Meet 5 candidates to be the next great Big Ten edge rusher
The SEC likes to claim football superiority in just about every category, but the Big Ten is doing very well for itself in 1 particular department over the past half-decade.
When it comes to producing high-end pass rushers, it’s hard to do much better than the Big Ten. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson was the 4th B1G edge rusher selected in the top 3 picks of the NFL Draft since 2016. Hutchinson joined the company of Ohio State’s Joey Bosa (3rd, 2016), Nick Bosa (2nd, 2019) and Chase Young (2020, 2nd).
And not all of the value is found at the top of the draft.
Wisconsin’s TJ Watt, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, went 30th in 2017. Penn State’s Odafe Oweh was taken 31st by the Ravens last year and finished 4th among rookies with 5 sacks. (Former Penn State teammate Micah Parsons was the leader in that category, but he’s a traditional outside linebacker who happens to dominate at rushing the passer.)
This year, 5 Big Ten edge rushers were among the first 45 draft picks. Hutchinson was followed by Purdue’s George Karlaftis (30th), Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie (38th), Minnesota’s Boye Mafe (40th) and Michigan teammate David Ojabo (45th). It seems likely that at least 1 All-Pro season will come from that group.
But the departure of so much talent at the same time also leads quite a void.
Who will be the Big Ten’s next great pass rusher?
The following 5 players, presented in alphabetical order, are solid candidates to lay claim to that mantle.
Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State
Harrison led all Ohio State defensive linemen with 33 tackles last season, including 7 for loss and 3 sacks. He was voted 2nd team All-Big Ten by media and 3rd team by coaches.
Granted, that’s the type of production fans were likely expecting out of Harrison as a freshman. The 5-star recruit was once pegged to fill the void left by Young.
Harrison contemplated entering this year’s NFL Draft, which probably would not have gone well given the depth at his position. Paired with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, he will have an opportunity to improve his stock considerably. Knowles comes from Oklahoma State, where both of his starting defensive ends ranked in the top 4 of the Big 12 in sacks last season.
Kydran Jenkins, DE, Purdue
There is a caveat here — Jenkins clearly benefitted from playing opposite Karlaftis, who often drew double- and triple-teams from opponents. It remains to be seen what he’s capable of doing as the guy being laser-pointed in film study.
But Jenkins tied Karlaftis for the team lead with 5 sacks, and finished 3rd on the Boilermakers with 8 tackles for loss. For a redshirt freshman, that’s pretty impressive work.
With another couple seasons of development, we may see him become every bit as beastly as Karlaftis.
Ochaun Mathis, DE, Nebraska
Mathis was one of the most sought-after players in the transfer portal. The former TCU Horned Frog ultimately chose the Cornhuskers over Texas in a very Big 12 circa-2010 recruitment battle.
Mathis may turn out to be the top defensive transfer in the Big Ten next season. In 2020, he was 2nd in the Big 12 with 9 sacks and 3rd with 14 tackles for loss in a pandemic-shortened 10-game season.
Actually, forget the transfer label. It’s not unthinkable for Mathis to follow Hutchinson as the Big Ten defensive player of the year.
Garrett Nelson, OLB, Nebraska
Best-case scenario for Nebraska next season? Nelson becomes the Ojabo to Mathis’ Hutchinson. And perhaps that is the tandem that resuscitates the Huskers the way Hutchinson and Ojabo led Michigan back to prominence last season.
Nelson had 11.5 tackles and 5 sacks in 2021 — literally the same numbers as Karlaftis at Purdue. And though he plays a different position than Karlaftis, he does appear to play with the same maniacal motor.
With the addition of Mathis, Nelson could have a breakthrough season. Most likely, both with benefit from each other’s presence.
Jeff Pietrowski, DE, Michigan State
Technically speaking, Pietrowski was Michigan State’s No. 3 defensive end last year behind seniors Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley. But the then-sophomore proved difficult to keep off the field for very long.
Pietrowski finished 2nd on the Spartans in sacks (5.5) and 3rd in tackles for loss (7). He also proved quite disruptive, creating 3 forced fumbles while recovering another.
Pietrowski should be playing considerably more snaps this season. With that, it’s conceivable he’ll be top-3 in the B1G in sacks and TFL rather than just on his own roster.