Project 2014: Defenses of the Big Ten

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Image Credit: MLive

As the college football season grows nearer and nearer, so does the Maryland Terrapins’ debut in the Big Ten Conference. Last week, we took a look at how Maryland’s offense would fit in the Big Ten, and this week we will look at the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten is widely known as a league built on strong defenses, and that certainly holds true for the majority of the teams in the conference. Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has brought an NFL-style defense to College Park, and the Terps should have no problem fitting in with the physical defensive nature of their new conference.

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Illinois Fighting Illini

Defensive Coordinator: Tim Banks
Defensive Style: 4-2-5
Player to Watch: LB Mason Monheim (Junior)

Illinois is a team known for its offense, not its defense. The Illini ranked 110th in the country in total defense last season, and they were a horrible 116th against the run, which cannot happen for a team in the Big Ten. As you can expect, they were better against the pass, but still ranked just 81st in the country. They will be experienced on the defensive side of the ball this season, with no freshman starters and just two sophomore starters. 

The Illini run a unique 4-2-5 defense, which is built to defend against the spread offenses of today. Gary Patterson is the most famous innovator of this defense, and his TCU teams have always had great success with it. Auburn uses a 4-2-5 scheme, and played for the National Championship last season. South Carolina and Ole Miss also use this defense in the physical SEC. Obviously, this defense isn’t just successful in pass-happy conferences like the Big 12.

This defense uses a traditional 4-down lineman approach, with two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. Almost all of their defensive pressure will come from these four players. There are two true linebackers in this scheme, and they are responsible for both stopping the run and matching up against tight ends and slot receivers. These linebackers will typically be smaller than typical linebackers, but bigger than typical safeties. A good run-stopping middle linebacker is especially valuable in this scheme.

The defensive backfield is where this defense gets very different. They use 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties just like everyone else, but add a defensive back to make 5. This extra defensive back is referred to differently in almost every 4-2-5 defense, but Illinois calls him the “Star”. Earnest Thomas III is projected to start for the Illini at their “Star” position, which is essentially a hybrid LB/S. He is the best coverage linebacker on the team, but is also able to defend the run. It takes a great athlete to play this position, and Thomas racked up 101 tackles for the Illini last season. But regardless of scheme, Illinois is going to have to improve their defense to have any chance in the Big Ten this season.

Indiana Hoosiers

Defensive Coordinators: William Inge, Brian Knorr
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE Nick Mangieri (Junior)

Much like Illinois, Indiana is not a team known for its defense. The Hoosiers’ defense ranked 10 spots below Illinois’ in total defense, coming in at 120th in the country. New Mexico State, California, and Idaho were the only 3 FBS teams with worse total defenses than Indiana’s last season. The Hoosiers ranked 115th in the country in rush defense, and 118th in the country in pass defense. They are a fairly experienced defense, with just 2 projected starters who are sophomores or freshmen.

The Hoosiers run a 4-3 defense, which is the most common scheme for teams in all of college football. This defense features a very conventional 4-down lineman set, with two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. There are three linebackers in this scheme, all of which need to be able to cover slot receivers and tight ends. As in the 4-2-5 defense, a good run-stopping middle linebacker is very good to have in this system.

Nick Mangieri is a good young defensive end for the Hoosiers who had a good sophomore season last year. He recorded 26 tackles in 2013, 6 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He also sacked the quarterback 3 times. He plays the weak-side defensive end spot for the Hoosiers, across from senior defensive end Bobby Richardson. Of all of the defensive linemen, this position requires the most versatile player, as he could be doing anything from rushing the passer to dropping back into coverage.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Defensive Coordinator: Phil Parker
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: S John Lowdermilk (Senior)

Unlike Illinois and Indiana, the Iowa Hawkeyes have a very strong defensive tradition, and 2014 should be no different. Iowa boasted the 6th best total defense in the country last season, and was 2nd in the Big Ten behind Michigan State. Their rush defense ranked 19th in the country, and their pass defense came in at 9th-best. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is a defensive guy, and his teams have always and will always have a great defense.

Like Indiana, Iowa runs a 4-3 defensive scheme. Louis Trinca-Pasat is a player to watch for on the defensive line, as he plays one of the defensive tackle positions for the Hawkeyes. He is a beast in the backfield, as he racked up 9 tackles for loss in 2013. He also recorded 2 sacks. John Lowdermilk is a great strong safety for Iowa, and plays the run very well. He recorded 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2013, and racked up 78 tackles. He also had an interception.

Iowa’s secondary will be rebuilding this season, after losing B.J. Lowery and Tanner Miller to graduation last season. They will likely be starting 2 sophomores at their two cornerback spots, and Lowdermilk will be the only senior in the defensive backfield. The rest of the defense will be very experienced, with just one sophomore and no freshmen projected to start among the front 7. Regardless of experience, Iowa’s defense looks to be very solid this season, and teams will have a tough time doing anything against them.

Michigan Wolverines

Defensive Coordinator: Greg Mattison
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: CB Blake Countess (Redshirt Junior)

Fans of Maryland football should be very familiar with Greg Mattison, as he was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens from 2008-2010. He joined Brady Hoke’s staff at Michigan in 2011, and has been his defensive coordinator ever since. Mattison’s defense took a down-turn last season, as they ranked 41st in the country in total defense. They ranked 29th in the country against the run, and 66th against the pass. Hoke has received criticism for failing to improve his team on both sides of the ball after a great freshman campaign, and their success this season will largely hinge on Mattison’s defense.

Mattison runs a 4-3 defense similar to Iowa and Indiana, but with more of a multiple aspect to it. It is run as a 4-3 under front, which means that the strong-side linebacker lines up close to the line of scrimmage, and the entire group is shifted towards the strong-side of the offense’s formation. Mattison likes to have his weak-side defensive end be very versatile, and he will occasionally stand up like a traditional linebacker. He will use his depth very well, and likes to rotate many defensive players in and out of the game to keep them fresh, especially among the front 7. Obviously a no-huddle offense would limit his ability to do that.

Maryland football fans may or may not want to keep their eyes on Michigan CB Blake Countess, as he attended Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, the same school attended by Stefon Diggs and Wes Brown. He led the Big Ten in interceptions last season with 6, and returned them for a total of 169 yards and a touchdown. Another player to keep an eye on in Michigan’s linebacking corps is Jake Ryan, who is looking to bounce back following a disappointing 2013 season which saw him miss a number of games due to injury. He will be moving inside to the middle linebacker position, and I’d expect him to have a very good season in 2014.

Michigan State Spartans

Defensive Coordinator: Pat Narduzzi
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE Shilique Calhoun (Redshirt Junior)

Michigan State is always regarded as one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they proved once again why that is the case last season. The Spartans boasted the 2nd-best total defense in the country, with only Louisville holding a better ranking. They were the 2nd-best rush defense in the country, behind Louisville once again, and were the 3rd-best pass defense in the country, behind Florida State and Florida Atlantic. Pat Narduzzi’s revolutionary schemes help Michigan State do more with less, which is exactly what Mark Dantonio makes his living doing.

Narduzzi runs a 4-3 defense, and runs it to perfection. They rarely stray from their base defense, making no-huddle teams a non-factor when it comes to defensive production. Their base defensive play is the Cover 4, which Narduzzi often runs as a man coverage. The Spartans mold defensive backs better than anyone in the country, allowing them to leave them on islands with wide receivers on nearly every play. They are taught to force the receiver into the small spot between them and the sideline, and never let them get inside. You would think that, with their cornerbacks playing man coverage so often, they would be scared to press the offense’s receivers, but you would be wrong. Michigan State operates almost exclusively out of a press coverage.

Spartan safeties are given a great deal of freedom to roam, and often line up very close to the line of scrimmage. Michigan State emphasizes coverage with their safeties, as they are often used as nickel-backs, covering the offense’s slot receivers and tight ends. This allows their linebackers to play very close to the line of scrimmage and stuff the run. More often than not, Michigan State will not have any defensive players lined up deeper than 8 yards past the line of scrimmage. Offenses often want to go deep because of this, but the talent of the Spartans’ cornerbacks nixes that opportunity.

Shilique Calhoun is one of the best players in college football, and is coming off of an incredible sophomore season. He recorded 7.5 sacks in 2013, and also ran back an interception 56 yards for a touchdown. He racked up 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, part of his 37 tackles overall. He is an absolute beast, receiving first-team pre-season All-American status by Phil Steele, and being named to watch lists for the Walter Camp, Bednarik, Lombardi, and Nagurski awards. 

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Defensive Coordinator: Tracy Claeys
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE Theiren Cockran (Junior)

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are a team that wants to run the ball and play solid defense, and they did well in both aspects last season. They ranked 43rd in the country in total defense last season, just one spot above the Maryland Terrapins. Their run defense was the 54th-best in the country, and their pass defense ranked 35th. They have been improving their defense in each season, and should have another solid unit this season.

Minnesota runs a 4-3 defense, led by defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who is in his 4th season on head coach Jerry Kill’s staff. Theiren Cockran is a great defensive end for the Golden Gophers, and his sophomore season gave Minnesota football fans hope for the future. He racked up 7.5 sacks in 2013, leading the team in that regard. He was second on the team with tackles for loss with 10, and recorded 30 total tackles.

Another player to watch for is senior LB Damien Wilson, who was second on the team with 78 tackles last season. He recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and sacked the quarterback once. Good linebacker play is key for any defense, and having a sure tackler in the middle of the field is key for the 4-3 scheme. His senior season should be a good one, as Minnesota hopes to keep improving on the defensive side of the ball.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Defensive Coordinator: John Papuchis
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE Randy Gregory (Redshirt Junior)

Like many of the teams in the Big Ten, Nebraska is a team built on a solid foundation of defensive excellence. Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, last season was a disappointment on the defensive side of the ball. They ranked 40th in the country in total defense a year ago, which is much lower than it needs to be for a Bo Pelini-led team. They ranked 53rd in the country against the run, and 33rd against the pass. They’ll look to improve on those numbers, as it is simply not normal for a Nebraska team to have such a mediocre defense.

John Papuchis runs a 4-3 defense at Nebraska, and gained a standout pass-rusher last season in the form of Randy Gregory. Gregory transferred to Nebraska from Arizona Western Community College last season, and had one of the best years of any defensive player in the nation. He led the team in sacks with 9.5, and also led the team in tackles for loss with a monstrous 16. He also recorded 65 tackles, which was good for 3rd on the team.

Despite all of those great numbers, Gregory has expressed the desire to become a more complete player. He has been working in the off-season to become better against the run, and not be known as just a pass-rusher. His junior season should be very fun to watch, unless you’re rooting for the team that has to play his Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s defense needs to improve against the run, and having Gregory play even better in that aspect of his game would be huge for the Cornhuskers in 2014.

Northwestern Wildcats

Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (Redshirt Senior)

Though Northwestern has enjoyed an impressive rise to prominence over the past few years, they are not doing it because of their defense. Long known for the spread offense, the Wildcats’ defense ranked 88th in the country in total defense last season. They ranked 68th in the country in rush defense, and their pass defense was ranked 99th in the country. Luckily for them, their offense is potent enough to overcome some of these defensive shortcomings.

The Wildcats run a basic 4-3 defense, anchored by senior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Ariguzo is a weak-side linebacker for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, and recorded 106 tackles last season, which was good for second on the team. He also had 6 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and sacked the quarterback twice. He is great in pass coverage, and was tied for the team lead in interceptions last season with 4.

Northwestern also has a very talented sophomore on the defensive line, Ifeadi Odenigbo. In his freshman season last year, he had 9 tackles, 6.5 of which were tackles for loss. He also had 5.5 sacks, good for second on the team. He will look to improve on that great freshman season this year.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Defensive Coordinators: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE Noah Spence (Junior)

Unlike Northwestern, Ohio State is a team with a long defensive tradition. They are a team that wants to run the ball and play tough, physical defense and this season looks to be no different. Last season, the Buckeyes experienced a surprisingly mediocre season defensively. They ranked 46th in the country in total defense, 2 spots below Maryland. They were great against the run however, ranking 9th in the country. Defending the pass was an issue for them however, despite having C.J. Barnett and Bradley Roby roaming the defensive backfield. The Buckeyes ranked 110th in the country in pass defense.

The bad news for Ohio State is that they’ve lost their two best defensive backs this season in C.J. Barnett and Bradley Roby. They’ll be forced to rebuild that unit and hope that their offense can help offset some of the issues they had last season. They also lose their best overall defensive player to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Shazier. He will need to be replaced at linebacker. One player to watch for is defensive end Noah Spence, the Buckeyes’ best pass-rusher. Last season, he recorded 50 tackles, 14 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He also sacked the quarterback 7.5 times, leading the team in that regard.

Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense can certainly offset many of the potential issues that the Buckeyes may have on defense. But Luke Fickell and Chris Ash will need to improve their pass-defense, because Big Ten teams aren’t afraid to throw the ball. One of the reasons that a few experts are picking Maryland as a potential upset for Ohio State is due to the fact that the Terps have the best receiving corps in the conference, and the Buckeyes had one of the worst pass defenses in the country last season.

Everett Withers was the co-defensive coordinator with Fickell last season, but is now the head coach of the James Madison Dukes, who the Terps will play in their first game of the season on August 30th. The Buckeyes brought on Chris Ash this season, who had been the defensive coordinator with Arkansas. He is installing a very similar defense to the one run by Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi. I discussed this defense in depth in my preview of Michigan State above. He is installing the same 4-3 under technique with coverage based off of the quarters scheme. The Buckeyes are hoping that this helps them be just as strong against the pass as they are against the run.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Defensive Coordinator: Bob Shoop
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: DE C.J. Olaniyan (Redshirt Senior)

Much like Ohio State, Penn State has enjoyed a strong defensive tradition for a long time. New head coach James Franklin is bringing a very aggressive and punishing style to both sides of the ball, so I’d expect the Nittany Lions’ defense to improve from last season. 2013 saw Penn State rank 48th in the country in total defense, a number that James Franklin and Bob Shoop certainly want to improve. Against the run, they ranked 36th in the country. They were worse against the pass, dropping to 73rd in the country.

Bob Shoop is the new Penn State defensive coordinator, and he’ll continue to run a 4-3 scheme in Happy Valley. C.J. Olaniyan had a breakout junior season for the Nittany Lions last season, and he’ll look to improve even more in 2014. 2013 saw him record 50 tackles, 11 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He is also an accomplished pass-rusher, as he led the team with 5 sacks. He even returned an interception for 33 yards last season.

Ryan Keiser and Jordan Lucas are two players to watch in the Penn State defensive backfield. Keiser is a safety and Lucas is a cornerback, and both of them recorded 3 interceptions last season, tied for the team lead. Lucas ranked 3rd on the team in tackles with 65, and Keiser came in at 8th with 38 tackles. They each also recorded a sack on the season.

Purdue Boilermakers

Defensive Coordinator: Greg Hudson
Defensive Style: Multiple
Player to Watch: S Anthony Brown (Junior)

While Purdue is usually known for its defense, the Boilermakers suffered one of the worst defensive seasons in their history last season. They ranked 104th in the country in total defense, coming in at 114th against the run and 55th against the pass. They even switched from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme in the middle of the season due to the incredibly poor play on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson will operate a multiple defensive scheme this season, switching back and forth between the 4-3 and the 3-4. Purdue started out in a 4-3 scheme last year, but head coach Darrell Hazell moved the team to a 3-4 because of how badly they were playing to that point in the season. It is unclear how much of each scheme will be used, but it seems as if they’ll run more of the 3-4 than the 4-3.

On a bad defense, Anthony Brown was a bit of a bright spot in the Boilermakers’ defensive backfield. He is the team’s leading returning tackler after recording 69 of them in 2013, 3 of which were for a loss. He did not record a sack or an interception on the year. The team will miss cornerback Ricardo Allen and his 6 interceptions from last season, as he has gone on to play for the Atlanta Falcons this year.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Defensive Coordinator: Joe Rossi
Defensive Style: 4-3
Player to Watch: LB Steve Longa (Redshirt Sophomore)

The Rutgers defense was about as mediocre as its offense last season, and new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi will attempt to improve on that this season. The Scarlet Knights were 73rd in the country in total defense last season. They were stellar against the run, ranking 4th in the country in that regard. The problem came against the pass, where they ranked 120th in the country. Yes, the Scarlet Knights had the 4th-best defense against the run and the 4th-worst defense against the pass.

Such a polarizing defense is hard to come by in the game of football. A team will usually have strengths, but to be so good in one facet of the game and so bad in another is very rare. Steve Longa is the present and the future of this defense, as he led the team with 123 tackles in his redshirt freshman season in 2013. He also recorded 7.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and sacked the quarterback 3 times.

Another player to watch on the defensive line is Darius Hamilton, defensive end for the Scarlet Knights. He was 6th on the team in tackles last season with 48, and recorded 11.5 of those for a loss. He also led the team in sacks with 5.5. Improving the secondary is crucial for Rutgers this season. The team only had 2 interceptions from returning players in 2013, and only one of their returning defensive backs ranked among the top 10 in tackles.

Wisconsin Badgers

Defensive Coordinator: Dave Aranda
Defensive Style: 3-4
Player to Watch: CB Sojourn Shelton (Sophomore)

Wisconsin is known for its smashmouth running attack on offense, and for its strong presence on defense. Last season, they showed why they are considered historically as one of the best defenses in the country. The Badgers ranked 7th in the country in total defense last season, good for 3rd in the Big Ten behind Michigan State and Iowa. They ranked 5th in the country against the run, and 17th in the country against the pass.

The Badgers are the only team other than the Maryland Terrapins to run a true 3-4 defense in the Big Ten Conference. The 3-4 has gained popularity throughout all of college football, despite being widely regarded as an “NFL defense”. It was long thought that college football couldn’t have the linebacker or nose tackle talent necessary to make the 3-4 defense successful. However, last season saw 3 of the top 10 defenses in college football run a 3-4 base defense (Florida State, Alabama, Wisconsin).

The 3-4 defense features 3-down linemen, and 4 linebackers. The two most difficult things about the 3-4 is finding a talented player to play the nose tackle position and finding enough talented linebackers to start on defense. Unlike in the 4-3 defense where the defensive tackles are each responsible for one gap in the offensive line, the nose tackle in the 3-4 is responsible for two gaps. He must be smart enough and talented enough to do that, not to mention that he must be big enough to be the team’s best run-stopper.

The 3-4 features two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers. The two outside linebackers should be the team’s best pass-rushers. The Baltimore Ravens have long had success with the 3-4 defense, with Terrell Suggs playing one of the two outside linebacker positions. You can bring pressure from both outside spots, or one of your linebackers can be a better run-stopper and play back in coverage more often. The two inside linebackers have the toughest jobs, as they have to be able to stuff the inside run and cover opposing tight ends and slot receivers. If any players are taken off of the field in a 3-4 scheme’s nickel packages, it is most often going to be the inside linebackers.

Wisconsin has an extremely talented young cornerback in Sojourn Shelton, who led the team with 4 interceptions last season. He was just a true freshman last year, and will be looking to improve in this his sophomore campaign. The Badgers may be only one of two teams in the Big Ten to run a true 3-4 defense, but they do it as well as anyone in the country.

Now that we’ve looked at the features of each Big Ten team’s defensive scheme, how will the Maryland Terrapins fit into all of this? As I mentioned above, the Terps and the Badgers are the only two teams who run a true 3-4 scheme on defense in the conference. However, some of the most successful defenses in the country run a 3-4 defense.

To recap, let’s look at the breakdown of defensive styles in the Big Ten:

4-3 Defense – 10
3-4 Defense – 2 (including Maryland)
4-2-5 Defense – 1
Multiple Defense – 1

If I were to write a preview of Maryland’s defense, here is how it would look:

Maryland Terrapins

Defensive Coordinator: Brian Stewart
Defensive Style: 3-4
Player to Watch: DE Andre Monroe (Redshirt Senior)

The Maryland Terrapins had one of the country’s best defenses in 2012, but lost a number of key players in the front 7, leading to a bit of a drop-off in 2013. They still managed to rank 44th in the country in total defense, just one spot below Minnesota and a few spots above both Ohio State and Penn State. They ranked 45th against the run in 2013, and 57th against the pass.

The Maryland defense suffered a huge number of injuries last season, especially among the linebackers and the cornerbacks. The Terps had lost their top two cornerbacks for the season by the time their 3rd game of the season ended, and were forced to go with a true freshman at one of their starting spots. They also lost linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil for the season in the team’s game against Virginia, who was putting together a great season as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Cole Farrand also experienced a number of injuries, but toughed his way through the season without missing too much time.

The bright spot on the Terps’ defense last season was defensive end Andre Monroe. After missing the 2012 season due to an injury, he showed in 2013 what the hype was all about after early success in his career. He was one of the best pass-rushers in the ACC last season, recording 9.5 sacks in his 13 games played. He will start at the strong-side defensive end position in 2014, forcing Quinton Jefferson over to the weak side.

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About the author


Zack Kiesel   

Terps Analyst

Zack is working towards a career in law and politics. The Owings Mills native focuses most of his efforts on Maryland Football recruiting and individual coach and player pieces; but also covers Terps Basketball. He has established relationships with Big Ten beat reporters across the conference, which he utilizes in his game previews. You can reach Zack with questions or interview requests at zack.kiesel@baltimoresportsandlife.com.


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