Before diving into the top 10 candidates to win Big Ten defensive player of the year, let’s first focus on who won’t be winning it.

A safety.

The conference began awarding a defensive player of the year in 1990. But only once has a safety ever been extended the honor — Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, who played more of a linebacker/safety hybrid when he won the award in 2016. In fact, he was also named the Big Ten linebacker of the year that season.

That’s unfortunate news for Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin and Ohio State’s Lathan Ransom, both of whom are all-American candidates. The trouble for a really good safety is it’s hard to rack up enough stats to win this kind of award — opposing offenses don’t want the ball anywhere near you.

With the back end of the defense out of the picture — we didn’t make the rules, we just noticed them — here are 10 potential candidates for Big Ten defensive player of the year in 2023.

10. Michigan DT Kris Jenkins

It can also be tough to pad stats when you’re taking double teams as a defensive tackle, but in the Big Ten those big guys still get recognized. Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon won defensive player of the year in 2020, as did Penn State’s Devon Still in 2011.

Jenkins, who led Michigan defensive linemen in tackles last season, has a chance to make a major impact for a championship team.

9. Penn State CB Kalen King

This is not to suggest that there are 8 better defensive players than King in the B1G. But it is to suggest that opposing teams are going to avoid throwing towards him if at all possible, so he’s going to need to take advantage of those limited opportunities to be an award-winner.

Last year, he led the B1G in passes defended because opponents were avoiding teammate Joey Porter Jr. This year, King will be the avoided one.

8. Penn State LB Abdul Carter

Last year, Carter became just the second Nittany Lion freshman ever to record 10 tackles for loss and 6 sacks in a single season. He also became the first Penn State linebacker of any class to pull off the feat since Dan Connor in 2007.

Given the typical developmental curve, 2024 seems more likely to be Carter’s year to prove himself as the Big Ten’s top defensive player. But he may not be developing at a typical pace.

7. Illinois DT Johnny Newton

Pro Football Focus grades Newton as the top returning defensive tackle in the country, and there likely aren’t many Big Ten coaches who would go out on a limb to dispute that point. (Jim Harbaugh, ever the Michigan loyalist, would likely prove the exception.)

Newton led the revitalized Illini defense in tackles for loss and sacks last season. He also tied for the national lead with 19 quarterback hits, according to PFF.

That’s pretty heady stuff for a defensive tackle. If he keeps it up, he’s a capable candidate.

6. Penn State DE Chop Robinson

In his first season after transferring from Maryland, Robinson was named honorable mention all-B1G with 10 TFL and 5.5 sacks. Robinson needs to make a junior jump to take home the hardware, but he seems capable of that task.

5. Ohio State DE Jack Sawyer

After Sawyer played Ohio State’s hybrid outside linebacker/end position last year, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles decided to let Sawyer keep his hand in the dirt for 2023. And that’s likely to net a positive outcome for both Sawyer and the Buckeyes.

Sawyer also has the benefit of playing on the opposite side of JT Tuimolaou, who is going to be the focal point of opposing blocking schemes. With that, Sawyer will have a chance to take full advantage.

4. Michigan LB Junior Colson

Colson’s time has arrived as the leader of Michigan’s defense, and that role often produces laurels. Devin Bush was the 2018 Big Ten player of the year filling said role to perfection.

Colson’s 15-tackle performance against Purdue in the Big Ten championship game would be the performance that set the tone for his 2023 if he does go on to win.

3. Iowa DB Cooper DeJean

Ballhawks win awards, and there’s nobody better at the artform in the B1G than DeJean. He converted 3 of his 5 interceptions last season into touchdowns. DeJean was also fourth in the league with 13 passes defended.

But as always, there’s a catch.

Opposing offenses were prone to avoiding teammate Riley Moss, who is now an NFL rookie. This year teams will be passing where DeJean isn’t — but if he still puts up big numbers, that will be hard to ignore.

2. Ohio State LB Tommy Eichenberg

Like 2022 Big Ten defensive player of the year Jack Campbell, Eichenberg is a tackling machine. He finished second in the B1G to Campbell with 108 tackles — although Eichenberg actually recorded 15 more solo stops than the Butkus Award winner.

The only man preventing Eichenberg from being the odds-on favorite for Big Ten defensive player of the year is his own teammate.

1. Ohio State DE JT Tuimoloau

If Tuimoloau’s performance against Penn State last year is a sign of things to come in his junior season, the party’s over for the rest of the Big Ten.

Tuimoloau haunted the Nittany Lions with 6 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 2 interceptions — the last of which he returned for a touchdown. There cannot be 10 better performances by a defensive player in Big Ten history.

That singular performance remains the moment that defines Tuimoloau. Maybe it will go down as a 1-game wonder, but that feels quite unlikely. Anybody who can do that once can figure out how to dominate at a consistent level.

If he does, this is his award to lose.