August 10, 2022

Ranking the Big 10’s most feared defenders of 2021

Ranking the Big Ten's 20 most feared defenders of 2021

Rutgers Scarlet Knights linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (3) brings down Ohio State Buckeyes running back Demario McCall (3) during the second quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Joshua A. Bickel/Pool via Ohio State Athletics)

It’s a league of physicality and tenacity on the defensive side of the ball.

For decades the Big Ten has gained notoriety for its’ smash mouth style of play and has produced some of the best defenders the sport has ever seen. Here’s 20 individuals, who have made a name for themselves in the conference. Rather they’re forcing a turnover or delivering a big hit, these defenders look to add more clutch plays to their legacies this fall.

20. Damion Daniels, DT, Nebraska: The Dallas native is one of four captains on the Huskers’ roster this fall. Daniels is massive, standing six-foot-three and weighing 325 pounds. He uses his huge frame to clog up running lanes and continues to hold down the interior. The former three-star prospect is riding a wave of momentum after coming off a solid 2020 campaign. Daniels tallied 20 tackles, including 10 solo and 4.5 for loss. Daniels will be anchoring the big boys up front this fall and Nebraska fans are expecting the Blackshirts to take a big step forward.

19. Trae Avery, CB, Rutgers: The Baltimore native is arguably the most underrated corner in the Big Ten. Avery broke up a pass in seven of the Scarlet Knights’ first eight games last season. He recorded seven tackles, including one for loss and picked off a pass in the opening win over Michigan State. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Avery tallied seven tackles against Michigan. Avery finished 2020 with 37 total stops and broke up seven passes. The former three-star prospect also earned third-team All-Big Ten honors for his heroics.

18. Jack Koerner, S, Iowa: The Des Moines native is a former walk-on, who led the Hawkeyes in interceptions last year. Koerner started fast out of the gates, with 13 tackles in the opener at Purdue. He followed up that performance with an interception against Northwestern and picked off another pass in the win over Michigan State. The six-foot, 205-pound Koerner tallied six stops in victories over Nebraska and Wisconsin. Koerner earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020 and Iowa’s defense allowed nine passing touchdowns. The senior will be the leader of the secondary this fall.

17. Christian Izien, S, Rutgers: Greg Schiano will be fielding a talented secondary this fall. The former three-star prospect led the Scarlet Knights in interceptions and finished third on the team in tackles last season. Izien stockpiled 10 stops against Illinois. The New York native recovered a fumble and broke up two passes against Michigan. He also tallied eight total stops in the win at Purdue. Izien recorded a season-high, 11 tackles and picked off a pass against Penn State. Over Rutgers’ final two games, he combined for 16 stops, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

16. Arnold Ebiketie, DE, Penn State: The Nittany Lions struck gold when they landed the former three-star prospect from the transfer portal. Ebiketie tallied 42 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and four sacks in six games with Temple last season. The Maryland native was a menace from the start, with 10 total stops and a forced fumble in the opener at Navy. He followed up that performance with five solo tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in the lone win over South Florida. Ebiketie also recorded a sack against Tulane, SMU and Central Florida, when he racked up eight solo tackles.

15. Chris Bergin, LB, Northwestern: He’s a bit short for a Big Ten linebacker, but what he lacks in size, he makes up with passion and tenacity. Bergin played in a stacked linebacker room last season that featured Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Still, Bergin finished third on the team in tackles. The Michigan native racked up 12 tackles in the win at Iowa. Bergin followed up that performance with 11 stops and picked off a pass in the victory over Nebraska. Bergin recorded 11 tackles apiece against Michigan State and Ohio State. His nine stops in the bowl win proved his worth.

14. Nyles Pinckney, DT, Minnesota: The Golden Gophers landed a diamond from the transfer portal in the former four-star prospect. Pinckney has a boatload of experience along the interior, with 80 tackles over the past three years with Clemson. He managed 27 tackles in the seven games he played in last season. The former four-star prospect generated a tackle for loss and a sack in the win over Miami. Pinckney added another tackle for loss against the Citadel. He was also an All-ACC selection in 2019. With Pinckney anchoring Minnesota’s front seven, expect immediate improvement.

13. PJ Mustipher, DE, Penn State: He uses his six-foot-four, 300-pound frame to wreak havoc on ball carriers. Mustipher generated a jaw-dropping, 35 tackles from the interior last season. The Maryland native tallied eight total stops, including two solo against Ohio State. Mustipher also made seven tackles, including three solo at Nebraska. The former four-star prospect put the quarterback to the turf in the win over Illinois. The junior has remained a consistent force for the Nittany Lions, with 72 tackles, including seven for loss and two sacks over the past two seasons.

12. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: His season was cut short last year because of an injury in the second game, but he’s an elite edge rusher. Karlaftis put the quarterback to the turf against Iowa and Illinois. The hometown kid was tied for third in the league in sacks when he got injured. Karlaftis tied for first on the team in sacks and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019. The former four-star prospect has showed promise with the Boilermakers, and still has room to grow. Karlaftis will be back with a vengeance this fall, and that’s bad new for opposing Big Ten quarterbacks.

11. Cam Taylor-Britt, CB, Nebraska: The former three-star prospect is the enforcer of the Huskers’ secondary and a team captain. Taylor-Britt is known for laying the wood and he’s not afraid to catch a flag for being too physical. The Alabama native is also a natural in return duties. Taylor-Britt displayed his ball-hawking skills when picked off a pass in victories over Penn State and Rutgers. He also generated a tackle for loss against Northwestern and Purdue. Over the past two seasons he has been an elite defender for Nebraska, with 77 tackles, to go along with five interceptions.

10. Micah McFadden, LB, Indiana: Last season he led the Hoosiers in stops, tackles for loss and sacks. McFadden snagged interceptions against Rutgers and Maryland. He tallied 11 solo tackles in the opening win over Penn State. The Tampa native added nine tackles and two sacks in the shutout victory over Michigan State. Not to mention McFadden tallied 10 solo stops at Ohio State. Over Indiana’s final three games he combined for 18 tackles, including five for loss and three sacks. McFadden finished his 2020 campaign with first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-America honors.

9. Zach VanValkenburg, DE, Iowa: He had no stars behind his name out of high school, but finished second on the team in tackles for loss last season. Vanvalkenburg finished with 8.5 tackles for loss in seven games. The Michigan native tallied seven total tackles against Northwestern. Not to mention he had five stops and three sacks in the win over Minnesota. The six-foot-four, 270-pound VanValkenburg finished the year with 8.5 tackles for loss in seven games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. He’ll be the veteran up front for Iowa this fall and will be anchoring the line.

8. Jake Hansen, LB, Illinois: He’s one of the most versatile linebackers in the conference. Hansen led the Fighting Illini in stops and tackles for loss last season. The former-three star prospect tallied 14 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered another against Purdue. Hansen recorded a season-high, 15 total tackles, a sack and snagged an interception in the victory at Rutgers. The six-foot-one, 230-pound Hansen followed up that performance with seven stops, a fumble recovery and picked off another pass in the win at Nebraska. Now he’s back for a sixth year, which will benefit Illinois.

7. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: His production declined last season because he only played in three games. However, Hutchinson  one of the best edge rushers in the Big Ten. He recorded eight tackles, including five solo in the opening win over Minnesota. He tallied four solo tackles against Michigan State. Fans need to remember the monster campaign Hutchinson had in 2019, when he stockpiled 68 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks. The six-foot-six, 265-pound Hutchinson has 98 career stops off the edge and will make his presence felt up front this fall.

6. Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern: He has the talent and skills to blanket half of a field. Joseph proved that last season when he tied for first in the FBS with six interceptions. The former three-star prospect finished fourth on the team in tackles and earned first-team AP All-American honors. Joseph picked off two passes apiece against Iowa and Wisconsin. The six-foot-one, 192-pound Joseph also had an interception in the victory over Nebraska. The Texas native raised eyebrows with his breathtaking, one-handed interception in the Big Ten Championship. Now he wants the Thorpe.

5. Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State: The former five-star prospect delivered on the hype he arrived on campus with last season. As a true sophomore Harrison made clutch plays all over the field. The Ohio native had a sack in the opener against Nebraska. Not to mention he tallied 4.5 tackles for loss through seven games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Harrison takes pride in wreaking havoc off the edge. With a full slate of games on the Buckeyes’ schedule this fall, expect the six-foot-six, 272-pounder to put together an All-American campaign. Two words, Sack Harrison.

4. Taiwan Mullen, CB, Indiana: The 5-foot-10, 176-pounder is arguably the most versatile corner in the Big Ten. Mullen excels against the run and in pass coverage. He started off on fire, with eight total tackles in the opening win over Penn State. The Florida native followed up that performance with five solo stops and 2.5 sacks in the victory at Rutgers. Mullen intercepted two passes against rival Michigan State, and tallied four solo tackles against Ohio State. He picked off a pass against Maryland, had a sack in the victory over Wisconsin and earned first-team All-Big Ten.

3. Jack Sanborn, LB, Wisconsin: Last season he led the Badgers in tackles and earned third-team All-Big Ten. Sanborn racked up 14 total tackles, including 10 solo and a sack at Northwestern. The Illinois native followed up that performance with nine stops, including a tackle for loss and forced a fumble against Indiana. In the bowl win over Wake Forest Sanborn left a lasting impression with 11 total tackles, including two for loss and and an interception. The six-foot-two, 232-pound Sanborn is the reason why Wisconsin’s defense finished fifth in the FBS against the run.

2. Haskell Garrett, DT, Ohio State: The Las Vegas native has dominated in the trenches for the past two seasons with the Buckeyes. During that span Garrett has stockpiled 30 tackles, including six for loss and two sacks. The former four-star prospect had at least two solo stops in five games. Garrett recorded a sack in the opening win over Nebraska. The six-foot-two, 300-pounder had three tackles and intercepted a pass at Michigan State. In the Big Ten Championship he tallied five tackles and a sack. Garrett has 40 career tackles and finished 2020 with third-team AP All-America honors.

1. Olukunle Fatukasi, LB, Rutgers: The former three-star prospect has 213 career tackles, including 17 for loss. Fatukasi led the Big Ten with 101 stops in nine games last season. The New York native finished ninth in the FBS and first in the conference in tackles per game. Fatukasi recorded 10 stops, forced a fumble and recovered two others in the opening win at Michigan State. The six-foot-one, 234-pound Fatukasi had a 14-tackle performance against Indiana. He generated 13 tackles apiece against Ohio State and Illinois, 17 each against Michigan and Penn State, plus he earned first-team All-Big Ten.

Honorable Mention

Daxton Hill, S, Michigan: The former five-star prospect finished second on the team in tackles as a true sophomore. Hill also recorded a season-high, 12 tackles against Wisconsin.

Jaquan Brisker, S, Penn State: Last season the Pittsburgh native finished third on the team in tackles and led the Nittany Lions in pass breakups. Brisker finished 2020 with third-team All-Big Ten honors.

Mosiah Nasili-Kite, DT, Maryland: The six-foot-two, 330-pounder had a solid 2020 campaign, with 18 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks for the Terrapins.