Seven Big Ten football contributors for isportsweb have offered their input for the top five coaches, specialists, defensive players and offensive players throughout the conference. We will release these rankings until we get to revealing our Big Ten power rankings, which we will unveil in one week. We have already given you our top coaches and specialists throughout the conference. So today we release our top five defensive players in the conference.
5. Anthony Walker, Northwestern – Anthony Walker may just be entering his redshirt junior season, but he could have easily chased down his dream of playing in the NFL as if that dream was the next unfortunate running back on Northwestern’s schedule. No Wildcat finished within 35 tackles of Walker’s 122, which was the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also led the conference with 20.5 tackles for a loss, a number that was the third-best total in the FBS. He collected four sacks, three fumble recoveries, one interception and one forced fumble. With a nose for the ball like that, it’s no surprise that he was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten honoree. He was also named as a second-team All-American according to Sports Illustrated and was a third-team All-American selection by the Associated Press. He is the only pure linebacker to show up on this list, which is quite the compliment considering players like Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan and Michigan State’s Riley Bullough are both returning.
4. Jourdan Lewis, Michigan – It’s a little surprising that Jourdan Lewis is this low given his role in Michigan’s elite defense last season. Lewis finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles, but that isn’t why he’s on this list. Among Power Five players, his 22 pass breakups trailed only Indiana’s Rashard Fant in that category. The biggest difference between Fant and Lewis is that Fant played for a lackluster defense while Lewis played for a defense that led the country in yards per attempt. The Thorpe Award semifinalist finished the year as a first-team All-American according to USA Today and a second-team All-American by most other publications. Lewis can take away half of the field for a team that should finish with one of the top three secondaries in the conference and a top 10 defense nationally.
3. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan – One word can explain why Jabrill Peppers ended up on this list. That word is potential. Peppers has more potential than anybody else in the Big Ten on either side of the ball and this is a preseason list, so it’s somewhat understandable to see him on it. On the other hand, Peppers had just 45 tackles from the safety position and didn’t have a forced fumble, fumble recovery or interception. It is a little more difficult to judge defensive backs based on stats alone as he was also second on the team with 10 pass breakups, but his lack of big plays from the safety position does make it tough to put him this high. It’s also a little odd to see him here considering the fact he didn’t even make our preseason All-Big Ten team. There may be a few questions about his rushing defense, but the move to linebacker should ultimately be a good thing for Peppers in the passing game as he can match up against tight ends, running backs and slot receivers better than other linebackers. His ability to make plays has been on display on both offense and special teams already, but we have yet to see that ability in all its glory on defense. This position switch should help him put that on display.
2. Malik McDowell, Michigan State – There is not a more physically imposing player to go against in the Big Ten than Malik McDowell. The 6-foot-6 and 275 pound defensive tackle enters 2016 as the anchor of Michigan State’s defensive line, which should be among the elite in the Big Ten. Last season, McDowell was second on the team with 13 tackles for a loss and third on the team with 4.5 sacks. He also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles and even added his first career touchdown off an interception. He is unanimously a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection and, according to most publications, is going to end up as a first-team All-American as well. With the departures of Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas, the Spartans are expected to move McDowell around on the line to make better use of his pass rushing ability but he will still play at nose tackle most of the time. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has McDowell as the sixth-best player coming out of the college ranks this season while McDowell says he isn’t leaving early unless he’s a top three pick. A lot of teams would like for him to have a very successful year so they don’t have to see him for a fourth time.
1. Desmond King, Iowa – Desmond King is clearly the best defensive player in the Big Ten. Last year, King was tied for second in the NCAA with eight interceptions on his way to winning the Thorpe Award, which released a watch list prior to the season that didn’t even have King’s name on it. He also had 21 passes deflected to go with his career-high 72 tackles. King was a consensus first-team All-American and one of five players to be named as a finalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, making him the only defensive player on that list. While he still would have been an early-round selection had he went in the NFL Draft given his breakout season, his supposed lack of speed and athleticism likely would have prevented him from being a first round pick. Then again, King also had just three offers from Power Five schools when he was coming out of high school, so beating the odds is nothing new for a player who has a legitimate chance to be the first repeat Thorpe Award winner since the award was established in 1986.