Big Ten secondary rankings: How do Michigan football, MSU defensive backs measure up?

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Ohio State regularly seems to lose cornerbacks and safeties to the NFL a year early.

This fall, the Buckeyes almost lost Shaun Wade before the season that wasn’t supposed to be began again. Instead, he is back, and 2020 is another year for the Big Ten’s best pass defense to rebuild around the potential All-American.

A lot of secondaries around the conference are in flux, though most do not have the talent regeneration Ohio State enjoys. But in this offense-dominant era of college football, having defensive backs who can cover and tackle in the open field is more important than ever. Here is how the league's secondaries shape up:

14. Purdue

Cornerback Cory Trice, right, lines up opposite fellow cornerback Simeon Smiley during football practice Monday, August 6, 2018, at Purdue.
Cornerback Cory Trice, right, lines up opposite fellow cornerback Simeon Smiley during football practice Monday, August 6, 2018, at Purdue.

The Buzz: The Boilermakers overhauled their back end, with starting safety Cory Trice back and Dedrick Mackey shifting to cornerback. Junior-college transfer Geovonte' Howard joining Iowa transfer DJ Johnson at the cornerback spots for a defense that has found it difficult to stop the pass in recent years.

[ Ranking the Big Ten's linebacker corps heading into the 2020 season ]

13. Rutgers

Defensive back Avery Young drops back in coverage  during Rutgers football practice this morning at their facility in Piscataway on August 1, 2019.
Defensive back Avery Young drops back in coverage during Rutgers football practice this morning at their facility in Piscataway on August 1, 2019.

The Buzz: The addition of Ohio State grad transfer safety Brendon White, a former Rose Bowl defensive MVP, gives an immediate boost to new coach Greg Schanio’s defense. He’ll join returning safety Christian Izien and starting corner Avery Young, while one-time Ohio State cornerback Tre Avery joins them after making four starts a year ago.

[ Michigan State football's Mel Tucker on his relationship with Greg Schiano ]

12. Iowa

Iowa defensive back Matt Hankins (8) runs a drill during a NCAA football practice on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City.
Iowa defensive back Matt Hankins (8) runs a drill during a NCAA football practice on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City.

The Buzz: The Hawkeyes’ secondary, which often uses five DBs, played steady and ranked fifth in allowing under 200 yards a game last season, but they must replace Geno Stone and Purdue transfer Johnson. Stone’s former partner, corner Matt Hankins is back as a starter, as is safety Jack Koerner. Newcomers Riley Moss and Dane Belton are keys to sustaining last year’s success.

11. Maryland

Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins  tackled by Maryland defensive back Nick Cross during the first quarter at Ohio Stadium.
Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins tackled by Maryland defensive back Nick Cross during the first quarter at Ohio Stadium.

The Buzz: Sophomores fill the defensive backfield, with safety Nick Cross emerging as a starter late last season and Deonte Banks and Vincent Flythe getting time as backup cornerbacks. Senior Antwaine Richardson adds a veteran presence, but safety Jordan Mosley also has starting experience.

[ The only Big Ten ranking that puts Jim Harbaugh behind Mike Locksley ]

10. Michigan State

Sep 21, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans safety Xavier Henderson (3) stops Northwestern Wildcats running back Isaiah Bowser (25) at the one yard line during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans safety Xavier Henderson (3) stops Northwestern Wildcats running back Isaiah Bowser (25) at the one yard line during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Buzz: MSU lost three-year starters in Josiah Scott and David Dowell. Safety Xavier Henderson returns as an emerging star and defensive anchor with senior Tre Person expected alongside him. Cornerback Shakur Brown started at the end of the year, but competition remains for the other starting spot between Julian Barnett, Kalon Gervin, Angelo Grose and others.

[ Michigan State football: Here's how Spartans will fare in every game ]

9. Indiana

The Buzz: Tiawan Mullen, just a sophomore, emerged as one of the league’s top cover corners last season, and Jaylin Williams returns opposite him after emerging as a starter in the second half of 2019 Reese Taylor also made some big plays late in the season. Also back are starting safeties Jamar Johnson and Devon Matthews forming a secondary that could take a step forward.

8. Northwestern

Oct 26, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes running back Tyler Goodson (15) leaps over Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Greg Newsome II (2) and Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chris Bergin (28) during the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 26, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes running back Tyler Goodson (15) leaps over Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Greg Newsome II (2) and Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chris Bergin (28) during the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Buzz: Losing returning starting safety Travis Whillock to an opt-out hurts a secondary that was in the top half of the Big Ten last season in yards allowed but grabbed just seven interceptions. Three starters return in cornerbacks Greg Newsome II and Cameron Ruiz and safety JR Pace, while Brandon Joseph looks to fill Whillock’s absence.

[ Ex-Michigan football star Nico Collins opens up about decision to opt out ]

7. Illinois

Nov 9, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Nate Hobbs (8) breaks up a pass intended for Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Tre Mosley (17) during the first half at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 9, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Nate Hobbs (8) breaks up a pass intended for Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Tre Mosley (17) during the first half at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Buzz: Nate Hobbs is a returning starting corner, while Devon Witherspoon is battling with Marquez Beason and Jartavius Martin, both of whom are coming off injuries, at the opposite spot. Safety Sydney Brown also is back for an Illini secondary that had 12 picks last season — tied for third-most in the Big Ten — and returned four of those for scores.

[ Here's where MSU's Rocky Lombardi, U-M's Joe Milton rank among Big Ten quarterbacks ]

6. Wisconsin

Eric Burrell was one of the UW football players that took to social media to voice his displeasure of the news that university leaders across the nationn were considering postponing the upcoming season until the spring.
Eric Burrell was one of the UW football players that took to social media to voice his displeasure of the news that university leaders across the nationn were considering postponing the upcoming season until the spring.

The Buzz: The Badgers lost Reggie Pearson, putting more onus on talented veteran Eric Burrell, who may be the top safety in the Big Ten. Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson continue to battle for Pearson’s spot. Of the six cornerbacks who return with starting experience, Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams Rachad Wildgoose will blend into base and pass packages atop the depth chart.

5. Minnesota

Minnesota defensive back Benjamin St-Juste (25) tackles Purdue wide receiver David Bell (3) during the second quarter of a NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.
Minnesota defensive back Benjamin St-Juste (25) tackles Purdue wide receiver David Bell (3) during the second quarter of a NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.

The Buzz: The Gophers finished with the league’s second-best pass defense a year ago but must replace Antoine Winfield Jr. at safety. That duty goes to former four-star recruit Tyler Nubin, but he has returning starter Jordan Howden to guide him. Corners Coney Durr and Benjamin St. Juste back to remain strong in the back end.

[ How Michigan plans to slow Minnesota's All-American Rashod Bateman ]

4. Michigan

Michigan Wolverines defensive back Daxton Hill (30) celebrates his tackle against Notre Dame with Brad Hawkins (20) during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Michigan Wolverines defensive back Daxton Hill (30) celebrates his tackle against Notre Dame with Brad Hawkins (20) during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

The Buzz: Though Ambry Thomas declared for draft and left school, the Wolverines are strong down the middle of the field and have the best and most experienced pair of safeties in the league in Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins. How new cornerbacks Gemon Gray and Vincent Green adjust without Thomas in front of them is critical.

[ Michigan 2020 predictions: Here's how Wolverines will fare in every game ]

3. Penn State

Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) celebrates after intercepting a pass against Maryland in the first quarter at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) celebrates after intercepting a pass against Maryland in the first quarter at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.

The Buzz: Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Lamont Wade are returning starters and among the league’s best at their respective positions. Safety Jaquan Brisker is the third senior starter, and their leadership will be needed to bring along cornerback Keaton Ellis.

2. Nebraska

Wisconsin wide receiver Kendric Pryor is unable to stay in bounds while making a catch against Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle during the first quarter Saturday night.
Wisconsin wide receiver Kendric Pryor is unable to stay in bounds while making a catch against Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle during the first quarter Saturday night.

The Buzz: Three of the four starters from last year — cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and safety Marquel Dismuke — return to a Nebraska secondary that allowed just over 200 yards a game and only 14 touchdown passes a year ago with 11 picks. Safety Deontai Williams joins them after suffering a season-ending injury while starting the first game a year ago.

[ Ranking Big Ten offensive lines: Why Michigan football, MSU both fall short ]

1. Ohio State

Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade (24) and Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Marcus Williamson (21) high-five after stretching while warming up during practice at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on October 3, 2020.
Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade (24) and Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Marcus Williamson (21) high-five after stretching while warming up during practice at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on October 3, 2020.

The Buzz: Sure, the Buckeyes lost three starters, but they get back potential All-American cornerback Shaun Wade in a secondary that allowed a Big Ten-low 156 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Goodbye Damon Arnette, Jeff Okudah and Jordan Fuller; hello Sevyn Banks, Marcus Williamson and Marcus Hooker, plus run-stopping backup safety Josh Proctor. The talent and speed is there to be the best in the Big Ten, and ultimately what makes or breaks OSU’s national title hopes.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten secondary rankings: Where do Michigan football, MSU land?