Stalwart defense has appeared optional at best so far during a bizarre and pandemic-stricken 2020 college football season (unless you’re Georgia).

With that in mind, allow us to offer two potential hidden benefits of the Big Ten’s indecision on fall football and eventual condensed schedule starting Oct. 23:

  • B1G teams have had more time to prepare and make sure they’re hitting enough in practice to be ready for the physical grind that is a season in these parts.
  • Conference defensive coaches and players will have had more than a month’s worth of data to show they better be ready to strap it up and make some stops, even without much or any spring ball and an anything-but-normal fall camp.

There are some dudes, though, who frankly probably don’t need as much of a ramp-up. As of publishing time, these are our 20 top B1G defensive players who are braving the COVID-19 risk to play this fall.

20. Jake Hansen, LB, Illinois

The senior from Tarpon Springs, Florida, forced a B1G-best 7 fumbles last season. Hansen was a big reason the Illini surprised the rest of the league by topping Wisconsin and getting to a bowl game.

19. Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State

If you like watching teams that can get after the quarterback, might we suggest checking out the Nittany Lions this year. Oweh is poised for a breakout season as a redshirt sophomore.

18. Cam Taylor-Britt, CB, Nebraska

Taylor-Britt’s 3 interceptions as a sophomore don’t really speak to his ability to change the course of a game by coming out of nowhere to make a play. We’ll find out more about his pure cover skills as he transitions to pure cornerback duties this fall.

17. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan

They call Hutchinson “The Animal” in Ann Arbor, and at 6-6 and 269 pounds, it’s easy to see why. Hutchinson’s made it his goal to become the B1G’s next elite edge rusher a la the Bosas and A.J. Epenesa.

16. Shaka Toney, DE, Penn State

Toney is the definition of a disruptor who affects plays and timing even when he isn’t getting to the quarterback. The redshirt senior should be able to do even more of the latter as the Nittany Lions eye an upset in the BIG East Division race.

15. Garrett Rand, DE, Wisconsin

It ain’t the most glorious of jobs, working in the defensive trenches for Paul Chryst. But the Badgers’ defense will lean heavily on its stud end to gum up gaps and let a new crop of linebackers do their thing.

14. Eric Burrell, S, Wisconsin

Again, don’t sleep on Bucky’s defense. With Graham Mertz taking over for an injured Jack Coan, Jonathan Taylor in the NFL and a number of new faces on offense, Chryst is counting on his stoppers to carry the day early. Burrell keeps things locked down on the back end and tied for 2nd in the conference with 3 interceptions a year ago.

13. Jacub Panasiuk, DE, Michigan State

Those expecting the Spartans to struggle in Year 1 under Mel Tucker have plenty of ammo, but they should probably leave Panasiuk out of the conversation. The senior originally planned to redshirt this year before a change of heart. He is the team’s active leader in tackles for loss (18.5 for 90 yards) and sacks (8 for 52 yards)

12. Mariano Sori-Marin, LB, Minnesota

Sori-Marin epitomizes the Gophers’ defense — you may or may not have heard of him. With only 4 starters returning from a unit that helped Minnesota to its best season in decades, Sori-Marin has emerged as the undisputed leader for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s new-look group.

11. Cameron McGrone, LB, Michigan

At 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, McGrone has the build of a prototypical linebacker who can do it all. Scouts love his ability to tackle in space.

10. Derrick Barnes, LB, Purdue

No one’s expecting a ton out of the Boilermakers, but they’ve got not one but two bona fide maulers on the edge. Barnes tied for the team lead in sacks last year with …

9. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue

Karlaftis is one of those cats you definitely want on your side in an alley fight. The West Lafayette lifer bleeds Boilermaker black and gold and — frighteningly enough — he’s a 6-foot-4, 270-pound true sophomore.

8. Coney Durr, CB, Minnesota

The loss of generational talent Antoine Winfield Jr. surely stings, but the Gophers’ secondary is far from depleted. On the contrary, it’s probably the strength of the defense, and Durr’s ability to limit opponents’ top targets is the No. 1 reason why.

7. Isaiah Loudermilk, DE, Wisconsin

Another guy who you have to watch play to truly appreciate his impact. Heck, just listen to a game on the Badger Sports Network and you’ll hear his name called early and often when the opposition is trying to move the ball.

6. Antjuan Simmons, LB, Michigan State

Again, the cupboard isn’t completely bare in East Lansing. Simmons is the B1G’s No. 2 returning tackler and is a load to try to keep away from the ball.

5. Jack Sanborn, LB, Wisconsin

The Badgers are still smarting from the losses of seniors Chris Orr and Zack Baun in the linebacker corps. But you know who had more tackles than either of ’em last season? Sanborn will be asked to anchor the defense till some of his younger counterparts can get up to speed.

4. Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan

Paye says he came back for his senior season because he wants to win a championship. That’ll be a tall order, but it’s hard to find a better duo up front than him and Hutchinson.

3. Baron Browning, LB, Ohio State

Ohio State isn’t eyeing an LSU-esque philosophy of leaning on your all-world quarterback and generating a few necessary stops here and there. Browning is the No. 5 linebacker in the 2021 draft class, per CBS Sports.

2. Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern

Fisher is one of those throwback, hard-nosed linebackers but has a rangy 6-foot-4 frame to make him even more effective. The Wildcats should have an improved defense this season, and Fisher is a tried and tested superstar.

1. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State

Wade would’ve been in the spotlight either way this season. But his father was one of the most vocal in trying to get B1G football reinstated this fall. Then Shaun opted out for a time, only to jump back on the horse when the conference announced its newest conference-only schedule. On the field, Wade’s a lockdown defender who could well be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.