Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.
Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.
Ranking the Big Ten's Defensive Lines for 2012
1. Ohio State —With at least two potential 2013 first round NFL Draft picks, it is hard to argue that the Buckeyes don’t have the best D-Line in the league. Johnathan Hankins could be the top tackle taken in the draft next spring and has dropped weight in order to be more disruptive up the middle. John Simon is a dependable force off the edge and is one of the strongest players in the country. Michael Bennett and Nathan Williams, who missed most of last year with an injury return opposite of Simon. Garrett Goebel and Chase Farris will compete for the tackle spot next to Hankins. The key to this group will be depth, as Urban Meyer brings in the top defensive line class in the nation. Ohio State signed four of the top 20 D-Liners in the nation.
2. Michigan State — Without Jerel Worthy looking out for him, the time is now for potential superstar William Gholston. He is as physically gifted as any lineman in the nation and could be an All-American if he can stay focused and on the field. He needs to develop into a leader, especially considering five of the top eight linemen could be underclassmen (three freshmen, two sophomores). Gholston will team with all-league type sophomore Marcus Rush to form one of the top end duos in the nation. Tackles James Kittredge, who transferred from Vanderbilt, and senior Anthony Rashad White will step into much bigger roles this fall in place of Worthy inside. Mark Dantonio’s likes to build teams from the inside out and this squad is no different.
3. Illinois —Both Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence could have left Champaign early for the NFL last fall. New head coach Tim Beckman couldn’t have been more excited to get his two studs up front back in 2012. Spence and Buchanan have a chance to be one of the top inside-outside combos in the nation. Senior Glenn Foster will provide help to Spence inside, while senior Justin Staples taking over for the departed Whitney Mercilus. On a team that lost its final six games of the regular season, the Illini overachieved along the defensive line a year ago and could be just as strong, if not better. This team finished second in the Big Ten in rushing defense, first in passing and seventh nationally in total defense. Three of the four starters will be seniors.
4. Nebraska — This defense has fallen off since its star-studded 2009 performance with that Boy Named Suh leading the way. Last year’s struggles led to a new coordinator and defensive line coach in Lincoln. The good news is there is plenty to work with for new line coach Rick Kaczenski. Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah form a tremendous pass-rushing duo on the outside, while special teamer Eric Martin continues to develop. Husker legacy Baker Steinkuhler is in for his best year as a nose tackle. Look for big time recruit Chase Rome, as well as Jay Guy, Thad Randle and Kevin Williams, to provide plenty of talented depth up the middle. This group has loads of potential but needs to be developed and motivated. Big Red fans are hoping Kaczenski is the guy for the job.
5. Penn State —There is plenty of bad news in Happy Valley these days and replacing Devon Still doesn’t make it any easier for the Nittany Lions. But a veteran defensive line will go a long way to easing new coach Bill O’Brien into the new job. Two-time ACL tear survivor Pete Massaro is back and is expected to be solid along with returning starter Sean Stanley at end. Jordan Hill will take over for Still up the middle alongside DaQuan Jones, Anthony Zettel and James Terry. If the names around Hill can develop and stay healthy, this has the makings of a typically strong, physical and dependable Penn State defensive line.
6. Michigan —The only real question mark on the Michigan roster is its defensive line. Losing trenchman Mike Martin has thrown this unit into disarray, and Brady Hoke might need to turn to freshman to solve the issue. Craig Roh is consistent and will do anything the coaches ask and returns to one end position. William Campbell needs to deliver on his lofty recruiting hype and develop into the player Martin was. Jibreel Black, Richard Ash and stud newcomer Ondre Pipkins will battle for reps alongside Campbell. Brennen Beyer will look to hold off Frank Clark and Keith Heitzman at end opposite of Roh. This team was a pleasant surprise last year but to continue to grow into a Big Ten power, Hoke needs Campbell and company to realize their potential.
7. Wisconsin — There is no star on this roster like J.J. Watt was two years ago. While there may not be an All-American-caliber player on this unit, the Badgers are deep and dependable. David Gilbert’s return to the field should go a long way in disrupting opposing quarterbacks as the junior will be the top pass rusher on the team. Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and Bryce Gilbert all have experience and big bodies to clog the middle. Expect all four to play regularly this fall. Opposite of Gilbert will be senior Brandan Kelly, who, at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, needs to develop into a poor man’s Watt. Look for Tyler Dippel and Pat Muldoon to get plenty of reps at end as well. The Badgers should go eight-deep along the defensive line this fall and it could be a sneaky area of strength should it create pressure in the opposition’s backfield.
8. Purdue — This unit has a chance at being one of the sleeper defensive lines in the country. Kawann Short is no secret and has a chance at being the best tackle in the Big Ten — in a league stacked with awesome nose guards. He has first round NFL talent and will be looked to for leadership this fall. Fellow returning starters Bruce Gaston at tackle and Ryan Russell at end will provide stability alongside Short. If healthy, Russell could be a game-changer as only a sophomore. Expect a lot of competition for the other end spot between veteran Robert Maci and young rising stars true freshmen Ryan Watson and Kingsley Ike and sophomore Jalani Phillips. Should things fall right, this group could be one of the better in the Big Ten.
9. Iowa — Kirk Ferentz rarely has a soft defensive line but 2012 might have to be one of his best coaching jobs. Only one starter returns to a unit that ranked seventh in the Big Ten in rushing defense last year. Dominic Alvis is the lone returning starter on a line loaded with question marks. In fact, he and Steve Bigach are the only two linemen on the team who have earned a letter. As expected, Iowa will run a number of younger players out there in an effort to find the right rotation. Darian Cooper, Riley McMinn and Dean Tsopanides are all freshmen who figure to see plenty of reps. Contributions at end from senior Joe Gaglione and sophomore Mike Hardy would go a long way to help develop the youth on this roster.
10. Northwestern —This line finished last in the Big Ten in sacks a year ago and Pat Fitzgerald is certainly looking for more in 2012. Senior tackles Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams will lead the interior but coaches expect big things from junior end Tyler Scott. Behind a veteran group will be eager young Cats ready to prove themselves: Chance Carter, Sean McEvilly and Deonte Gibson. Coach Fitz will have to get better play up front if he wants to keep his record-setting bowl run alive.
11. Minnesota —D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry return with experience but will have to hold off plenty of hard-chargers to keep their jobs at defensive end. Michael Amaefula will be on the field plenty and freshman Thieren Cockran has the coaching staff excited about an improvement in its pass rush. A host of tackles, led by converted tight end/defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman, will compete for playing time on the interior. This unit finished 11th in rushing defense in the Big Ten last year and 2012 might not be much better. Expect growth, however, with this young group.
12. Indiana — This unit will have to improve if Kevin Wilson expects to get into the FBS win column in 2012. Indiana allowed a Big Ten worst — 118th nationally — 243.7 yards per game rushing. Four players return with starting experience in ends Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis and tackles Larry Black Jr. and Adam Replogle. Black Jr. and Replogle are seniors and should be improved up the middle, but Wilson has to get pressure from the outside. If he does not, it could be another long year on defense for IU.
-by Braden Gall
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