played four years and not constantly been at odds with Tiller, he could have been one of the B1G’s greats.

19. Kurt Coleman, Ohio State (2006-09)
He was a three-year starter at safety for two teams that went unbeaten in the regular season and played for the BCS national title. He was an All-American, team MVP and first-team All-Big Ten pick.

20. Micah Hyde, Iowa (2009-12)
Playing both cornerback and safety, Hyde won the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten DB of the Year award as a senior. He was also an excellent return man, being named first-team All-Big Ten in 2012.

Best of the rest:

21. Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska (2008-11)
22. Ernest Shazor, Michigan (2002-04)
23. CJ. Barnett, Ohio State (2009-13)
23. Ahmad Plummer, Ohio State (1997-99)
24. Ricardo Allen, Purdue (2010-13)
25. Mike Echols, Wisconsin (1998-2001)
26. Ashton Youboty, Ohio State (2003-05)
27. Eugene Wilson, Illinois (1999-2002)
28. Calvin Lowry, Penn State (2002-05)
29. Brian Peters, Northwestern (2008-11)
30. Willie Middlebrooks, Minnesota (1998-2001)