Make Or Break Players – Big Ten West Defense

The Big Ten West gets started a little bit earlier than the rest of the country, as Nebraska heads to Champaign to take on the Illini in the “zero week” on August 28th. Week one consists of Minnesota trying to topple the top five Buckeyes, and Wisconsin hosting the Nittany Lions. Also, Iowa has arguably the toughest start to their season in all of college football, hosting Indiana week one and heading to Ames week two to play rival Iowa State.

The western division is not only trying to get past some of these powerful out-of-conference foes, such as Iowa State and Notre Dame, but the eastern division squads as well. Since the formation of the east and west divisions in 2014, no team from the west has won the Big Ten Championship Game. That has to be a hard pill to swallow for schools like Northwestern and Wisconsin, who have been stonewalled by Ohio State twice each in the last four years.

It is imperative for these squads to come out of the gate hot and carry that momentum onward. With this piece, we’re going to look at some players who will play critical roles in helping the Big Ten West up to the mountaintop:

Illinois Illini: OLB Owen Carney Jr.

This one will be really fun to watch, as Carney Jr. is in the midst of a transition period. Illinois is making the move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, which moves Carney Jr. from an end slot to a standup edge-rushing linebacker. Turning the corner may take time for him to execute coming in from a different spot, but he still has the strength to overpower the edge.

His five sacks last season are just a glimpse of his capability and if the position change is seamless, watch out. Also, it’s very possible that Carney Jr. racks up the first sack of the 2021 collegiate season. Illinois takes on Nebraska at noon on that August 28th contest, and that gives him one hour before game the second game starts to lead the NCAA in sacks, if only for a few minutes.

Iowa Hawkeyes: DE Zach VanValkenburg

In 2021, the Hawkeyes will be responsible for replacing two defensive line starters who are now in the NFL. Both Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon finished the 2020 campaign with 5.5 sacks each. Replacing their 11 sacks certainly won’t be easy, but VanValkenburg looks poised to give it a shot.

He’s got great size for a strong side defensive end and even learned some good tools from previous first-round selection, A.J. Epenesa. The Hawkeyes were the best defense in the country in yards per play last season, much to the credit of that strong line. If it wants to come anywhere close to that mark again in 2021, VanValkenburg has to play like his hair is on fire.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: DT Nyles Pinckney

One of my favorite storylines in college football heading into week one is here with Pinckney. He’s a transfer from Clemson who honestly was ousted by the up-and-coming freshman and sophomore talents. His last football game for the Tigers was a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. The funny thing is that transferring to Minnesota puts him in line to play against the Buckeyes for a second straight game.

He’s a strong interior lineman who will be the day one starter for the Golden Gophers, and help try to slow down the running games of Iowa and Wisconsin. He’s even been used as a fullback at Clemson on goal-line situations, so that’s something that P.J. Fleck could look into. All in all, Pinckney’s presence will give someone in the locker room who has played in those huge games and provide veteran leadership on and off the field.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: CB Cam Taylor-Britt

If the Cornhuskers want to rise from the floor of the Big Ten, it comes from a relentless effort like Taylor-Britt gives. It’s rare to see such hitting force from a corner, but he’s definitely got it. I love the way he attacks not only the ball carrier but the ball itself, as he’s caused numerous fumbles in his career.

The only concern with him is the way that college football is played now: he has to be careful to not get those targeting calls. He’s been on the wrong side of it before, but you cannot take anything away from his competitiveness. As long as he continues to create turnovers in the passing game as well, the ball will likely keep traveling to the other side of the field, essentially boxing the other offenses in. Nebraska’s whole defense needs to improve their run-stuffing abilities to take advantage of this.

Northwestern Wildcats: S Brandon Joseph

Another player that I had touched base on in my sophomore standouts piece. In a short and sweet manner, Joseph is a ball hawk who always is in the right place at the right time. His six interceptions in only nine games played are really just the tip of the iceberg on what seems to be a boatload of untapped potential. A steady improvement this year will possibly have his name flying up the draft boards, potentially creating an early college exit.

Purdue Boilermakers: DE George Karlaftis

There are few players in college football who can consistently play all four defensive line spots, and Karlaftis is one of them. At the next level, he will be running a 4-3 defensive end, like he is listed in West Lafayette. Regardless, he can rush from the weak or strong side, or just bull rush up the middle.

Karlaftis is incredibly strong for his size and possesses strong but quick hands to fight off blocks. Teams will have to consistently game plan against him, lining up chip blocks and double teams. If he can manage to capitalize on those opportunities where he is left one-on-one, then Purdue may be able to force some turnovers. After a shortened 2020 for Karlaftis, I really see this as a massive one-and-done season, as he becomes an early-round draft pick.

Wisconsin Badgers: ILB Jack Sanborn

When you look at some of the best attackers from the inside linebacker spot in the country, Sanborn’s name has to be on the list. Not the flashiest of guys and certainly not the quickest, but my goodness he is a star. Anytime the Badgers make a tackle on defense, it’s almost as if #57 is there every time.

As much as Madison has been an offensive lineman factory since the turn of the century, they’ve been just as efficient at pumping out linebackers in the last five or so seasons. Sanborn will certainly add his name to the list of Badgers drafted following this season, but not without one last show. Anything short of 100 stops for him this season will be deemed as a failure in his eyes.

Derek Worley

Sports Analyst

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