This is part of a summer-long preview put together by the Armchair Big Ten department. We vote weekly on the best players at each position and will provide the ranking every Monday.
- Running Backs
- Wide Receivers
- Tight Ends
- Offensive Linemen
- Defensive Linemen
It’s so close we can taste it. In less than a month, Big Ten football will be back and with plenty to look forward to. We’re nearing the end of our series previewing each position group. While sad, it only means football is coming.
The Big Ten is the proud conference that produced the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman in cornerback Charles Woodson. Ohio State just had two cornerbacks selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. It’s a conference rich in history when it comes to the defensive backfield. Who has the chance to add to that history this season?
2016/17 Stats: 34 Tackles, 1.5 Tackles For Loss, 3 Interceptions, 17 Passes Defended
Fant is Indiana’s first player to be No. 1 on any of these lists, and only their second to make the top-five (Nick Westbrook was the other). The second-team All-Big Ten cornerback is one of the better one-on-one pass defenders in the nation heading into his fifth and final year in Bloomington.
His stats are not glamorous, but that actually speaks to how good he is. Like any shutdown corner, quarterbacks avoid throwing his way. Still, he has far more passes defended than anybody else on this list, and will no doubt help Tom Allen in his attempt to revive the Hoosiers’ program in year one. Along with linebacker Tegray Scales, Fant will be a big piece in a pretty solid defense. Indiana is not among the Big Ten’s elite, but they could certainly become a team to fear in the fall.
2016/17 Stats: 23 Tackles, 9 Passes Defended
Unlike Fant, Ward is one of what feels like 100 Buckeyes to make one of these lists. Despite settling behind first round picks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley in 2016, Ward still had an impact on a dominant Ohio State defense that held strong until that drubbing they took against Clemson in the College Football Playoff.
This season, he should have no problem slotting in as the team’s No. 1 cornerback, and likely with a success rate similar to those that came before him. It was reported in the spring that cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs labeled Ward as “just as good” as Conley and Lattimore. While this has not yet been proven, the guy who has coached some top-tier talent should know. Ward is poised for a breakout campaign.
2016/17 Stats: 108 Tackles, 6 Tackles for Loss, 2 Interceptions, 7 Passes Defended
Igwebuike is our first diversion from the cornerback position toward the center of the field at safety. He has more than double the amount of tackles compared to the cornerbacks on this list, but just as dependable in coverage, posting a couple of interceptions and a few more passes defended.
He had the chance to leap to the NFL and briefly tested the waters by seeing where he could land. However, he elected to return to Evanston where he’ll be a leader of a Northwestern defense hoping to finally push the Wildcats into a legitimate contender. Expect him to hit the century mark in tackles once again while tacking on perhaps another handful of interceptions as quarterbacks avoid cornerback Montre Hartage.
2016/17 Stats: 44 Tackles, 5 Tackles For Loss, 1 Interception, 5 Passes Defended
Similar to Fant, Wharton’s contributions flew under the radar because of some lackluster performances by the team as a whole. Rutgers simply was not good last season. However, the Scarlet Knights are enjoying a bit of a renaissance under second-year coach Chris Ash, and should see vast improvements this season. Wharton will be at the heart of that.
One of many underrated recruits (two stars from 247Sports) to take the field in Piscataway, Wharton has developed into an impressive corner. Rutgers has a history of producing good NFL talent in the defensive backfield—the McCourty twins, Logan Ryan and more. Wharton could be the latest product of that type. If Rutgers does improve as expected this season, don’t be surprised if it’s thanks in part to the play of Wharton.
2016/17 Stats: 60 Tackles, 2.5 Tackles For Loss, 4 Interceptions, 4 Passes Defended
Dixon may not have the amount of tackles as the only other safety on this list, but he’s a different breed. The converted corner still has an eye for the ball, grabbing more interceptions than anybody else on this list—including cornerbacks. He was tied for fifth in the conference in picks last season.
Just because he’s a ballhawking safety, though, doesn’t mean he’s limited in other facets of the game. He still gets after it, can penetrate behind the line of scrimmage and operates well as the last line of defense. Wisconsin’s struggles offensively in the past have often been excused by the defense. If that’s the case this season, Dixon should play a large part in that.
Also Received Votes
- Montre Hartage, Northwestern
- Derrick Tindal, Wisconsin
- J.C. Jackson, Maryland
- Grant Haley, Penn State
- Chris Jones, Nebraska
- Damon Webb, Ohio State
Next Week: Kickers/Punters