Big Ten Breakdown: Ranking the conference’s 5 best defensive linemen
In our Big Ten Breakdown series, we will examine the best five players in the conference at each position. We continue this series with a look at the best defensive linemen across the Big Ten.
College football offenses have developed into potent, up-tempo aerial attacks. But the great equalizer against any high-powered offense remains a dominant defensive line.
The Big Ten has its fair share of studs along the trenches, but many of the conference’s best linemen from last season have departed. To put that into perspective, only two of the 12 defensive linemen selected to All-Big Ten teams last season are back for the 2016 season.
That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. Whether it’s stuffing the run or rushing the passer, each of these defensive linemen have a definitive trait that makes them the best in the conference, and perhaps in the nation.
Here’s a look at the Big Ten’s five best defensive linemen entering the 2016 campaign:
5. Jake Replogle, Purdue
Replogle might not be a household name, but he’s one of Purdue’s best defensive players and will be the star on the defensive line for the Boilermakers. The 6-foot-5, 294-pound defensive tackle finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten with 14 tackles for loss with 60 tackles and two sacks during his junior season.
Replogle is Purdue’s plug up the middle and will hopefully help Purdue improve against the run. The Boilermakers ranked last in the Big Ten in run defense, allowing an average of 214.9 rushing yards per game.
He might be underrated, but Replogle did get some love from a national perspective this offseason. He was named to the Outland Trophy watch list as one of the nation’s best interior linemen. Replogle will likely be one of the few bright spots on Purdue’s defense.
4. Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
Hubbard benefitted from playing alongside Joey Bosa and Tyquan Lewis (more on him later) as a freshman. He finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks and also recorded eight tackles for loss.
The arrow is pointing sky-high for this sophomore defensive end. He will be relied upon as a likely starter in his second season after serving as a role player during his freshman campaign. The Buckeyes are losing some major talent along the defensive line, but might not lose a beat with some outstanding talent returning to Columbus.`
Hubbard could achieve a 10-sack season as a sophomore. Playing alongside Bosa certainly helps, but Hubbard is a unique talent in his own respect. He should show it on plenty of occasions with more playing time this season.
3. Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
Lewis and Hubbard will make an excellent pair along Ohio State’s defensive line. Lewis actually led the Buckeyes and also finished tied for seventh in the conference with eight sacks while starting opposite of Bosa last season. Lewis’ sophomore season sort of fell under the radar and should have been appreciated much more.
Lewis was just as much of a menacing presence on the front seven as the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He notched 14 tackles for loss, only two behind Bosa and recorded 54 total tackles during an outstanding sophomore season.
The biggest question will be how Lewis performs as the featured player along the line of scrimmage. Lewis thrived when opponents put Bosa as the top priority. Now we will get to see how Lewis performs with opposing offenses planning against him.
2. Chris Wormley, Michigan
Wormley is one of the two linemen on this list to be named to an All-Big Ten team last season. That’s because Wormley does just about everything along Michigan’s front seven.
Wormley finished in the top 10 within the conference in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (14.5). He’s an anchor along one of the best front sevens in the country.
Michigan’s defense should be among the best in the country once again and Wormley will likely play a big role in the unit’s success. He should go out in style in his final season and will definitely challenge for a first team All-Big Ten selection.
1. Malik McDowell, Michigan State
McDowell was a force last season and should only improve as a junior. He was the only player on this list to be named a second-team All-Big Ten selection after recording 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season.
The numbers might not convey it, but McDowell is one of the best defensive talents in the Big Ten. It’s important to keep in mind McDowell had eight quarterback hurries, which means he was constantly applying pressure. McDowell is a much better pass rusher than his 280-pound stature would indicate and he’s also stout against the run.
McDowell will have to do a better job of finishing plays this season. But other than that, there’s no doubt he will be in the running as the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year.
Darius Hamilton, Rutgers
Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
Taco Charlton, Michigan
Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern
Chunky Clements, Illinois