Best returning player on every Big Ten team
Considering the Big Ten conference has a reputation for strong defenses and poor offensive play, it should come as no surprise that 11 of the 14 Big Ten teams’ best player is from the defensive side of the ball. In addition, only one of the three offensive players is at a skill position, putting further emphasis on what is expected to be another strong defensive year for the conference.
Here is a list of the best player on each Big Ten team, many of which are also some of the best in the country at their respective positions:
Illinois: DE Duwuane Smoot
One of the top edge rushers in the country, Smoot alone is worth the price of admission in Champaign, even if the rest of his team isn’t. Smoot went on a tear the second half of 2015, as he was the highest graded EDGE defender in the country after week six, posting four sacks, five hits and 40 hurries in that span of games. His physical and athletic skill set is likely to result in him being a high draft pick come next April.
Indiana: OG Dan Feeney
Feeney’s feet made colleague Mike Renner’s list of 10 unstoppable forces, and with good reason. Over the past two seasons he has yielded just one sack (none in 2015) and two hits, not surprisingly ranking him number one in the country in pass blocking efficiency. Among returning right guards he graded 11th in the country last year.
Iowa: CB Desmond King
King is another Big Ten talent who has NFL eyes watching him closely, as he has the size, athletic and production to warrant being selected in the top ten next spring. Opposing QBs had a NFL rating of just 48.6 when targeting him, as his eight interceptions led the country, as did his 20 total break ups (combined interceptions and passes defended).
Maryland: ILB Jermaine Carter Jr.
The Terrapins don’t have a lot of returning top-end talent, but Carter is clearly one of the major bright spots on the roster heading into the 2016 season. He posted the third-highest 2015 overall grade among returning ILBs in FBS, as well as the top run defense grade. He will need to improve upon his 18 missed tackles from last season, but half of those came in back-to-back poor showings early against Bowling Green and South Florida in Weeks 2 and 3.
Michigan: CB Jourdan Lewis
A convincing argument can be made for as many as five defenders on Michigan’s squad, but Lewis gets the nod for being our highest-graded CB in 2015. He allowed just 33 catches last season despite being targeted 90 times, intercepting two throws and breaking up 15. His change of direction, speed and ball skills allow him to make up for the fact that he is generously listed at 5-10 and 175 lbs.
Michigan State: DE Malik McDowell
On team with high attrition at numerous key positions, McDowell has all the makings of a superstar. His physical makeup and playing style reminds us of former Oregon DE DeForest Buckner, who was selected seventh overall this past draft by the 49ers. He put up 39 total pressures and 22 stops, and was our tenth-highest graded returning defensive interior player in FBS.
Minnesota: CB Jalen Myrick
Myrick was the most impressive Golden Gopher CB on film last season, which is notable considering Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun will both be starting NFL careers this week. The 34.8 NFL rating QBs had when targeting him was the third-lowest rating among all 2015 CBs with at least 250 coverage snaps.
Nebraska: DT Kevin Maurice
Cowboys’ third round pick DT Maliek Collins is a big loss for the Cornhusker’s defense, but Maurice looks poised to take over as the leader and top producer. Last season he was every bit as dominant as Collins in October and November against the run, and few in all of college football posted better back-to-back games, when in weeks four and five Maurice terrorized Southern Miss with nine total pressures and stuffed Illinois with seven run stops.
Northwestern: CB Matthew Harris
Northwestern’s defensive line has a significant amount of production to replace due to graduation, but the secondary should again be solid, due in large part to Harris, who had our 11th-highest coverage grade among returning CBs in 2015. He posted four interceptions and eight pass breakups last year, and opposing QBs had a NFL rating of 43.4 when throwing at him.
Ohio State: C Pat Elflein
After 42 consecutive starts at guard, then nation’s top interior offensive lineman is transitioning to center this season. He gave up just one sack last season, and only seven returning guards in the country had a better run blocking grade than Elflein.
Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley
Barkley had an outstanding freshman year at Penn State, rushing for 1082 yards on just 182 carries, an average of 5.9 yards per tote. He forced 67 total missed tackles last year, giving him the highest elusive rating in the country by a significant margin.
Purdue: DT Jake Replogle
Replogle is the highest-graded returning defense tackle in college football as he was our top-ranked DT against the run and second on the pass rush in 2015. He racked up 48 total pressures last season and has the highest run-stop percentage among returning interior players.
Rutgers: DE Kemoko Turay
Turay looks ready to finally break out after a 2015 season that saw him put up 30 total pressures in just 162 pass rushes. He missed spring practices after having two offseason surgeries on his right shoulder, but is expected to be ready to go for camp. Among all returning DEs with at least 100 rushes last season, he finished tied for fourth in all of FBS in pass rush productivity.
Wisconsin: OLB Vince Biegel
Biegel was our second-highest graded 3-4 OLB last season behind only Bears 1st round pick Leonard Floyd, as he notched 48 total pressures to go with 41 stops. Among returning players at his position, Biegel in 2015 ranked sixth in pass rush productivity, second in run stop percentage and 15th in tackling efficiency.