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?
Safety is so important that Ohio State will have three of them on the field at a time under the new Jim Knowles defense, but even in a defense with just a pair, safety play often goes overlooked by the casual fan, but coaches spend plenty of time trying to get the most out of the position.
Hit, cover, run? All of that, and more, please.
The Buckeyes have themselves a star in the making at the top of the list but who else makes the cut?
5. Cam Allen – Purdue
Things got a little confusing at this point, can you put Josh Proctor here? There were plenty of deserving candidates, but we opted to go with the senior safety from Purdue.
Allen had four picks last year to lead Purdue and racked up 65 tackles on the season.
He was a 13-game starter last year for Purdue and was a steady performer for a pass defense that was in the national top-50 in both passing yards allowed and pass efficiency defense.
4. Avery Young – Rutgers
Generally, players want to move from corner to safety, not the other way around, but Young moved to safety before the 2021 season and has flourished in the move.
Young was second on the team with 78 tackles with two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in year one at his new position.
Now, he is far from a finished product and will be the first to admit that he has way to go. But if there is a player to buy stock in, it may be Young as Greg Schiano continues to build to lift the Scarlet Knights out of the Big Ten East cellar and into being a mostly competitive team within the conference (he would not say mostly, but we are just keeping it real).
3. Ji’Ayir Brown – Penn State
If you were not careful with your pass, Brown was going to intercept it, to the tune of six picks last season. Add to that the number of nine passes defended, 73 total tackles and a partridge in a pear tree and you can see that Brown is another top player. In fact, the top three players may be interchangeable in the rankings as all three have so many things going for them.
Brown is a crafty veteran, going into his fifth season. He came through the JUCO ranks, but this will now be year number three at Penn State, if James Franklin is ever going to see that elusive ‘elite’ team, Brown is going to have to carry the water along with fellow DB Joey Porter Jr. to get the Lions there until the offense figures out how to score consistently.
2. Xavier Henderson – Michigan State
Henderson had some good numbers last year but was part of a terrible secondary from a statistical standpoint. Will 2022 be any different? What won’t is the fact that Henderson is a solid player and will excel at the next level when given the opportunity.
Henderson played a big role in run defense and had 96 tackles last year, 10 for loss. We know he can hit but will there be guys around him who will be able to help him cover as teams picked the Spartans apart through the air as MSU was 130 out of 130 in passing defense (close to 325 yards per game).
1. Ronnie Hickman – Ohio State
Hickman was a major part of the Ohio State defense last season, and his 100 combined tackles was 36 more than anyone else on the team (Tommy Eichenberg).
A big thing with putting Hickman over Henderson is that for all of Ohio State’s defensive woes, the Buckeye secondary was not exactly viewed as a liability last season where the Michigan State secondary was a mess, and you have to wonder how that sticks with a player after the fact.
Ohio State’s new three safety configuration will be new with Hickman likely sharing responsibilities with Josh Proctor and Tanner McCalister, so will Hickman’s tackles number go down while some of his production numbers go up? We are thinking yes and are just getting out ahead of this with our expectation that Hickman will end up first-team All-B1G come December.