Top 10 returning units in the Big Ten

Michigan's secondary, Nebraska's wide receivers and Penn State's skill positions all make the list.

| 3 months ago
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Top 10 returning units in the Big Ten

Which Big Ten teams are bringing back the most talent in 2015? We ranked the top 10 returning units based on previous production:

1. Michigan defensive line

We’ve written previously about how the Wolverines could have the best returning defense in all of college football, and the reasons start up front. Their pass-rush ability rivals any team’s in the entire country. Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Ryan Glasgow ranked first, second and 18th, respectively, in pass-rush productivity last year about returning defensive tackles. Wormley will move to defensive end in new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s 4-3 scheme, and figures to form an excellent edge-rushing duo with Taco Charlton, who ranked No. 1 among returning defensive ends in pass-rush productivity a year ago. This unit is no slouch against the run, either, and should set the tone for an excellent Wolverines defense.

2. Michigan secondary

The Wolverines are loaded in the back seven of their defense, as well. Jourdan Lewis was PFF’s top-graded cornerback in coverage last season. He “only” had two interceptions but made a ton of plays on the ball, leading the position with 15 passes defensed. Opposite him is Channing Stribling, who graded well a season ago, and they are joined by a productive safety tandem in Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Jabrill Peppers, who earned the seventh-best grade among safeties last year, is moving to more of a hybrid linebacker-box safety role, but he’s still an effective player when asked to drop into coverage.

3. Ohio State offensive line

The Buckeyes are losing a ton of production at most every position, including the offensive line, but they are fortunate to be returning one of the nation’s best linemen in Pat Elflein. He earned the third-best run-blocking grade among returning guards last season, and will slide over to the center position for the Buckeyes this season. He is joined by another productive run-blocker in left guard Billy Price, and left tackle Jamarco Jones has likewise flashed promise in the running game in his limited action the last two seasons. Add in the run-blocking of tight end Marcus Baugh, which ranks second at his position among Power-5 players, behind only Iowa’s George Kittle, and the Buckeyes running game should be in good shape entering 2016 (especially with one of the nation’s top running QBs in J.T. Barrett).

4. Wisconsin linebackers

The Badgers linebackers make this list despite the loss of Joe Schobert, PFF’s No. 1 outside linebacker in pass-rush productivity last season, to the NFL. That’s because Vince Biegel, who ranked just behind his teammate in that metric and is now the nation’s top returner following his nine-sack season, is back, along with a deep and talented group of linebackers. T.J. Watt is expected to step in at one outside linebacker position, while there is a trio of inside linebackers available to occupy their two starting spots in T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy and Chris Orr. Orr earned a slightly below-average grade last season, while Cichy and Edwaards were both very strong in all three facets: run defense, pass-rush and coverage.

5. Nebraska wide receivers

Jordan Westerkamp earned the highest overall grade among returning Power-5 wide receivers last year, ranking high both in our slot performance and deep receiving metrics. He wasn’t the only Huskers receiver to perform well, however, as both of his fellow projected starters Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore earned positive receiving grades. Reilly stood out as a deep threat, catching 10 of 22 targets thrown 20 or more yards downfield, including two touchdowns.

6. Illinois defensive line

Defensive end Dawuane Smoot is an absolute stud, ranking No. 20 in our list of the 101 best returning players entering the 2016 season. He earned the highest pass-rush grade in the country from Week 6 on last season, finishing with a total of 60 QB pressures, including eight sacks. He performed well against the run, too. Smoot isn’t alone, however, as Rob Bain and Chunky Clements (early front-runner for the award for best first name for a defensive tackle) form a stout duo up the middle against both the run and the pass, and Smoot’s counterpart at defensive end, Carroll Phillips, defended the run well and generated an impressive 24 QB pressures in his limited time last season.

7. Penn State skill positions

Saquon Barkley proved to be one of the most difficult backs to tackle in all of college football during his true freshman season, leading the nation in PFF’s elusive rating stat after breaking 60 tackles on 182 rush attempts (he finished the year with 1,076 rushing yards), and adding another seven on his 20 catches. He’s one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers entering 2016. The Nittany Lions also have an impressive returning duo at wide receiver in Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, both of whom graded well a year ago. Godwin earned the fourth-highest yards per route run average among returning Power-5 WRs.

8. Indiana offensive line

The Hoosiers bring back a lot of returning production on their offensive line, even with the departure of second-round tackle Jason Spriggs (now with the Green Bay Packers). Dan Feeney is the best of the bunch after ranking No. 1 nationally in pass-blocking efficiency (he allowed zero sacks and just six total pressures in pass protection all season long), but he is joined on the interior of the line by a pair of players in Wes Martin and Jacob Bailey who also graded very well in 2015. Brandon Knight is less of a proven commodity at left tackle, but he performed well in his 149 snaps a year ago. Danny Friend is also a very strong run-blocker at tight end, adding to this group’s overall strength.

9. Michigan State defensive line

The Spartans have a star up front in Malik McDowell, the No. 23 player in our Top 101 after earning the third-best pass-rush grade among returning D-tackles (39 total pressures, including five sacks) and proving to be very disruptive versus the run, as well. The rest of this unit is less proven, following the departure of excellent edge rusher Shilique Calhoun, but his replacement Demetrius Cooper did grade well against the run in a reserve role last season, while also six sacks among his 24 QB pressures.

10. Rutgers defensive line

The Scarlet Knights are returning a productive pass-rusher off the edge in Julian Pinnix-Odrick, and another defensive end in Kemoko Turay whose 30 QB pressures in limited action earned him the fifth-best pass-rush productivity score among returning players. They are also bringing back a stout run-defensing defensive tackle in Sebastian Joseph. But what puts their defensive line over the top and onto this list is the return of Darius Hamilton. He missed all of 2015 due to injury, but in 2014 he ranked 14th in PFF grades among all interior defenders, producing very well in run defense and as a pass-rusher (seven sacks).


| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

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