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June 4, 2010

The Big Ten's 10 best defensive players for 2010

The Big Ten returns a number of its elite defensive players in 2010, including six on this list that were named either first- or second-team all-conference a year ago. While there are many great defenders, in the eyes of our panel of voters, there are two elite performers - Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and Iowa defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn

GoldandBlack.com's Brian Neubert, Orange&BlueNews.com's Jeff Johnson, SpartanMag.com's Matt Dorsey, BadgerBlitz.com's Tom Lea, BlueWhiteIllustrated.com's Nate Bauer, HawkeyeReport.com's Tom Kakert, BuckeyeGrove.com's Kevin Noon, TheWolverine.com's Michael Spath, GopherIllustrated.com's Matt O'Connell and WildcatReport.com's Louie Vaccher contributed to this feature.

Here is how it worked. Each site cast a ballot with its top 10 defensive players. A first-place vote garnered 10 points, a second-plate vote nine points and so on. We added the point totals up and ranked them accordingly.

Coming in the next few days and weeks: the breakout players, rookie impact performers and MVPs for all 11 teams, plus best games and much, much more.

This is how it breaks down if interested: four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and a safety. Ohio State and Iowa each led the field with three defenders while Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State each had one.

1. Greg Jones -- Michigan State (98 points)

The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (as selected by the media), Jones was a consensus first-team All-American during his junior campaign. The 6-1, 235-pounder is a playmaking machine, ranking first in the conference in 2009 and third nationally with 154 tackles (11.8 per game) while ranking fifth in the Big Ten with nine sacks. A true sideline-to-sideline linebacker with the instincts of a pass rusher and coverage ability of a safety, Jones enters the 2010 campaign eighth all time in tackles (359 and 114 shy of No. 2), fifth in tackles for loss (36.5 and 11.5 shy of No. 1) and sixth in sacks (15.5 and 9.5 shy of No. 2).
2. Adrian Clayborn -- Iowa (96 points)

Considered a top prospect for the 2010 NFL Draft, Clayborn resisted the lure of the pros for his final season in a Hawkeyes' uniform. As a redshirt junior in 2009, Clayborn proved to be one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. He was named a third-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten performer after recording 20 tackles for loss, including 11.5 sacks (third in the Big Ten), among 70 total stops. Clayborn grabbed the spotlight, and MVP honors, in Iowa's 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, helping to shut down a lethal Yellow Jackets triple-option offense while tallying two sacks among nine tackles.

3. Cameron Heyward -- Ohio State (83 points)

A preseason All-American, Heyward has rotated between tackle and end during his career (and often within the same game) to exploit matchups in favor of the talented 6-5, 288-pound Buckeye. The senior possesses both power and quickness and commanded both traits in racking up 6.5 sacks among 10.0 tackles for loss in 2009. As able as Heyward is, he's never put up the numbers expected in his career, though, totaling 12 quarterback takedowns and 24.5 tackles for loss. But Ohio State is optimistic it will receive a consistently standout performance from Heyward week after week in 2010.

4. Tyler Sash -- Iowa (72 points)

Named a second-team All-American in 2009, Sash may have been the best centerfielder in college football. He led the Big Ten with six interceptions, returning one for a score while piling up 203 yards (33.8 yards per return). The leader of a defense that ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring (15.4 ppg) and total defense (276.5 ypg), Sash recorded 85 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, six pass break ups and two forced fumbles. He begins his junior campaign clearly considered the best safety in the Big Ten.
5. Ryan Kerrigan -- Purdue (62 points)

Probably a bit underrated entering 2010 because he played for a lousy defense a year ago, Kerrigan begins his senior season one of the nation's top defensive linemen. The 6-4, 263-pound Muncie, Ind., native led the Big Ten and ranked third nationally with 13.0 sacks in 2009 while ranking fourth in the conference with 18.5 tackles for loss. He tied a Boilermakers' school record with seven forced fumbles while also recording 66 tackles and two pass breakups. Kerrigan was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last fall and a second-team All-American.
6. Ross Homan -- Ohio State (41 points)

Though he has not received as much acclaim leading into his senior season as past Ohio State linebacker greats James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk, Homan has been an anchor in the middle of the Buckeyes' defense the past two seasons and is poised to lead OSU again this fall while grabbing a bigger share of the limelight. Homan ranked fifth in the Big Ten a year ago with 108 stops, including five for loss. Like Jones, a do-it-all 'backer, Homan had five interceptions and five pass break ups and now has 13 passes defended in his career. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009.  
7. Chris Borland -- Wisconsin (25 points)

The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Borland earns this nod for what he is projected to do as a sophomore this fall. A year ago, the 5-11, 232-pounder forced his way into a significant role for a defense that ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (21.8 ppg) and total defense (305.7 ypg). Borland recorded 10.5 tackles for loss, with five sacks, among 54 total stops. He appeared in all 13 games with six starts and is now expected to lead the teeth of the Badgers' defense. 
8. Chimdi Chekwa -- Ohio State (21 points)

Though there is no Marlin Jackson, Malcolm Jenkins or Vontae Davis among the cornerbacks in the Big Ten this year, there are a few solid covermen, including Chekwa. Considered at his best in man-to-man coverage, the 6-0, 190-pounder made 43 tackles and had seven pass breakups with an interception in 2009. He has 20 career pass breakups in his tenure, including two seasons a starter. With Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman departing the Ohio State secondary, Chekwa will be counted on to lead the Ohio State defensive backfield.
9. Karl Klug -- Iowa (13 points)

Following in the footsteps of Iowa greats to man a key position along the defensive line, Klug is a warrior at d-tackle that battles as hard as his body will allow. The 6-4, 258-pound Caledonia, Minn., native started all 13 games for Iowa in 2009, recording 65 tackles, including 13 for loss (with four sacks). Knowing how to use his long reach, he also broke up five passes. He exerted his muscle in the Hawkeyes' win over Georgia Tech, helping limit the Yellow Jackets to just 155 yards of total offense, while notching a sack among six tackles. 
10. Tavon Wilson -- Illinois (11 points)

Wilson barely edged out a handful of other defensive standouts for the 10th spot on this poll. Like Borland, his inclusion is probably viewed as what he is capable of in 2010, though he did have a very good sophomore campaign. Potentially, the Big Ten's top cornerback this fall, Wilson started all 12 games a year ago and finished third on the team with 74 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. He led the Fighting Illini with seven pass breakups and at 6-0, 205 pounds is an intimidating presence on the outside of the defense.
The Next 10:  Jay Valai -- Wisconsin (10 points); J.J. Watt -- Wisconsin (8 points); Christian Ballard -- Iowa (7 points); Mike Martin -- Michigan (4 points); Martez Wilson -- Illinois (4 points); Eric Gordon -- Michigan State (3 points); Kyle Theret -- Minnesota (3 points); Jack Crawford -- Penn State (2 points); Quentin Davie -- Northwestern (2 points); Brett Greenwood -- Iowa (2 points)

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