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You’re Nuts: Who is the best returning non-OSU DE in the Big Ten?

Which defensive ends should you be on the lookout for in 2021?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Minnesota at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who is the best returning non-OSU DE in the Big Ten?

Josh’s take: Zach VanVulkenburg, DE - Iowa

With all the talent along Ohio State’s defensive line, picking the best non-OSU player at this position is like picking the best pizza topping after pepperoni, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, banana peppers and green peppers are all gone. Choosing a Wolverine or Boilermaker is like choosing pineapple: you don’t feel good about it, and you know it’s a terrible decision. That being said, Gene, sometimes we need to put our rivalries or biases aside to make the right call. I am going to fall on the sword here and pick Aidan Hutchinson from TTUN.

Just kidding! My pettiness has no limitations, and I will never pick a player from that dreadful school. I actually think Zach VanVulkenburg from Iowa will surprise people in 2021, and become more than a household name. While he has nearly a decade of experience in college football, he has only played 12 games for the Hawkeyes. In a pandemic-shortened 2020, he showed a nose for the ball and earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors. If he continues to develop, he could become the next A.J. Epenesa or Chauncey Golston — recent Hawkeye DE’s taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

VanValkenburg spent three seasons in Division II prior to joining the Iowa program as a graduate transfer. He redshirted his first season at Hillsdale College, but made a significant impact for the Hillsdale Chargers in 2017 and 2018. He was named the Great Midwest Athletic Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year as a redshirt sophomore, recording 70 tackles, including 14.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks. While the level of competition is clearly inferior to the Big Ten, those numbers are impressive. 14.5 tackles for loss at any level shows an ability to create negative plays, and in the modern era of high-powered offenses, that is saying something.

VanVulkenburg saw limited action for the Hawkeyes in 2019, but that was to be expected and not an indictment on his talent. The team had Epenesa and Golston on the ends, and future stud Daviyon Nixon in the middle. All three went on to earn various Big Ten honors at some point in their careers, and relegated VanVulkenburg to backup duties. The former DII standout replaced Epenesa as a starter in 2020 and proved that he can be a disruptive defender at a higher level

Even without a traditional spring, VanVulkenburg showed significant improvement from 2019. Starting opposite Golston, the fifth-year player from out of nowhere became a force to reckon with. He recorded 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks in eight games for Iowa last season, but those stats do not capture his overall impact. At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, VanVulkenburg is solidly built for an edge defender. He is equally adept at rushing the passer and making stops in the run game. More impressively, he recovered four fumbles, putting him in a tie for most in the NCAA.

VanVulkenburg does not “wow” you in way that Chase Young or one of the Bosas did, but he is consistently good. He is similar to a lot of other guys from Iowa in that respect. Kirk Ferentz, as overrated as he is, develops players. Brandon Scherff, George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, and Tristan Wirfs are just a few examples — and I already mentioned the defensive line talent the Hawkeyes have put into the NFL in recent seasons. VanVulkenburg could be next.

I like his potential to be the best in the Big Ten for a few specific reasons. Experience is his biggest advantage. As far as impactful defensive lineman in the league go, he has arguably the most. Some of it was at a lower level, but he has spent five seasons in college football programs, which should not be discounted. He has seen all the blocking schemes and play action passes; he just knows what to do out there.

VanVulkeburg is also a multi-dimensional player. He can get after the quarterback or chase down a ball carrier, and he should not be taken off the field in certain situations. As much as I love a guy like Zach Harrison, I view him as a pass-rushing specialist. VanVulkenburg will play a ton of downs, and get a ton of opportunities to make plays. Playing time is another factor, as Iowa doesn’t have the depth of talent that a team like Ohio State does. They don’t have a “Rushmen Package”, with a bunch of guys rotating. The sixth-year senior should be a high-usage and highly productive player.

My pick is not flashy, but I am going out on a limb here. I really like Gene’s choice, but there is some uncertainty there. VanVulkenburg has shown steady improvement, and plays for a program which has shown the ability to turn solid linemen into great linemen. If he continues to ascend and create negative plays and turnovers, I will feel even better about the pick.

Gene’s take: George Karlaftis, DE - Purdue

I’m gonna be totally honest here. With Ohio State having not played Iowa last season, I don't think I saw a single second of Hawkeye football in 2020, and so I was unaware of VanVulkenburg’s existence. However, having read Josh’s take and watching some highlights of the edge rusher, I do think he is a very solid choice and will be a player to keep an eye on this year. That being said, it doesn’t make me feel any less confident in the pick that I was going to make all along, and that is Purdue’s star defensive player George Karlaftis.

Like many of the joys of college football that were stripped from us in the pandemic-shortened season a year ago, we did not get to see much of Karlaftis in 2020, as he only played in three games as a result of a positive COVID-19 test and a leg injury. Even still, Karlaftis managed to lead Purdue with a pair of sacks, and was named Second Team All-Big Ten. While his presence was sorely missed in the Boilermakers’ 2-4 campaign, Karlaftis is now fully healthy and ready to get back to terrorizing opponents’ offensive lines in 2021 — when Ohio State and Purdue are scheduled to rematch for the first time since the upset in West Lafayette in 2018.

There was never really a doubt that Karlaftis would end up in the black and gold despite earning national attention, as he grew up right in West Lafayette. He took only two official visits, one to Purdue and the other to USC. A four-star recruit and the nation’s No. 59 overall player and No. 4 strong-side defensive end in 2019, Indiana’s top-ranked prospect committed to the Boilermakers on Oct. 20, 2017. Karlaftis was Purdue’s highest-rated recruit in the 2019 class, just ahead of star wide receiver David Bell as the program’s two premier players in that cycle. Much to the delight of Jeff Brohm, both of those players have lived up to their hype.

Karlaftis was an absolute stud in his only full season thus far as a freshman in 2019. Playing in and starting all 12 games for the Boilermakers, he tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks and racked up a whopping team-high 17 tackles for loss. On top of that, he finished third on the team with 54 total tackles, including 30 solo stops, while also recording an interception and a forced fumble. Karlaftis piled up the accolades for his tremendous efforts, earning a First-Team Freshman All-American selection and being named Second-Team All-Big Ten — missing out on the first team thanks to names like Chase Young, A.J. Epenesa and Yetur Gross-Matos.

He is expected to have a huge season this year, named to the 2021 Chuck Bednarik Award watch list — given to the nation’s best defensive player — and is projected to be one of the best defensive linemen on the board in the 2022 NFL Draft. In fact, many expect him to be the first first-rounder to come out of Purdue in over 10 years.

At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, Karlaftis is a big dude that moves well and simply disrupts plays almost every time he’s on the field. He has showcased his versatility in his first two years at Purdue, playing mostly on the edge but also spending some time on the interior when the Boilermakers switched to an odd front in 2020. That size and ability to excel at multiple positions along the defensive line make him a huge threat for opposing blockers across the board, and will only increase his value when NFL Draft time comes.

What’s even more impressive about Karlaftis is that he was born in Athens, Greece, and did not play a down of football until he moved to the states in eighth grade. However, always a superb athlete, it was clear from the jump that he would be successful in almost any sport he chose to pick up. He became a state champion in the shot-put as a sophomore and junior at West Lafayette High School, and also competed at a high level as a javelin thrower. That excellent upper-body strength has clearly transferred over to the football field, where he can use that strength to bully his way toward opposing quarterbacks.

Now healthy, Karlaftis should easily be one of the most dominant defensive players in the Big Ten Conference. Luckily for Ohio State, the Buckeyes feature two of the premier offensive tackles in the country in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, which should help slow the dynamic playmaker a little bit when the two teams meet in Columbus, but his ability to move around on defense still makes him a big threat on any given play. Karlaftis is a name you will hear a bunch this season, not only just within the Big Ten, but among the college football world at large as one of the best defensive linemen in the country.