Naming the preseason defensive MVP for each Big Ten team in 2022
We’ve reached the anticipation stage of the college football offseason.
Rosters, for the most part, should be set. Now we just need the season to get here.
Until then, it’s speculation season. And today’s speculation turns to Big Ten defenses. With a slew of stars headed to the NFL, several teams will need new leaders to step up in 2022.
These guys will be up to the task.
Illinois: S Sydney Brown
Kerby Joseph, a third-round pick for the Detroit Lions, is the toughest player for Bret Bielema to replace on his defense next year. Fortunately he has a suitable candidate in Joseph’s running mate at the back end of the Illini defense.
Brown was Illinois’ leading tackler with 81 stops last season, including 50 solos. He also had a pair of forced fumbles.
Brown was named 3rd team all-B1G back in 2019, so he’s capable of a big season.
Indiana: CB Tiawan Mullen
No player was more sorely missed by Tom Allen last season than Mullen, who only started 4 games on account of injuries. In some regards it may have been a blessing in disguise for the Hoosiers — without those injuries, Mullen almost certainly would have been drafted this offseason.
In 2020, he was a first team all-American. Mullen led all Big Ten defensive backs in sacks and tackles for loss, and was 6th in the conference with 3 interceptions in the shortened season. He’ll be back among the Big Ten’s best this year.
Iowa: LB Jack Campbell
The Hawkeyes have defensive playmakers at all 3 levels, so selecting an MVP is no easy task. But I’ll give Campbell the edge thanks to his knack for coming up with the football at the most opportune moments. From forced fumbles to recovered fumbles to interceptions, Campbell is the embodiment of Phil Parker’s opportunistic defense.
He’s also making plays when he’s not separating the ball carrier from the ball. Campbell’s 143 tackles were 2nd in the Big Ten, and the most recorded by a Hawkeye since Pat Angerer in 2009.
Maryland: CB Jakorian Bennett
An all-Big Ten honorable mention a year ago, Bennett has what it takes to move up the pecking order this season. Indeed, you wonder if that respect already would have been earned if Bennett wasn’t playing on such a porous defense.
Bennett was 6th in the FBS with 16 pass breakups, which was the highest total for a Terp since Domonique Foxworth batted away 22 passes in 2003. Foxworth went on to have a 6-year NFL career.
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If a few more of those PBUs become INTs in 2022, Bennett will have everyone’s attention.
Michigan: LB Junior Colson
No defense was more ravaged by the NFL Draft than Michigan’s. Gone are Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Dax Hill. So too is Josh Ross, who joined Wolverines defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens.
There are many voids to fill. Colson, who was 4th on the team with 61 tackles as a freshman, will need to be among the players stepping up.
Michigan State: DT Jacob Slade
To channel the spirit of John Madden, it must be said: a guy named Jacob Slade just sounds like he’d play defensive tackle. And Slade plays defensive tackle well, earning 2nd team all-B1G distinction last season.
The Peach Bowl was a likely harbinger of things to come. Slade was 1 of the best players on the field, finishing with 6 tackles (2 TFL) and 1.5 sacks against Pitt. He’ll be among the most disruptive interior linemen in the Big Ten this season.
Minnesota: LB Mariano Sori-Marin
Sori-Marin has been on the doorstep of breaking through into B1G prominence. He was an all-Big Ten honorable mention last year, and won conference player of the week for his 18-tackle performance against Nebraska in 2020.
He was 2nd on the Gophers with 85 tackles last year as Minnesota finished 6th nationally in scoring defense and 8th in rushing defense.
With ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo both headed to the NFL, Sori-Marin may have more cleaning up to do this season. He should be up to the task.
Nebraska: OLB Garrett Nelson
How can this guy not be Nebraska’s defensive MVP?
"Cows don't have an off day."
Garrett Nelson is all Nebraska, all the time. pic.twitter.com/JwTZStZPoC
— Brett (@BDN013) June 4, 2022
All cows aside, Nelson is on the verge of a very big 2022. Maybe it won’t match the leap Hutchinson made at Michigan last season, but it could be in the neighborhood. Nelson had 57 tackles, including 11.5 TFL and 5 sacks in 2021.
Now that he’s matched with TCU transfer defensive end Ochaun Mathis, Nelson will milk this season for all it’s worth.
Northwestern: DE Adetomiwa Adebawore
A mouthful for announcers and a handful for offensive linemen.
Adebawore led the Wildcats in TFL (8.5) and sacks (4.5) in 2021, and those totals will rise in 2022. His 12 QB hurries were the most for a Northwestern player since Joe Gaziano had the same number in 2017.
Adebawore can play bigger than his 6-2 frame — he batted down 3 passes last year. He also forced 2 fumbles. If Northwestern is to rebound from its worst defense of the Pat Fitzgerald era, it’ll begin up front.
Ohio State: S Ronnie Hickman
New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is high on Hickman, who he is moving to free safety in his 4-2-5 scheme.
“I love Ronnie Hickman. I think he’s got the skill. I think he’s got the savvy. I just think he’s a great piece in the middle there to run the show back there,” Knowles said in a spring press conference. “I just like the way he plays and handles his business.”
Hickman, who had 34 more tackles than any other Buckeye last season, seems an ideal fit for the team’s defensive leadership role.
Penn State: DT P.J. Mustipher
Penn State’s record when Mustipher was healthy last season: 5-0.
Penn State’s record after Mustipher was lost for the season during the Iowa game, which the Nittany Lions led at the time before losing: 2-6.
Enough said. But we’ll still say more. Mustipher had 21 tackles, including 3 for loss and a sack, in the 5 1/2 games he played last season. And despite missing half the season, he was still a 2nd team all-B1G selection.
Purdue: DT Branson Deen
Deen was among the beneficiaries of the chaos George Karlaftis created up front, racking up 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Karlaftis plays for the Chiefs now, so offensive lines will be able to give Deen a taste of the double-team treatment this year. His ability to handle it will be a major factor in Purdue’s defensive success.
Rutgers: S Avery Young
Young was an honorable mention all-B1G pick as a cornerback in 2020, then got the same treatment as a safety last season. Wherever you put him, he’s the most valuable piece in the Scarlet Knights’ defense. He finished 2nd on the team with 80 tackles in 2021.
Wisconsin: LB Nick Herbig
Behind Michigan, no Big Ten defense has more holes to fill than Wisconsin. Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn, Noah Burks and Matt Henningsen leave a lot of tackles behind in Wisconsin’s front 7.
Herbig will be the player doing the most to make up for their absences. Even with all that talent around him, Herbig found a way to amass 64 tackles, 14.5 TFL and 9 sacks while forcing 2 fumbles. Not only will Herbig be Wisconsin’s defensive MVP, but he’s got a chance to be the defensive MVP for the entire Big Ten.