Some of nation's top tacklers reside in the Big Ten and not just at the top football factories
Michigan State wide receiver Tre Mosley (17) fumbles as he is tackled by Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins (34) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 26-16. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Michael Marot, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, October 3, 2023 3:35PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, October 3, 2023 3:36PM EDT
The Big Ten has long staked its reputation on a rough-and-tough brand of football.
It's one reason NFL scouts still spend Saturday afternoons scouring the fields in places such as Iowa City, State College, Madison or Columbus. It's why almost anywhere they go, from Michigan to Northwestern to Purdue, they find guys who can shut down explosive plays alongside playmakers capable of turning close games into blowouts. It even explains Iowa punter Tory Taylor sometimes donning a T-shirt that reads "Punting is Winning.”
In a college football era where track meets are all the rage and points are scored by the dozens, Big Ten country continues to churn out some of the nation's best fundamental defenders.
“He plays so hard, he prepares extremely hard, he plays extremely hard, he's totally invested,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said when asked about linebacker Jay Higgins. “For us to be good defensively, that’s just a critical position. Probably most teams are that way. But the way we’re wired, if you go back historically, the guys up the middle are really a big part of what we do.”
Nobody understands what it takes to succeed defensively better than Ferentz, who has sent dozens of players to the NFL since taking over the Hawkeyes in 1999.
Higgins, a first-time full-time starter for Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten), leads the league in tackles per game (12.4), ranks third nationally and first among all Power Five players.
He's not the exception.
The Big Ten has more tacklers ranked among the nation's top 20 (three), top 30 (four) and top 40 (six). Purdue safety Dillon Thieneman's average (9.0) leads all freshmen and only two major programs, Mississippi and Iowa, have multiple players listed in the top 30. Hawkeyes linebacker Nick Jackson, a transfer from Virginia, is second on the Hawkeyes at 9.2
And it's largely by design.
“You lose a guy like Jack Campbell and Seth Benson in the middle of the defense, and that’s why going after Nick was so important,” Ferentz said. "We felt he was an older guy that embodied some of those characteristics that Seth and Jack had."
Ferentz, the league's coaching dean, has staked his image on that philosophy since 1999.
Others have followed suit and the results are showing up throughout the Midwest and not just at the usual football factories like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
At Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0), third-year safety Hunter Wohler has thrived in his first season as a starter. He ranks 12tth nationally with 10.2 tackles per game while recording two pass deflections and one sack.
Yes, he appreciated learning from former Badgers star and NFL safety Jim Leonhard in his previous two college seasons, Wohler acknowledges a new defensive scheme has helped him excel.
“If you see something, you can go take it,” he said. “There’s always some type of assignment, but (depending on) the way plays play out, it allows me to free up a lot more. I can trust my instincts and go make a play.”
Northwestern's Bryce Gallagher looks like the next prominent linebacker at Northwestern (2-3, 1-2) and even Indiana (2-3, 0-2) makes the list with linebacker Aaron Casey.
Gallagher, a two-time captain, logged 190 tackles over the past two seasons and already has 51, an average that is tied for No. 13 nationally. Casey has emerged as the Hoosiers most consistent defender, averaging 8.6 tackles (tied for No. 39).
“I’ve always said if you want to have a great defense, you have to have great linebacker play,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “He’s the leader of our defense, and as we tell with our linebackers, that leadership is full in both verbal leadership and production. That’s how you play linebacker.”
Nearly midway through the season, Michigan and Ohio State have the FBS' stingiest scoring defenses and lead a conference that has nine of the top 45, most of any league. And it may only get tougher when four more top scoring defenses — UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Southern California — join the league next season.
What won't change? The ability to produce top NFL defensive players. Twenty-six Big Ten defenders were selected in April's NFL draft, and even more could be taken next spring with players such as Illinois defensive tackle Jer'Zahn Newton, Penn State cornerback Kalen King and Michigan defensive tackle Kris Jenkins all projected to go in the first round.
“Like I've said before, the beautiful thing about football is it doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t care about what’s happened prior to the game,” Purdue coach and former Ilinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “It’s all about the guys who are on the field.”