The start of the college football season is just a few short weeks away and it promises to be an entertaining race in the Big Ten. Now, if you are an Ohio State fan, you are hoping it is not too interesting, especially after coming up short last season. But the other 13 teams have scholarships and uniforms too and there is no denying that there is plenty of talent spread out around this conference.
It got us to thinking about the top players at specific positions going into the season. Ohio State fans are always well-aware of who their favorite team has but what about the rest of the teams in the league?
The defensive tackle position is often overlooked as eyes are either drawn to rush ends or cornerbacks when it comes to a fan watching the game of football.
But make no mistake, the play of defensive tackle is critical in terms of the success of a defense and while these guys are called “big nasties” on the field, we have a special place in our hearts for them as they are asked just to get things done.
Who is the best in the Big Ten? Let’s take a quick look at our preseason list.
5. Branson Deen – Purdue
You probably are not going to Purdue right now for a lot of defensive players because Ryan Kerrigan is not walking through that door, but Deen is an intriguing player who was named honorable mention All-B1G last season.
Last season Deen had four sacks and was second on the team with 9.5 TFLs for the Boilermakers. The crazy thing is that Deen only has 15 career starts, 11 of them occurring last season, so he still is finding his groove, but this will be his last go-round as a redshirt senior for Purdue.
He may not be as much of a known name as the other four on this list, but we will be watching him closely.
4. Jacob Slade – Michigan State
Slade has been a fixture in the Michigan State defense and has the postseason decorations to show for it as a first-team All-Big Ten by PFF and second team All-Big Ten by the Associated Press.
Last season was a big one with 40 tackles, five sacks and 2.5 TFLs, all career bests for Slade but even more impressive is the reported 40 QB pressures (by PFF) that Slade had, the most out of any Big Ten interior lineman and good for 10th in the nation last season.
Slade is a large presence on the line, checking in at a reported 6-foot-4, 315 pounds and has been named to the preseason Outland and Lombardi watch lists.
Oh, and he is a Central Ohio product, playing his high school football at Olentangy high school before heading off to East Lansing (Mich.).
3. P.J. Mustipher – Penn State
The 6-foot-4, 321 pounder was named second-team All-B1G by the coaches after the 2021 season and that was after only playing in six games last season before being lost with a leg injury for the rest of the season.
So, the numbers are not really there from last year to compare with other players who made and just missed the list, but when Mustipher is healthy, he is a problem for interior offensive lines to keep in check.
2. Mazi Smith – Michigan
The top spots were almost interchangeable between Mazi Smith and Keeanu Benton. There is no denying that Smith is an incredible athlete, regardless of his size. But couple that with being 6-foot-3, 337 pounds, it is saying something. But how will Smith look this year without having Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo on the outside forcing teams to contend with one or both of them and leaving Smith more single coverage?
There may not be a player on this list with a higher upside than Smith and even with pieces around him that are not as experienced, this really feels like a breakout year for the super-athletic defensive tackle as he will become more of a focal point of the defense. No, he will not put up “Edge” type of numbers, but that is not expected out of many defensive tackles.
1. Keeanu Benton – Wisconsin
Benton is everything that you want in a nose tackle, 6-foot-4, 315-pounds and nasty. You think of players from the state of Wisconsin, and you immediately think of offensive linemen but Benton, who is from nearby Janesville (Wis.) is the type of defensive tackle that everyone wants, at least he is now, he only held two offers coming out of high school, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Last year saw Benton start all 13 games for the Badgers, have five TFLs and 2.5 sacks along with a pair of forced fumbles and pass breakups.
Where is the difference between Benton and Smith? Benton has more experience with 24 career starts, 33 games played, and we are going to give the edge there.
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