Projecting which B1G defensive recruits will have the biggest impact in 2022
The 2022 signing class has a decidedly defensive feel across the Big Ten. Of the top-rated recruits to sign with each program, 9 are defensive players.
Some of these guys, then, will be making impacts on their new teams as soon as this fall.
In most cases, don’t expect defensive tackles and inside linebackers to be the ones to hit the ground running. They may have the skills, but few 18-year-olds will have the bulk to shed blockers 3 years older. (As always, there are exceptions to these rules, but they’re easier to find at Group of 5 programs with slightly smaller offensive linemen.)
After taking a look at each Big Ten team’s signing classes and returning depth charts, we’ve identified the following defensive players as names you should get familiar with for next season.
There is, of course, a caveat in this era — there’s no telling if transfer portal additions end up changing the calculus. But based on where things stand at the moment, these are the Big Ten freshmen we expect to make a defensive impact in 2022.
Illinois: CB Elijah Mc-Cantos
Mc-Cantos isn’t the highest-rated guy in Bret Bielema’s class, but he does play a position where the Illini have very little depth at the moment. Crucially, he’s also an early enrollee.
He’s also from Miami, which means there’s a good chance he’ll be the fastest guy on the team. Even fat guys are fast in Miami.
Indiana: CB Trevell Mullen, Edge Dasan McCollough
McCollough is the highest-rated signee in Indiana history. But he’s also a guy who was playing safety just 2 years ago, so needless to say he’s still growing into an edge-rusher’s body. He’ll make an impact this season, but probably only in obvious passing situations.
Mullen, on the other hand, has a much greater chance to become an every-down player at corner. His oldest brother, Trayvon, is already playing the position for the Raiders after a standout career at Clemson. And his middle brother, Tiawan, already starts at corner for the Hoosiers.
Trevell was the No. 27 overall recruit in Florida this year.
Iowa: S Xavier Nwankpa
A younger coach might feel pressure to play the highest-rated high school prospect in Iowa history, though Kirk Ferentz will obviously be immune to playing Nwankpa for that reason. He will, however, get playing time if defensive coordinator Phil Parker thinks he’s the real deal.
Whether it’s replacing senior Jack Koerner in the back end of Iowa’s defense or contributing to the Hawks’ special teams unit, Nwankpa will find a way onto the field next fall.
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Maryland: LB Jaishawn Barham
The Terps will take any help they can get for a unit that finished 13th in the B1G in scoring defense. And Barham can help.
Barham, whom Mike Locksley flipped from a commitment to South Carolina, is the highest-rated player in Maryland’s signing class. The only question is whether he’ll play inside or outside linebacker. But he will be playing, and soon.
Michigan: CB Will Johnson
Johnson is Michigan’s top signee. And when you’re the top signee of the nation’s No. 9 recruiting class, you’re going to find your way onto the field fairly quickly.
The Wolverines will need to replace senior starter Vincent Gray next year, and Johnson certainly figures to be in that competition come training camp.
Michigan State: CB Caleb Cooley, S Malik Spencer, S Jaden Mangham, S Quavian Carter, S Malcolm Jones
The nightmare performance at Ohio State made it plain for anyone to see that the Spartans need help in the secondary. Well, here comes the cavalry.
Mel Tucker has no fewer than 5 defensive backs who might contribute significantly next year, including 4 safeties.
Minnesota: DL Anthony Smith, DL Trey Bixby
We warned of the perils of counting on freshmen to contribute on the defensive line. But these are the 2 highest-rated players in PJ Fleck’s recruiting class, and it’s clear this is the position he valued the most in this recruiting cycle. The Gophers started 3 seniors on their 4-man defensive front this year, so it’s easy to see why that was the case.
They might not be asked to do a ton, but they’ll likely be in the rotation.
Nebraska: CB Jaeden Gould
Gould, who decommitted from USC when Lincoln Riley was hired, is Nebraska’s top-rated defensive recruit.
Northwestern: Edge Anto Saka
Like McCollough at Indiana, Saka is more about tremendous long-term potential. But in Northwestern’s case, he also plays a position where there’s an immediate need for help. The Wildcats were a mess on defense this year and need to get more pressure on quarterbacks.
Even if it’s just as a third-down specialist, he could help his new team right away.
Ohio State: LB CJ Hicks, S Sonny Styles
Hicks is a 5-star linebacker who was the top-rated recruit in Ohio and the second-best linebacker prospect in the country. He’ll fit well into Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme, which obviously requires athletic linebackers who can cover a lot of ground quickly.
Styles is another 5-star. He reclassified from the Class of 2023, so we might see more of an impact from him closer to Halloween than Labor Day. But by all accounts he’s a good fit for the hybrid safety/linebacker position that is essential to the 4-2-5 working. Even if he doesn’t start, Styles will probably contribute.
Penn State: LB Abdul Carter, S Christian Driver
This is a very deep recruiting class — 6th in the country, in fact — but so much of the obvious talent is on offense. Picking an immediate defensive contributor is a bit of a challenge.
I’m going with Carter because he already possesses college size — 6-4, 235 pounds.
Driver also feels like a safe pick. He’s the highest-rated defensive player in the class. He is also the son of former Packers legend Donald Driver, and sons of former NFL players are proving a good fit for Penn State’s secondary.
Purdue: DL Joe Strickland
Nobody’s replacing George Karlaftis, who is among the best to ever do it for Purdue. But the Boilers also aren’t going to leave his defensive end spot vacated and play with 10 guys. There will be snaps to be had.
Strickland is the lone 4-star defensive player in Jeff Brohm’s signing class. He probably won’t be ready to start right away, but he could be a rotational piece in a Karlaftis-by-committee situation.
Rutgers: LB Moses Walker, LB Anthony Johnson
All 3 of Rutgers starting linebackers were seniors this year, so there will be open auditions in training camp. Walker and Johnson are 4-star prospects who were near the top of what is the No. 2 signing class in Rutgers history.
Greg Schiano would be wise to throw these guys into the fire and begin building what could be a special veteran unit 2-3 years down the line.
Wisconsin: OLB Tristan Monday
Monday, an Arizona native, was committed to his home-state Wildcats until just a month ago, when he visited Wisconsin in the middle of November and said “You know what, I don’t want to live in Arizona anymore.”
That’s something no sane person should do. And no linebacker should be a sane person. Therefore, I like Monday’s upside.
The Badgers should have a pretty veteran group coming back next year, but senior Noah Burks plays Monday’s position and is among those graduating. I don’t expect a ton of freshmen to contribute for Wisconsin next year, but I like Monday’s chances of working onto the field.