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B1G Spring Fling, 2021: Best Secondaries in the Big Ten, Ranked

Are you glue or are you toast?

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Form B1G tackle
Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

We have already looked at the B1G pass catchers. In this edition of Scientifically Proven Rankings, we will look at those tasked with pass catching prevention. A lesser website might differentiate between safeties and corners, but here at OTE we are leaning into the future. Teams are increasingly playing a base nickel look (or in less football geek terms, throw five defensive backs out there and two linebackers). Everyone on the back end has to be able to cover, and trying to suss out the differences between the positions can be tough. So why bother? These rankings, which are calculated to the 13th decimal point and thereby are foolproof, will tell you everything you need to know about B1G secondaries.

I will refer to a couple fancystats, which are F+ and pass efficiency defense. The efficiency is essentially the reverse of the passer rating the NCAA uses, which is a weird statistic but is a handy tempo free one. The F+ is the combination of fancystats FEI and SP+. SP+ is more popular, but is now behind a paywall on ESPN and I haven’t paid tribute to them this year so I am using F+ instead.

I’m listing the top five guys given most teams are starting five guys. Many teams have some special linebacker/safety hybrid position that exists mostly to have a weird nickname. The Buckeyes call it the Bullet. The Hoosiers call it the Husky. I feel strongly the Hoosiers should come up with a new name, but that won’t be considered in the rankings. Now, behold.

14. Illinois Fighting Illini: CB Marquez Beason Devon Witherspoon, CB Tony Adams, S Sydney Brown, S Derrick Smith, BERTWING Eddie Smith

One of those tougher evaluations. On one hand, Illinois returns a decent amount of guys. They lost corner Nate Hobbs, but otherwise return everyone else, including former top 100 recruit Beason (Edit: Beason is practicing with the receivers, which doesn’t, uh, improve the ranking here, h/t HWAHSQ). They also add Alabama transfer Eddie Smith who looks like a solid option in the nickel.

On the other, smarter hand, Illinois was pretty atrocious on defense, and their pass defense efficiency was dead last in the B1G to go along with their dead last rank in total defense. Here comes Bert to change things around, but how long will that take? He hired Ryan Walters away from Mizzou to coach the defense, but Mizzou wasn’t any better than Illinois last year, at least on defense. It will be an uphill battle for the Illini this year.

13. Purdue Boilermakers: CB Cory Trice, CB Dedrick Mackey, S Cam Allen, S Marvin Grant, PUMPKINSHUCKER C.J. McWilliams

Purdue wasn’t the worst defense in the B1G last year, but they weren’t far off. They landed at 75th on the F+ and 12th in pass efficiency defense. The Bob Diaco experiment lasted all of one year, and Brad Lambert takes the reigns as the third Purdue defensive coordinator in three years. Where will that leave the defense? Check out this quote from Jeff Brohm on the new philosophy:

I really wanted to get a collection of guys that had a lot of experience, that have coordinated things on their own, to a certain degree, but are also great people and understand that some things are going to work, some things aren’t. We have to be able to work together, and then figure things out beforehand, hopefully but definitely be able to adjust during the season.

If that doesn’t provide clarity, what would? Purdue does have some returnees, including corners Trice and Mackey at corner. Florida transfer C.J. McWilliams at least provides experience, as he is in his sixth year of college ball.

12. Minnesota Golden Gophers: CB Coney Durr, CB Phillip Howard, S Tyler Nubin, S Jordan Howard, PADDLE Justus Harris

The Gophs are another team that was middling to bad last year - 87th on the F+ and 10th in the conference in pass efficiency defense. On top of that, they lose Benjamin St. Juste, who went from being “medically retired” at Michigan to likely being drafted this week. His loss is a blow, and his replacement is a bit uncertain. Phillip Howard looks to be that guy, though he is a former receiver who briefly flirted with the transfer portal, so maybe not.

Otherwise...not bad. Everyone else returns, and while the defense wasn’t good last year, they had all sorts of COVID problems and the Flecktone has shown he can turn in good results when he has returning guys. Coney Durr is the most reliable option on the back end. What may help is that the Gophs return a lot all over the defense, so they should look a lot more stable this year.

11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: CB Avery Young, CB Tre Avery, CB Max Melton, S Christian Izien, JERSEYBOI Naijee Jones

Ah Rutgers, jewel of the B1G. The defense last year wasn’t good, but it did pull out of the depths of awful to be more of middling to bad, landing at 70 on the F+. The pass defense wasn’t quite up to snuff, coming out 13th in efficiency. They also lose former Buckeye Brendon White, who decided to test the NFL waters.

Still, Rutgers returns a lot of guys and is going to be experienced on the back end. They also add some guys, too, including North Carolina transfer Patrice Rene, who might grab one of the starting spots. Returning a bunch of corners helps the cause, though safety may be an issue. For my money, I am rooting hard for former Baylor quarterback Peyton Powell, solely because he played high school ball at Odessa Permian, which was unfortunately changed to Dillon for the television series but still gives me a Clear Eyes Full Heart Can’t Lose vibe. If he plays I am making Rutgers the honorary Coach Taylor Team of the Month.

10. Michigan State Spartans: CB Kalon Gervin, CB Angelo Grose, S Xavier Henderson, S Michael Dowell, LILBRO Chester Kimbrough

Oh Sparty, the land of the no. It’s still jarring to think of them in a post-Dantonio era, especially in the secondary. That makes them difficult to rank. By the numbers, things weren’t bad last year. They were middle of the pack in pass efficiency defense, but they came in at a healthy 28 on the F+, so the defense was sufficient. Mel Tucker has a long history as a defensive back coach, so that is his wheelhouse.

But we have issues. Shakur Brown and Tre Avery are gone, and there really isn’t much in the way of depth. They only had two scholarship players at corner in the spring, and are relying on multiple transfers to come in to supply depth. They do have longtime starter Xavier Henderson at safety, then a lot of question marks. Really, question marks have come to define Sparty lately, so it’s tough to have a lot of confidence in them.

9. Nebraska Cornhuskers: CB Cam Taylor-Britt, CB Quinton Newsome, S Deontai Williams, S Marquel Dismuke, FROSTYMALT JoJo Domann

Oh Nebraska, land of the just ain’t quite there. Scott Frost leads them once more into the breach, as the fans settle in to a rhythm of accepting that this might be all that it is. Nevertheless. Nebraska was not bad last year, and also not good. Their defense checked in at 50th, and they finished 8th in the conference in pass efficiency defense, a very not so good or bad position.

The good news is they should be pretty experienced on the back end. Corner Dicaprio Bootle must be replaced, but lots of other guys return, including a pair of good safeties and Taylor-Britt, who appeared on the all-conference team. JoJo Domann, who lines up as chief FROSTY, is more linebacker than safety but he does get out and cover a bit and led the team in tackles and pass breakups. Tell ‘em about it JoJo.

8. Michigan Wolverines: CB Vincent Gray, Gemon Green, S Brad Hawkins, S Dax Hill, MILKMAN R.J. Moten

Whew boy, how do you rank this team? Last year, the Wolverines were shockingly bad on defense. Don Brown’s usually stout unit fell to 88th(!) on the F+, and seemed to get torched week after week, especially on the back end. The corners simply couldn’t play man defense on any kind of consistent basis, which really killed a defense built on playing a lot of man.

Enter this year. Don Brown is gone, replaced by former Baltimore Raven linebacker coach Mike MacDonald, who has never been a defensive coordinator anywhere. They aren’t expected to be the man focused team they have been, but they do return nearly everyone in the secondary, including former prized recruit Dax Hill. Where do you rank a team that returns everyone from a bad secondary who are now learning a completely new defense? This one kind of stumps me. The corners will probably look healthier playing more zone, but will learning a bunch of new coverages really take in the first year? The rumor is they do play lots of music at practice now, so at least there’s that. Harbaugh’s favorite song is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, so feel free to press play and hear Michigan players practice to every day, or at least take a musical interlude before looking at our top teams.

7. Maryland Terrapins: CB Tarheeb Still, CB Deonte Banks, S Jordan Mosley, S Nick Cross, COOTER Kenny Bennett

The Terps were better than I expected when looking at the fancystats. A pedestrian 66th on the F+, but came in fourth in the conference in pass efficiency defense, they were all right. Mike Locksley has recruited well overall, but he hasn’t quite hit on big prospects in the secondary. They also are changing defensive coordinators - bringing back their former coordinator Brian Stewart.

Still, the cupboard isn’t bare. They return nearly everyone outside of Antwaine Richardson, who transferred to Kent State. Cross and Mosley make for a strong pair on the back end, and Tarheeb Still was impressive as a freshman last season, and even made some freshman award lists. I was pretty pessimistic about Locksley’s program going into 2020, but they were better than I expected and now return a lot. Could they take a shot at the king?

6. Northwestern Wildcats: S Brandon Joseph, CB A.J. Hampton, CB Rod Heard, S Bryce Jackson, POINDEXTER Coco Azema

The Fitzgeralds turned in a dominant defensive effort last year and landed first in the nation on F+. But change has come, not just with a lot of turnover among players but also the coaching staff, where longtime DC Mike Hankwitz retired and was replaced, somewhat curiously, by Oakland Raider DB coach Jim O’Neil. On the back end, they lose some guys, as Greg Newsome parlayed a great 2020 into possibly becoming a first round draft pick. J.R. Pace and Cam Ruiz are gone, too.

Still, they return a first team All American in Brandon Joseph, which is a great place to start. A.J. Hampton and Rod Heard were solid corners. They have some work to do to replace Newsome, but the track record is pretty strong. I’m not sure what to think about the coordinator switch - I would have thought they would stay in house and certainly didn’t expect a longtime NFL guy. Still, this is Northwestern, and I’ll have to see them field a crappy defense before believing it is possible.

5. The Ohio State Buckeyes: CB Sevyn Banks, CB Marcus Williamson, S Josh Proctor, S Lathan Ransom, SANDWICH Craig Young

To be frank, the secondary is the worst position on this team by a fair margin. They lose Shaun Wade who, while seemingly maligned at every stop, was still first team B1G and a first team All-American. Without him, you’ve got maybe two guys you can count on in Banks and Proctor, and then a lot of mystery. This is OSU, so of course there is plenty of STARZ and talent and whatnot, but very little of it is proven. They also promoted Kerry Coombs to defensive coordinator and have a new secondary coach in Matt Barnes. One question - they lost starter Cam Brown to an Achilles injury early last year - a healthy Brown would be huge for them.

The hybrid position is officially called the “Bullet.” Craig Young has looked good, and Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams are also in the mix. However, on the depth chart you won’t find “Bullet” but instead the abbreviation for bullet, which apparently is “BLT.” And now, it is impossible for me to think of these players without craving a sandwich (you know, with toasted bread, some slathered mayo, and really good thick cut pepper bacon). So I have changed the name of the hybrid to better reflect my hunger.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions: CB Tariq Castro-Fields, CB Joey Porter Jr., S Jaquan Brisker, S Ji’Ahir Brown, ROARBACKER Curtis Jacobs

This group is really in pretty great shape. While last year wasn’t anything to write home about, the Lions still came in 25th in F+ and wasn’t nearly as bad as their fans thought. The passing defense actually came in second in the conference in raw numbers, and they return a lot of guys on the back end. Corner especially is a strong spot - Castro-Fields and Porter are very good returning corners, and they have a lot other options there, too, including freshman to watch Kalen King, who had two picks and a touchdown in their spring game.

Safety isn’t quite as strong, but does return Jaquan Brisker at one spot, while the other spot is up for competition but probably goes to Brown. The two actually both played at apparent safety feeder school Lackawanna Community College. Michael Scott would be proud. If they don’t work out, fans can always get an Awesome Blossom.

3. Indiana Hoosiers: CB Tiawan Mullen, CB Reese Taylor, CB Jaylin Williams, S Devon Matthews, HUSKY Marcelino Ball

While Michael Penix and the offense got the headlines last season, the Hoosiers featured four (four!) B1G selections in the secondary. Tiawan Mullen was named a first team All-American by FWAA and Phil Steele, which is not normally Hoosier related area. While safety Jamar Johnson has moved on, the Hoosiers return a ton. Mullen and other B1G guys Williams and Matthews return, as does highly regarded Reese Taylor.

The Hoosiers landed at 14th on F+ on defense last year. They were strong on defense, and the secondary was a big help. The question marks for them are who steps in as a second safety, and also how the HUSKY position develops with Marcelino Ball returning from a torn ACL. The other question mark is defensive coordinator, as Kane Wommack moved on to be a head coach. Replacing him is Charlton Warren, who most recently was the DB coach at Georgia. Your guess is as good as mine there.

2. Wisconsin Badgers: CB Caesar Williams, CB Faion Hicks, CB Donte Hicks, S Scott Nelson, PROVOLONE Collin Wilder

Bucky is in great shape here. The F+ had them at fifth in the nation in defense, and they return a decent amount in the secondary. Eric Burrell and Rachad Wildgoose are gone, but Williams and Hicks were the starters at corner going into the season, and Scott Nelson was a pleasant surprise for them at safety.

The biggest win was getting Jim Leonhard back, who turned down opportunities elsewhere but seems destined for a head coaching job soon. He’s fielded top ten defenses in three of his four years with the Badgers, and he should have another good one this year.

1. Iowa Hawkeyes: CB Matt Hankins, CB Riley Moss, S Jack Koerner, S Kaevon Merriweather, CA$H Dane Belton

Iowa, my friends, is cooking. They finished fourth(!) in the F+ on defense last year. They finished second in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Unlike first place Northwestern, they return every single starter from last year. Hankins is a four year starter who was a surprise return, and Koerner was second team All-B1G. They also return some depth, and a transfer in Xavier Williams. The main concern is really how losses in other parts of the defense, especially the line, might impact them on the back end.

So they were really good and return everyone. The real story is figuring out how they named their hybrid position the CASH. Coordinator Phil Parker apparently named the position in 2019, but why? I have no facts, but I do have wild speculation. Iowa has low-key been a scandal machine under Kirk Ferentz. Do you remember Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, a receiver for Iowa? He got kicked off the team for using (and maybe selling) drugs in 2013. That was a scandal, but in 2020, when Iowa was dealing with its racism scandal, DKJ popped up again. He claims that Kirk Ferentz set up the police raid on him, and in fact told his parents: “do me a favor. Tell Derrell I have one more thing in my pocket for him; I want him to worry.”

Kirk Ferentz is the B1G Don Corleone, and that’s where the name CASH was born.