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2021 Spring Fling: B1G Defensive Lines, Ranked

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It’s still technically spring, right?

Wisconsin v Iowa
A hearty hug is a great way to say hello
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The Science is back to tell you the proper order for B1G defensive lines. We are still relying heavily on Football Outsiders, both for the F+, but also their line stats. I’m not going to tell you line stats are wildly interesting or even that reflective of the line. Still, it is a bit of something, and who doesn’t want to do well in something called the STUFF rate (stuff rate is the percentage of carries by a running back that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage). Of course, you’d have to be a poindexter to care about that stuff, and you aren’t a poindexter, so just take my word for it. Without further ado, the definitive rankings of B1G defensive lines as rated by Science.

14. Illinois Fighting Illini: DL Keith Randolph, NT Roderick Perry, DL Johnny Newton, DL Jamal Woods

Look, woof. Illinois was bad last year, 98th on F+, the line stats were bad, the team was garbage - we all know this, that’s why Bert is now the head coach. Previewing their line is a bit of a headache. They moved their defensive ends to outside linebacker and are apparently moving to a 3-4 scheme. A couple guys expected to be in the rotation have been injured this spring in Perry and Woods. There is a bit of talent here, and they might end up ok, but I am ranking them last more like a professor fails a kid who has several incomplete assignments and was kind of a loser to begin with.

13. Maryland Terrapins: DE Lawtez Rogers, NT Ami Finau, DT Mosiah Nasili-Kite, DT Sam Okuayinonu

Maryland is in pretty good shape here, you know, for Maryland. The key part is they return a lot. The top four guys all played quite a bit last year, including three tackles who make for quite the beef up front. Nasili-Kite might be the playmaker here - he led the team with four sacks last year.

Of course, the problem is the line was mostly terrible last year. Maryland was overall ok on defense, checking in at 66 on the F+. But man, up front was tough. They were 13th in the conference in rushing defense (just .13 yards a game ahead of last place Illinois). Their line yards were 94th and stopping the run was simply not something that Maryland was doing last year. This is a recurring theme for the conference - the bad teams return a ton, while the good teams are replacing a lot.

12. Purdue Boilermakers: DE George Karlaftis, DT Anthony Watts, DT Lawrence Johnson, DE DeMarcus Mitchell

In an annual competition with Nebraska in the What In The Hell Are They Going To Look Like, Purdue comes in fast and hot. They went in on Bob Diaco for six games as coordinator last season, and are now out of Bob Diaco. What the defense will look like is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t grand last year, hitting 75 on the F+. Some of the line yards stats were encouraging against the run, but a sack rate of 126, not so much. They also lose small planetoid object Lorenzo Neal, who called it quits.

There is stuff to work with here, though. George Karlaftis was a top 60 recruit who was sensational for Purdue in 2019, though struggled a bit last year in the 3-4 defense. A return to form could also open up things for Mitchell, who may play the other end spot after playing mostly as a rushing linebacker last year. Inside, they have some guys with experience - Branson Deen and Jack Sullivan provide real depth. You can squint your eyes and see a pretty solid group up front for Purdue this season, but having faith in them is a different story.

11. Northwestern Wildcats: DE Adetomiwa Adebawore, DT Trevor Kent, DT Wyatt Blake, DE Devin O’Rourke

The nasty Cat defense put a cherry on top of a great season by ranking #1 on the F+. This, I understand, is a good thing. Unfortunately, the fighting poindexters are going to have to replace a lot of great players this year at every level of the defense, and the line is no exception. Gone are book ends Earnest Brown (to the Rams) and Eku Leota (to Auburn, apparently to play the STUD position. Coaches and their positions, man). Leota led the team in sacks and Brown led the line in TFL’s, so that’s a blow.

Still, this is Northwestern, and they won’t suddenly turn into a RichRod defense. Plenty of guys return, perhaps led by Adebawore, who also stuffed the stat sheet, if a bit behind the guys they lost. Kent and Blake are long timers now, and they get back Samdup Miller, who took a COVID year last year. The Cats are in more than reasonable shape on the line, though the margin of error is thin. With turnover everywhere, and a new defensive coordinator, and an offense that checked in at 89 on the F+ (which, if I’m understanding correctly, is not good), the Cats can’t be just average up front to be good.

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers: DT Micah Dew-Treadway, DT Keonte Schad, DE Boye Mafe, DE Esezi Otomewo

The Gophers’ boat was getting washed down the river last year, hitting 87 on F+. They made Michigan look like a competent offensive team, which might deserve its own medal. The line stats are frankly some of the worst I’ve seen - 103rd in line yards, 120th in stuff rate, 119th in sack rate. Rough, is what I’m saying.

Still, I’m somewhat optimistic about the Gophers this year. They pride themselves on development and improvement, and they did improve over the course of the season. They also return everyone, plus some. Inside, they return their top five, including DeAngelo Carter, who may start. They also add a couple transfers in Nyles Pinkney (Clemson) and Val Martin (NC State). Outside, they return everyone, as well, and Thomas Rush is a guy they hope makes a bigger splash with another year of experience. A team can go from inexperienced and incompetent to experienced and good in a year, and I think that will be the Gophs in 2021.

9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: DE Mike Tverdov, NT Julius Turner, DT Ifeanyi Maijeh, DE C.J Onyechi

A little bit of good for the Scarlet Knights, and a little bit of bad. A bit of both, as they say. They checked in at 70 on the F+ on defense last year, though the line stats had some brighter marks, hitting 50th in stuff rate and 52nd in sack rate. They do lose Mike Dwumfour and Elorm Lumor, though neither were more than solid for the Knights.

They return a couple guys in Turner and Tverdov who made the B1G all mention team (or is that honorable mention). Tverdov in particular might be in line to become a household name - he finished fourth in the conference in tackles for loss last year. The other half of the line is uncertain, but besides the guys listed above they have some other bodies to throw out there. I wouldn’t expect a worse performance compared to last year, and you might see some hardware for Tverdov.

8. Nebraska Cornhuskers: DE Ben Stille, NT Damion Daniels, DT Casey Rogers, DE Ty Robinson

Nebraska is in a bit of calm at on the d-line, which feels like a revelation for a team in constant flux. The defensive stats last year were solid, if uninspiring. The F+ and most of the line stats came the 40-60 range, not exactly a Blackshirt type of outfit, but not a pushover. They also return pretty much everyone, and coupled with a lot of returnees elsewhere on the defense, Nebraska might have a bit of juice this year.

Still, this is not a wrecking crew. These guys combined for 12 tackles for loss last year - less than Daviyon Nixon had by himself. Ben Stille had some quarterback pressures and might be the playmker of the group. Robinson is pretty young and might make some more plays. But make no mistake, this group is workmanlike. Get in the way, and let the other guys make some plays. That might just do it for the Huskers this year.

7. Penn State Nittany Lions: DE Adisa Isaac, DT P.J. Mustipher, DT Derrick Tangelo, DE Arnold Ebiketie

The Nits are not at the top of their game here. Stalwart ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney headed for the League, while tackle Antonio Shelton decided to take his talents to Florida. That’s a pretty healthy chunk of talent and production, and the replacements? Very much in question.

James Franklin hit the transfer portal, bringing in Duke tackle Derrick Tangelo and Temple end Arnold Ebiketie. Your guess is as good as mine there - FWIW Ebiketie checked in at #24 on the most impactful transfers via The Athletic. P.J. Mustipher and Adisa Isaac are both former top 100 recruits who should start this season. But all these positions, maybe outside of Mustipher, are up in the air. Hakeem Beamon is another good looking player who might fill in at tackle or end. But make no mistake, this group is likely taking a big step back from last year.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes: DE Zach Van Valkenburg, DT Logan Lee, DT Noah Shannon, DE Joe Evans

Good ole Iowa, the pedestrians of the Midwestrians. Iowa has some work to do this year, after losing Chauncey Golston and B1G Defense Player of he Year Daviyon Nixon. Hey, let me repeat that, in case you had no idea - Daviyon Nixon was the Defensive Player of the Year. Iowa returns a lot on a defense that finished 4th on the F+ last year, but up front they have question marks. Besides those guys, they also lost tackles Jack Heflin and Austin Schulte.

How do they move forward? Van Valkenburg is probably the headliner here, as he is the only returning starter. The rest is a crapshoot - I slotted in Lee, Shannon, and Evans, but Yahya Black, John Waggoner, and Logan Jones could all start or play major minutes. I suppose the good news is they have some options. I’m not one to expect Iowa to suddenly forget how to play defense, though looking them over it appears to be a much more workmanlike group compared to last year.

5. Indiana Hoosiers: DE James Head, DT Sio Nofoagatoto’a, DT C.J. Person, DE Michael Ziemba

The Hoosiers are positioned to be the second best B1G program in the East, mostly due to their continued stability. While the offense got the headlines, the defense was quite solid, finishing 23rd on the F+. Their line stats were quite bad against the run, finishing near the bottom of the NCAA in line yards and stuff rate. Weirdly, their power success rate was quite good, as was the sack rate. There are limits to the fancystats.

They aren’t in bad shape this year. Head and Nofoagatoto’a return - both were good last year. The big replacement comes at tackle, where Jerome Johnson was one of their better players, though was snubbed in the draft. Person seems like the most likely candidate, thought Demarcus Elliott could get a shot. Tom Allen played a lot of guys at line last year, so depth should be a strength.

4. Wisconsin Badgers: NT Keeanu Benton, DE Matt Henningsen, DE Isaiah Mullens, DL Rodas Johnson

It’s going to be some churn for the Badgers this year after ends Garrett Rand and Isaiah Loudermilk moved on, Loudermilk to the NFL and Rand to realizing football ain’t it for him. They were excellent last year, though, finishing first in the B1G in line yards and 25th in the country in stuff rate. The defense checked in at 5th overall on the F+.

But turnover happens. They do return small moon Keeanu Benton at nose tackle, and he will perhaps be the top tackle in the conference. Henningsen and Mullens are the presumed ends in Wiscy’s 3-4 defense, though they could get pushed. They’ve got a former Oregon Duck transfer in Isaac Townsend, plus some younglings in Rodas Johnson and Boyd Dietzen. The ranking here is more confidence in Wisconsin’s year after year success, and the fact that you and me could have some success lining up next to Benton on the line.

3. Michigan Wolverines: DE Aiden Hutchinson, DT Chris Hinton, DT Donovan Jeter, DE Taylor Upshaw

Yeesh, what to do with this group? Michigan was truly brutal on defense last year, and while the secondary got lots of flak, the line was pretty dang bad. Look at some of these numbers. 93rd in line yards. 123rd in stuff rate. 121st in sack rate. For a team that checked in at 88 on the F+, you start to think maybe the line was the problem. That was with first round draft pick Kwity Paye!

So this year, they appear to be moving to a 3-4 type of defense. Aiden Hutchinson will slot in somewhere, and many think he could be a first round draft pick next year. They have various former high profile recruits - former five star Chris Hinton looks to be at nose tackle or at end, while former four star tackles Jeter and Mazi Smith look like they could play. One guy who might play is German born Julius Welschof, who will evoke some hearty chants for the Kaiser come gameday. They also just added Oregon State transfer Jordan Whittley, which may be relevant as he is a giant sized nose tackle, something they want in their new defense.

2. Michigan State Spartans: DE Jacub Panasiak, DT Jacob Slade, DT Jalen Hunt, DE Drew Beesley

Sparty is, somewhat surprisingly, in good shape here. They were solid last year - line yards were 7th in the country, and they were 8th in stuff rate. The pass rush, however, wasn’t great. Improving that is the difference between lunchpail Sparty and hide your children Sparty.

They have lots to build on. Both starting ends are returning super seniors Panasiak and Beesley. They also add Duke transfer Drew Jordan to the mix. Tackle Naquan Jones is gone, though not drafted (hey did you hear how many Spartans were drafted? It rhymes with hero). Slade returns as a starting tackle and the other spot should be manned by hunt or DaShaun Mallory. Sparty is solid across the line, serviceable. It’s tough, even if you squint a lot, to see a lot of playmaking here, but being experienced and decent can get you pretty far.

1. The Ohio State Buckeyes: DE Zach Harrison, DT Haskell Garrett, DT Taron Vincent, DE Tyreke Smith

The line is going to have to carry the defense for the Buckeyes, as the secondary is thin and the linebackers are new. The line, though, the line neither new or thin. This should be one of the better groups in the country, only losing strongman Tommy Togiai from the two deep.

At tackle, PFF darling and gunshot victim Haskell Garrett surprisingly returns to pair with Vincent, plus they have great depth in Jerron Cage and super senior Antjuan Jackson. They are also in great shape at end, where they return their top four. A breakout year for Zach Harrison is on everyone’s radar, and they also have longtime subs Tyler Friday and Javonte Jean-Baptiste. UberFrosh Jack Sawyer certainly looked like a guy who would get on the field a lot, too. The Buckeyes have eight proven guys up front and and Cyborg Baby. This will be the strength of the defense.