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June 20, 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's secondaries

The Big Ten's defenses are strong up front, at linebacker, and also in the secondary where three units stand above and four or five more are aiming to join that upper tier. Michigan's defensive backfield is one of the league's best, benefiting from the return of all four starters ...

The Big Ten's Best Secondaries

1. Michigan State: It may sound like a broken record to Michigan fans sick of hearing how good the Spartans project to be, on defense especially, but Michigan State boasts, arguably, the top cornerback in the conference (Johnny Adams) and the top safety (Isaiah Lewis) as well as a No. 2 corner (Darqueze Dennard) that would be the top coverman on most teams. MSU did suffer one significant loss with the departure of leader Trenton Robinson, but that role as captain of the defense will be filled by Lewis, who apprenticed under his teammate a year ago. Kurtis Drummond has the lead on replacing Robinson. All four guys will make a inaccurate QB pay, combining for 12 picks last season, with each defensive back making at least two.

2. Michigan: Michigan's starting four is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big Ten conference -- it just can't seem to get any respect. Certainly, there is room to improve for the U-M secondary, but strong safety Jordan Kovacs is one of the league's best safeties and is both underrated as a playmaker and as a last line of defense. Free safety Thomas Gordon is poised for a big year but if he can't get it done there is competition in the form of Marvin Robinson and true freshman Jarrod Wilson. At cornerback, J.T. Floyd is steady if not spectacular while Blake Countess has the chance to be really, really special after starting six games as a true freshman a year ago. U-M also may be the deepest unit in the conference, with able reserves at corner and safety.

3. Ohio State: All four starters return, but this secondary was average a year ago, ranking 53rd nationally in pass efficiency defense. The feeling in Columbus, however, is that the experience this group earned will allow the natural (and immense) talent to rise to the top this year. They should be right. Cornerback Bradley Roby will likely square off with Countess over the next few years to determine who's the Big Ten's best (after Adams graduates) while colleague Travis Howard is also solid. C.J. Barnett was bogged down by the poor performance of the overall unit last fall, but he possesses all the traits of a dominant free safety. Chris Bryant is a rugged prototypical strong safety.

4. Purdue: A lot of preseason rankings are underselling the Boilermakers, who feature a cornerback duo of Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson that can go toe-to-toe with any tandem in the Big Ten. Allen gets knocked because of his 5-9 size, but he's fearless and a playmaker, returning three career picks for touchdowns. Johnson has the physical characteristics his teammate covets and while not as aggressive, doesn't get beat very often. Safety play was inconsistent a year ago, but Max Charlot is in his second season a starter and Taylor Richards can be a reliable performer for Purdue this fall. 
5. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are in the opposite boat from the Boilermakers, with very good returning starters at safety, but question marks at cornerback with the departure of former All-American Alfonzo Dennard. Mohammed Seisay,  Andrew Green and Ciante Evans are the leading contenders to take over for Dennard, with the hope one of them (most likely Seisay) will become a No. 1 coverman. The good news is that with strong safety Daimion Stafford and free P.J. Smith, the corners can make a few mistakes knowing their teammates have their back. Stafford's challenge is great, though, being asked to replace the dynamcism of Dennard and the overwhelming contribution of departed linebacker Lavonte David.
The Wildcards

Wisconsin: The Badgers bid adieu to safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus, and both will be greatly missed. Neither ever achieved superstar status but they were integral to the recent success of the Wisconsin program. Shelton Johnson will occupy the strong safety position and he's an intimidating presence back there. Marcus Cromartie is UW's top corner after starting 13 games in 2011, but he wasn't always a fan-favorite, and enters his senior season very much needing to prove himself. Devin Smith will likely start at the opposite corner. He was a promising player until suffering a season-ending leg injury last year, and if healthy, could leapfrog Cromartie as the top CB on the team.

Minnesota: You want to scoff at this one, but the Golden Gophers have some pieces and became a more disciplined football team in coach Jerry Kill's first season in Minneapolis. The secondary could be the breakout unit of the Big Ten this season with the return of Brock Vereen at safety and Troy Stoudermire at cornerback. They are both capable of emerging among the best at their positions. Derek Wells, meanwhile, will likely start at the other safety position after he impressed in limited time as a true freshman in 2011. Minnesota is unsure who will step up at the second CB spot, with a trio of junior-college transfers vying for the vacant gig.

Iowa: It's Micah Hyde and a bunch of other guys, but Hyde is good. Real good. A standout cornerback in 2010, he played some safety in 2011 but returned to cornerback and returned to form late last season. This fall, he'll stay put at his signature post and could challenge Adams (or Countess, Roby or Allen) as the top cornerback in the Big Ten. B.J. Lowery is a mix of a corner/safety but he'll be at CB this year, and should flourish as he becomes more familiar. Nico Law is expected to start at the strong saferty, and insiders like his potential an awful lot. Tanner Miller, at the free, is an average athlete, but he keeps the ball in front of him, which is a must.




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