If every single Big Ten football player got together for a game of backyard football, Raekwon McMillan would be the first defensive player picked. No, this wouldn’t be due to assured captain J.T. Barrett choosing his teammate over everyone else; there just simply isn’t another defender in the mid-west with a better combination of production and pure talent.
This is not a discussion on who is the ‘most valuable’ defensive player in the Big-Ten, rather the best defender in the Big Ten. Potential is great, but as Urban Meyer has said, “After you’ve been here six months if you’re tagged with the term, ‘you have a lot of potential,’ that’s really a bad thing. That means you’re not very good, but you should be.”
Who is the best defender in the Big Ten? You already know my answer, but let’s give the other deserving nominees credit as well. CBS sports recently released their preseason All-American list, and while I refuse to accept that The Big Bang Theory is actually America’s most watched television series, the CBS college football team is great. On the first and second teams, six Big Ten defenders were named. Let’s take a look at the contenders for the Big Ten’s defender championship belt.
No. 6: Jabrill Peppers - Cornerback/Safety/Linebacker/Running Back/Receiver - Michigan
I recently touched on why Jabrill Peppers may be the best player Ohio State faces in 2016, and this point still holds true: Peppers is extremely talented and is poised for a fantastic season. But as far as ‘best’ goes, Peppers simply doesn’t have the collegiate production to challenge for this title.
Peppers off-season noise has vastly exceeded his in-season production. Heisman talk is abound, and people just cannot stop gushing about Michigan’s freak athlete who can do it all....except create big plays on defense, which you’d think would be a prerequisite for getting this kind of attention. I’m half-joking - Peppers made plenty of big plays in 2015 - but this is serious: Peppers has yet to record a collegiate interception, sack, forced fumble, or fumble recovery. It’d be shocking if this is still the case three months from now, but for the time being, Peppers is more hype than reality.
No. 5: Malik McDowell - Defensive Lineman - Michigan State
Malik McDowell is the guy who got credit for blocking Cameron Johnston’s last punt during the 2015 Ohio State - Michigan State match-up, but more importantly: McDowell has more career interceptions and defensive touchdowns than Jabrill Peppers. In all seriousness, McDowell is an athletic beast that Michigan State can utilize all over the defensive front, and his 12 solo tackles for a loss tied for seventh in the Big Ten in 2015. With Shilique Calhoun gone, McDowell is now the Spartans’ ace on the defensive line, a role that could lead to even more production.
No. 4: Anthony Walker - Linebacker - Northwestern
The Big Ten’s 2015 leader in tackles for a loss, Anthony Walker knows a thing or two about making plays in the opponent’s backfield. A former high school safety turned linebacker, Walker totaled 10 tackles (3 for a loss) against Stanford, and was the main catalyst behind forcing Christian McCaffrey into his worst game of 2015.
Walker is entering his third (and likely final) season with the Wildcats, but will be tested against the Big Ten’s elite for the first time in his career. After not facing either Michigan State or Ohio State in his first two seasons, Walker will get to show just how good he really is on the road against two likely top 20 opponents.
No. 3: Jourdan Lewis - Cornerback - Michigan
It’s almost a little shocking how overlooked Jourdan Lewis has been this off-season. His inclusion as a first team All-American obviously doesn’t typically denote “overlooked”, but we’re talking about a guy who was Michigan’s best secondary player a season ago. For all the talk about how versatile Peppers is, Lewis recorded more tackles than his teammate in 2015, and also produced 2 interceptions, 20 pass deflections (Peppers had 10), a forced fumble and a really pretty pick-six.
Lewis has a very real case as one of America’s best secondary players, but his smaller stature (5’10” 175 lbs) has been his undoing against some of the country’s bigger wide receivers. New Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown loves to bring pressure, so don’t be shocked if Lewis finds a way to match his 4 career interceptions in 2016 alone.
No. 2: Desmond King - Cornerback - Iowa
With 8 interceptions in 2015, Desmond King finished tied for second in the entire country - but first in the hearts of America as King won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually given to the nation’s top defensive back. The Hawkeyes’ three-year starting corner, King has never totaled less than 64 tackles, and he even served as Iowa’s kick and punt returner in 2015. Despite being considered a potential first round pick in the 2015 draft, King decided to return to Iowa City.
King could easily be first on this list, but again: we are looking for the single best defensive player. King does what he’s asked to do in Iowa’s defense, and that is to be an electrifying ball hawk. Still, King had six games in 2015 where he didn’t record a single tackle, and more or less stayed put as Iowa’s boundary corner. King has the ability to potentially play either safety or corner at the next level, but as of right now: King can be avoided by simply not throwing to his side of the field. This cannot be said for the final player on our list:
No. 1: Raekwon McMillan -Linebacker - Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan is an absolute beast. A potential top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL draft, McMillan combines incredible productivity with even better physical traits. At 6’2 240 lbs., McMillan has speed that had Wisconsin among other schools calling the former 5-star recruit to talk about playing running back. McMillan was rarely asked to blitz in 2015, instead he roamed sideline-to-sideline, racking up 119 tackles along the way: the 4th most in the Big Ten.
On a defense with three first round picks, it’s fair to wonder if McMillan’s productivity was a result of the talent around him. In reality, McMillan often cleaned up the mistakes of his talented teammates, and was the middle-man for a defense that gave up just 3.38 yards per rush. 2016 may bring out the best in McMillan, as the Junior captain will now be the undisputed leader of the Silver Bullets.
Cornerbacks and wide receivers often steal the show with big plays and touchdowns, but football will always be won in the trenches. The Big Ten boasts some of the brightest defensive stars in the entire country, but one man’s production and pure talent stands shines the brightest: Raekwon McMillan ‘The Chosen One’.