Big Ten Football: Power Ranking Best Defensive Players Pre-2014 Spring Practice
While the rest of the country was offensive-crazy, the Big Ten continued to show why it is one of the premier defensive leagues in the country. Michigan State topped or sat inside the top 10 in every major defensive statistical category, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State weren't far behind.
Logic dictates that means there is an impressive amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball. While some of it is off to the NFL and/or graduation, plenty is left over for the 2014 season.
Michigan State stands to lose a bulk of its talent from the Rose Bowl-winning defense, but Pat Narduzzi has been stockpiling talent like crazy in East Lansing.
That isn't the only place where talent exists in the Big Ten, though, but with a lot of the big names off to real life, who tops the conference heading into 2014?
There was so much talent to sift through that no fewer than 25 players jumped off the depth charts and rosters, so narrowing down that list was far from easy.
With that being said, let's take a look at the top defensive players in the league.
10. Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota
Minnesota made a nice leap from Year 1 to Year 2 on defense, but it was clear that more was needed from everyone else besides Ra'Shede Hageman. In stepped sophomore defensive end Theiren Cockran, who became a pest in opposing backfields all season long.
He racked up 30 tackles but managed to make the most of them by recording 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Only Hageman's 13 tackles for loss were better, while Cockran led the Gophers in sacks.
For that effort, he was named second-team All-Big Ten by the media following the 2013 season. That's not bad for a sophomore who had little impact in his freshman season (six tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss).
Sure, Cockran is on the smaller side—officially listed at 6'6", 238 pounds—but that smaller stature didn't hurt him last year. He has the frame to continue to put on some weight, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him get closer to the 250-pound range by the time fall rolls around.
The trick for the Gophers in 2014 will be proving that the defense wasn't a one-horse team with Hageman off to the NFL. Having Cockran just entering his upperclassmen years should help in that transition.
As long as he continues to develop his game, he could be one of the most dangerous pass-rushers in the Big Ten in 2014.
9. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
You would be hard pressed to find a better freshman on the defensive side of the ball in the Big Ten in 2013. It's a good thing too, because Joey Bosa added some much needed punch to a defensive line in serious need of it.
He became more important to the success of the OSU defense as the season wore on, which he proved it with his play in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. In that game, he racked up five tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack.
It wasn't a pretty night in Miami for the Buckeyes, but he was a defensive bright spot. He finished his freshman campaign by ranking No. 10 on the team in tackles with 44 while amassing 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
He was third on the team in tackles for loss behind Noah Spence and Ryan Shazier while ranking second behind Spence in sacks. That effort landed him on many All-Big Ten freshman teams last year.
With Spence suspended for the first couple of games in the 2014 season (for now), expect Bosa to be the player that OSU leans on for a pass rush early on.
The key for him will be to develop his game against the run, which will likely come with time and an offseason of development.
8. Mason Monheim, LB, Illinois
Illinois' defense has been downright dreadful the last two seasons, but don't look at soon-to-be junior linebacker Mason Monheim as part of the problem. He's been about the only solution in each of his first two seasons in Champaign.
Last season, he ranked ninth in the Big Ten in tackles per game with 8.1. He also had 97 tackles, which was good for third behind All-Big Ten honorable mention linebacker Jonathan Brown and Earnest Thomas III on the Illini squad.
Monheim finished the season with 97 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and one sack. In his two years in Champaign, he has tallied 183 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss already.
Despite those numbers, he was overlooked for postseason awards in 2013; however, don't expect that to happen in 2014.
What will be different for Monheim, who has been a starter since he walked into the Illini program, is that he won't have Brown alongside him. He must become the unquestioned leader of this defense in 2014.
It shouldn't be a tough transition, and in fact, don't be surprised to see him blossom in his new role. His wealth of experience makes him one of the top returning linebackers in the Big Ten entering spring ball in 2014.
7. Louis Trinca-Pasat, DT, Iowa
If there is a more underrated defensive player in the league, I'd love to meet him. Iowa's defense wouldn't be the same without its big man in the middle over the past two years.
As Louis Trinca-Pasat enters his senior season in Iowa City, he will get his chance in the spotlight. While names like Michael Bennett and Ra'Shede Hageman were getting all the attention early on, it has been Trinca-Pasat who has been very productive.
Remember those three 100-tackle linebackers Iowa had last season? They can all thank Trinca-Pasat for a lot of that production.
He also teams up with Carl Davis to form perhaps the Big Ten's best one-two punch in the middle of the defensive line.
He ended 2013 with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two sacks. That effort earned him unanimous honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition.
In the past two years, he has racked up 79 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and two sacks as the space-eating defensive tackle in Phil Parker's defense.
With the three linebackers missing, Trinca-Pasat will need to be on his best game to help cover for some of the deficiencies that will happen early on in 2014. Entering spring ball, there are few defensive tackles in the league with his pedigree.
6. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State
For all of the troubles Ohio State's defense seemed to have in 2013, then-sophomore defensive end Noah Spence wasn't one of them. That is until the end of the year, when he was suspended by the Big Ten for three games for violating its banned substance list.
It remains to be seen if he will appeal the remaining two games of his suspension, but no matter what happens, he enters 2014 as one of the most feared pass-rushing ends in the conference.
He finished 2013 with 52 tackles, a team second-best 14.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading eight sacks. Those eye-popping numbers got him named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second team by the coaches.
Pairing him up with a mountain of a man like Joey Bosa on the other side makes Spence that much more dangerous, but he's been doing it without Bosa too.
In 2012, his freshman season, he showed glimpses of his potential greatness with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack in limited action.
He clearly has the talent to terrorize opposing backfields in 2014 and beyond; he just needs to apparently watch who's giving him drinks in Columbus from now on.
5. Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
Michigan's defense may not have jumped off the page as something spectacular in 2013, but no one had a better season for the Wolverines than defensive back Blake Countess.
He was the definition of ball hawk in 2013, tying for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions last season. He also returned one of those picks to the house, going 56 yards against Minnesota. For that, he was a first-team All-Big Ten pick by the media and a second-team pick by the coaches.
It was a great comeback year for the then redshirt sophomore, as he missed all but one game of 2012 with a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Alabama.
His freshman season was one of promise, as he racked up 44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, six passes defensed and one forced fumble. All he did was add to his prowess by showing he can be a shutdown player in the defensive backfield.
Opposing passing games tried to find ways to take him out of the game from early on in the season, but it didn't matter. He continued to have an impact throughout the year.
The 2013 version of Countess showed his freshman season wasn't a fluke, and he may indeed be the best overall defensive back in the Big Ten.
4. Kurtis Drummond, DB, Michigan State
While Blake Countess was racking up a Big Ten-leading interception total, Kurtis Drummond was lighting up opposing players everywhere you looked.
The Spartans free safety did what he was supposed to do and more, ranking second on the team in tackles with 91 and coming up just behind Countess in the conference with four interceptions. He also added 3.5 tackles for loss and six passes defensed to his 2013 resume.
All you need to know about his ability as a defensive back can be summed up by one of the best plays made by a Big Ten player all season long. That interception against Western Michigan says it all.
Drummond ended 2013 as a first-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches and second team by the media.
He was a leader in almost every way as a junior. He not only led defensive backs in tackles but also led in interceptions and tackles for loss. There's not much more you could ask your free safety to do.
In 2014, he will need to build off that experience, as he will be the leader of a defensive backfield that will say goodbye to both Isaiah Lewis and Darqueze Dennard.
3. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
Nebraska's defense went through its share of growing pains, but by the time it was all over, JUCO transfer Randy Gregory emerged as a star. He went from hyped prospect to consensus first-team All-Big Ten in just his first year in the league.
It's easy to see why, given his 65 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. He was second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss, and his 10.5 sacks were tops in the conference.
Heck, he even managed to pick up a 33-yard interception for a touchdown in his first year in Lincoln.
That was just in Year 1. Now the question is: Can the rest of his defensive teammates help pick him up? I mean, the secret weapon of Gregory is well-known by now.
Stopping him is going to be key for every offense that Nebraska faces from here on out. Few teams figured out the formula in 2013.
Judging by Gregory's work ethic to get on the field and be that productive in his first year, 2014 could be something to behold from the soon-to-be junior—especially if he can add a bit more weight and become more disciplined against the run game.
2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
Just six months after a torn ACL, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan was right back on the field, just like he said he would be. No doubt—the guy is a straight-up freak.
He's been that day since walking into the football program as a freshman, and now that he enters his senior season, he has earned the title of the Big Ten's premier linebacker.
In the eight games he played, he managed to make enough of an impact to rank No. 12 in total tackles on the defense (30). He also added 4.5 tackles for loss in just over half a season of action.
His production is unquestioned after a sophomore campaign that saw him rack up 88 tackles and 16 tackles for loss. That effort earned him All-Big Ten honors in 2012.
The 2014 season will be about earning more awards, and if Ryan's ability to make adjustments in 2013 was any indication, he'll be just fine going forward.
The Wolverines believe so much in his talent that he is making the transition to middle linebacker this offseason, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. Michigan is doing this in hopes of using his talents to help spark more production from the rest of the team.
With a lot of the linebackers we've come to know and love now being gone from the Big Ten, Ryan stands atop the heap heading into an important 2014 campaign for his team and him.
1. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
While the Spartans offense struggled to find its identity early on in 2013, Shilique Calhoun had the team covered. He scored three touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season, putting him eighth on the team in scoring at the end of year.
Oh, and he also happened to be a darn good defensive player the rest of the season as well. He finished 2013 with 37 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks while also contributing 18 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
To say he exploded onto the scene in 2013 would be an understatement. Besides the three-touchdown performance in the opening two contests, he had nearly all of his defensive impact outside of those games. He only had two tackles for loss and three tackles through the first two games.
Calhoun was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media for his efforts.
That was just the 6'4", 250-pound end's first real season of action, but his disruptive nature in one year alone should have offensive coordinators across the Big Ten scrambling to find ways to take him out of the game.
There is no better sign of respect on the defensive side of the ball than for an opposing team to do anything but run or throw at you—expect a lot of that coming Calhoun's way in 2014.
However, don't expect him or his coaches to rest on just one season of results. Believe it or not, his position coach Ron Burton believes there's plenty to work on for the soon-to-be junior, per Josh Slagter of MLive.com:
The process of getting stronger, the process of getting bigger. That's the part of it that's going to make him better. Being able to work in space, the ability to use his hands, and work in the run game. That's where he's going to continue to get better. He's still a work in progress.
Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens
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