This week: Previously we did the five-stars so “Only recruiting rankings matter!” guy can send that to his three-star-loving pal. Now it’s “Recruiting rankings don’t matter!” guy’s turn to forward a link that proves nothing except we’re short on #content in the offseason. Also it’s badly named because I’m including 2-stars. Also also it’s going to be more focused on their recruiting stories since you probably know enough about their Michigan careers.
Rules: There are two ways to make an all-under-recruited list: a) the best of all those who qualified, or b) performance relative to recruiting rankings. I think b) is more fun, but you end up leaving off too-obvious candidates. I’m going with a combination of both: best eligible player for how I construct my team, but if it’s close the lower-ranked recruit gets in.
Also it’s by college production, not NFL.
Cutoff Point: Had to be less than a 3.9-star based on my composite recruiting database—which goes back to 1990—who earned a scholarship. For reference that means Carlo Kemp is eligible and Jibreel Black is not. To avoid guys that one scouting service just ignored we’re leaving out anyone who made a top-250 list for two or more services or anyone’s top-100 (which means Mike Hart is disqualified because HE WASN’T A THREE-STAR except to the two services that left online databases.) Also not doing special teams because they’re always rated 3-stars.
Preemptive Shut Up, Stars Don’t Matter Guy: There were 278 players who fit the criteria in my database, compared to 93 who got any kind of fifth star, so if you’re comparing this team to the team of blue chips remember you have to sing three times as many players to get this level of quality. For reference here are the fates of Michigan recruits 1990-2018 by recruiting ranking:
Rating as Recruit
2- or 3-star
Conclusion: Recruiting rankings matter, but they’re just a guideline
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Yes I did say this is only based on college production. I admit to being a “Put in Henson” guy, right up until a few games into 1999. Michigan that year had OL problems due to injury and Tom Brady was surviving while Henson was constantly getting driven from the pocket. The MSU game—a loss—sealed it as Brady nearly brought Michigan back from a massive deficit.
As a recruit he was on the borderline between three and four stars. His video is out there too if you want to see what the scouts did, which was a crisp passer with a great feel for the game and tiny chicken legs you’re afraid will snap the first time he’s sacked. USC had first pick of Cali QBs, could get five-star Quincy Woods, and over the strong objections of OC Mike Riley, took local boy John Fox as their second dude even though then-USC head coach was, like Brady, a Serra alum. UCLA took Cade McNown so Brady’s second option was out. Stanford was in the area but chose Chad Hutchinson and Tim Smith, whom Lemming rated just behind Brady.
By then however Brady was a senior and Michigan had had him on campus and made him their first target for 1995 QB. Moeller (Excalibur was a few months in the future) and QB coach Kit Cartright already had a stocked QB room between Scot Loeffler, Jay Riemersma, Brian Griese, and Scott Dreisbach, so they were staying out of the crazy battles over Dan Kendra and Bobby Sablehaus, the #1 and 2 overall players, in the class. Michigan’s other real target was Chad Plummer, who went to Cincy.
Honorable Mention: John Navarre, Brian Griese (who technically walked on but only because his dad offered to pay), Wilton Speight, Scott Dreisbach, Jake Rudock
[After THE JUMP: I post the 313 video again, twice]
One of these is Jamar Adams, the other Jarrod Wilson (by Fuller)
Here's a little tradition from around these parts that you're not happy to bring back: who's going to be the new safety starter? Yeah, remember that conversation? Remember how it went around picking up all the we-hope-he's-at-least-an-Englemons out of Gibson'ed secondaries?
The best of all that. This last bout of hand wringing finally ended with the best safety tandem we've had in the Cover-2 era. In their two years together Kovacs and Gordon were the first capable pair since Brandent and Jamar, easily the best since Marlin and Ernest, and probably ranked higher than any since Marcus and Tommy or earlier. We can actually chart the stuff since '07, thanks to Brian's Upon Further Review charts (which total up the plusses and minuses accrued in each game into a rough net contribution stat). I've got my UFR database now updated that far (any further and the knowledge isn't really there to make it relevant or comparable). Remember this is a game-by-game exercise that wasn't meant to remain standard across the ages; that said the Chart?-Chart! chart totals for Michigan safeties in these six seasons very much fit your recollections:
Jared Van Slyke
Chart notes: maize is positive, blue negative so that can stand out more. Time spent at the Spur in the 3-3-5 years was counted as linebacker, likewise Brandon Harrison's 2007 at nickel, which was a starting position on the English defenses. I tried to separate Woolfolk's corner games from his safety games; for the record here's the breakdown for 2009:
…when he was obviously a better corner than a safety but as you can see from above, was needed more at the latter.
Still the totals at the bottom tell a story of a moderately positive '07 (Stevie Brown—0/-8/-8 in The Horror) did most of his damage in one game, which itself did plenty of damage to that season), three years of atrociousness, and dramatic improvement under the new staff. If you remember 2010 as worse than '09 that's because the cornerbacks were just as bad. The disparity between Kovacs 2011 and 2012 is easy enough to explain by there being far fewer opportunities for him to make those Kovacsian stops after 7 yards as Michigan faced either Alabama or teams who either didn't test or schemed against him (Air Force, Nebraska).
Also I had to chart The Horror myself because Brian didn't at the time. Thanks Brian.* Anyway the charting says Thomas Gordon (!) was the best safety at Michigan in the last six seasons. Should we be talking about all-conference stuff for ol' Prison Abs in addition to the leadership stuff? Gee, maybe. He had a spectacular spring game, which I don't think many people noticed.
As for what's opposite him Michigan has to find something out of the blues above plus another year of progression.
*Had this been done under modern UFR standards it would have doubled any record for RPS debacles. Just to know I tried doing that, handing out the remainder of expected points for any play that weren't on the players as Brian does in UFR-ing and came out with this staggering figure of +23/-46/-23. RPS is never that much of a variable, except in this game it was the alignment of linebackers, stunts (!), not stacking the box, and not responding to the QB draw even though they only ever ran one play out of that alignment.
Slam dunk locks and mirror images, Brandon Graham and Lamarr Woodley set the standard for Michigan quarterback terror in the aughts. Wildly hyped in-state recruits and five stars, both spent a couple of years as underclassmen playing here and there and making people wonder if and when they would live up to their billings; both did so emphatically as juniors and then managed to top those performances as seniors. A large portion of last year's defensive UFRs not given over to rending of garments was spent wondering whether Brandon Graham was actually better than Woodley.
I think Graham is better. I haven't gone over the UFR numbers yet—slightly busy this time of year—but I know Graham set a record against Michigan State earlier this year and has been owning offensive tackles all year. Woodley set standards by being consistently around +8 or +9 with forays up to 12; Graham's baseline is around 12 and ranges up to 18.
Though he didn't win the Lombardi like Woodley did his senior year, Graham led the nation in TFLs and was drafted about a full round higher by the NFL. While Woodley was more heralded in the award department, that had a lot to do with the other guys on defense. Woodley's compatriots will pepper the rest of this list. Graham's not so much. Woodley lined up next to Alan Branch, Terrance Taylor, and a senior Rondell Biggs; Graham's bookend was a true freshman and his other linemates were just sophomores.
Lamarr Woodley, meanwhile, did with the Lombardi in 2006, the first and to-date last time a Michigan player has won it. His season was statistically frustrating since, like Graham, he was close to a dozen additional sacks that a competent secondary would have seen him put up truly ludicrous numbers. Even so he had 12 sacks and 4 forced fumbles; outside TFLs were low (just three) but that can be chalked up to the rest of the defense taking up that burden. As mentioned above, he was the original gangsta of the UFR, averaging close to double-digit plus ratings on a weekly basis.
But all that pales in comparison to the play that finished the "Oh Wide Open" game in which Michigan established itself a contender. By scooping up an unforced Brady Quinn fumble and fending off ND tight end John Carlson all the way to the endzone, Woodley inaugurated the Yakety Sax era:
I just watched that three more times.
Second Team: Dan Rumishek (2001), Tim Jamison (2007 or 2008, take your pick)
It gets muddy past the slam dunks. Michigan's quasi 3-4 from the beginning of the decade makes decisions difficult, as does that one year Michigan switched to an actual 3-4. In 2001, Dan Rumishek was on the All Big Ten team with just 22 tackles. Seven were sacks, but man. That same year Shantee Orr managed 35 tackles with six sacks and 10 TFLs, but didn't show up on all conference teams. Later editions of defensive ends would have almost identical big play numbers but way more tackles. Tim Jamison had 10 TFLs and 5.5 sacks as a junior and senior but had 52 and 50 tackles.
Past Rumishek, Orr, and Jamison pickings are slim. Rondell Biggs was the unheralded guy on the 2006 line, a decent plugger but nothing special. A post-career steroid bust also gives his career an unpleasant sheen. Larry Stevens's career was very long but largely anonymous. He's best remembered for being hog-tied on the Spartan Bob play.
We'll go with Dan Rumishek, the only other Michigan DE to get on an All Big Ten team this decade, and one of Tim Jamison's upperclass seasons. Which is entirely up to the reader since they are essentially identical; I lean towards '07 because Graham was not yet a beast and Jamison saw more attention.
Alan Branch (2006) & Gabe Watson (2005)
That will do.
His statistics were not ridiculous (25 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks in '06) but when he left for the NFL draft I thought to myself "this is a logical thing because he will go in the top five." Surprisingly he did not, falling to the top of the second round, but when you are primarily responsible for opponents going six of eighteen on third and one you get dropped onto the All Decade Team no questions asked.
Watson will be a more controversial choice but the guy was a two-time All Big Ten selection and is currently an NFL player. At Michigan he never quite lived up to his copious recruiting hype but he did have some pretty nice statistics for a nose tackle: 40 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 2 sacks as a senior with almost identical numbers from the year before. The primary issue with Michigan's run defense in '05 was that Watson would drive his guy yards into the backfield, forcing the tailback to cut upfield into the gaping hole left because Pat Massey was 6'8" and therefore getting crushed backwards as far as the guy futilely attempting to contain Watson.
The year before Michigan had their one-off experiment with the 3-4, leaving Watson all alone in the middle, where he dominated. In the aftermath of Watson's one-game suspension for being approximately spherical to start the '05 season, I attempted to adjust for Michigan's tendency to give up a lot of nothing and then a lot of huge runs in the spirit of Football Outsider's "adjusted line yards" and came up with the number 2.5, which was better than anyone in the NFL by three tenths of a yard. (Schedules are much more balanced there, FWIW.) Watson may have been an overrated recruit, but his Michigan career has been underrated.
Second Team: Terrance Taylor(2007), Grant Bowman (2003)
This is actually Taylor's junior season, when he lined up next to Will Johnson, a sophomore Brandon Graham, and Tim Jamison and managed impressive-for-a-DT numbers: 55 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks. He'd drop off considerably in his doomed senior year; whether that was a falloff in play or just collateral damage from the wholesale implosion around him is in the eye of the beholder. My opinion is the latter since Taylor tended to beat a lot of blocks only to see poor linebacker play rob him of opportunities in the run game; he was never much of a pass rusher.
We'll go with Taylor's statistically productive 2007 over 2008 because he was just about as good via the eyeball then and had more to show for it. Either way he is an easy pick.
The last spot is not easy. Early in the decade, Michigan defensive tackles were excruciatingly bored guys who spent football games blocking offensive lineman and letting linebackers take all the glory. In 2001 Shawn Lazarus started 12 games and managed 16 tackles. In the absence of accolades, statistics, or personal remembrances I can't put Lazarus or Eric Wilson or Norman Heuer in here even though I couldn't tell you whether or not those guys were even good. The guys not on the list who I do have personal remembrances of were not very good or are still on the team.
It's a debate between GrantBowman, who I don't remember much about other than his mother was attacked by the usual band of Columbus idiots one year, and… yeah, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Bowman's 2003 featured 36 tackles, 8 TFLs, and 3 sacks; Van Bergen had 40, 6, and 5; Martin 51, 8.5, and two sacks. Bowman's defense was infinitely better (22nd nationally in rush defense) than either Martin's or Van Bergen's but without the UFRs sitting around it's hard to tell how much of that had to do with Bowman and how much was the contributions of Pierre Woods, Carl Diggs, Lawrence Reid, and the profusion of non walk—ons in the secondary.
The tentative nod goes to Bowman if only because the rest of the line that year was Heuer, Massey, and someone the Bentley doesn't even bother to list but is surely Larry Stevens. Even if he had more help behind him, being the best player on a line that did pretty well against the run is a tiebreaker here.
David Harris (2006), Larry Foote (2001), Victor Hobson (2002)
A couple years ago I was editing a Hail to the Victors article about the considerable difference between David Harris and Obi Ezeh that referenced a couple plays from the '06 season. The diagrams, as diagrams are often wont to be, were confusing so I set about looking at the play myself so I could break the diagram out into three or four separate ones that would explain things in a more leisurely fashion. This was the result:
I swear to God I saw David Harris read not only the direction of a run play, the blocking scheme of that play, and which offensive lineman was assigned to him but modeled the lineman's brain and duped him into thinking the play had cut back. I found this terribly exciting.
That was just another boulder on the pile of reasons I love David Harris. He looks like Worf. He tackled everyone all the time and never did not tackle anyone. He was the first player I felt I was ahead of the curve on thanks to UFRing the games—like David Molk I think I was the first person in the media to recognize that this unheralded player was the balls, which made me feel like Dr. Z. And he kept tackling people. At some point in 2006 the Greek gods descended from the clouds and borrowed him for a while because the eagle that eats Prometheus's liver was on strike.
Then the Lions passed on him and Lamarr Woodley to take Drew Stanton, guaranteeing that the pair would instantly become two of the best defensive players in the league. Yeah. David Harris. I miss him so much.
Larry Foote had a less tangential connection to the worst franchise in sports, but outside of that one-off decision his career has been a good one. As an upperclassman he was an all-around terror, notching 19 TFLs in 2000 and 26 in 2001 at the same time as he picked up a total of 16 PBUs. In 2000 he actually had more of the latter than Todd Howard, and Todd Howard got some of his when the ball deflected off the back of his helmet. Foote was what Jonas Mouton was supposed to be.
We'll go with Foote's senior year when his sack total leapt from one to six and he was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year en route to a smattering of All-American honors. A fourth-round pick of the Steelers, Foote's NFL career has been long and productive; he gets a small dollop of bonus points for being one of the current NFL crew frequently seen hanging out with Barwis.
The final member of the first team had to beat out stiff competition but Victor Hobson gets the nod because he was by far the best player on his front seven (Rumishek, Bowman, Lazarus, Stevens, Orr, Diggs, and Zach Kaufman(!) were the other major conributors) in 2002 and racked up the best all-around numbers of any linebacker under consideration: 99 tackles, 13 for loss, 5.5 sacks, and two interceptions. One of those was the Outback-sealing reverse pass interception. Hobson was deservedly All Big Ten on a team that finished 9th in the final rankings and 31st in rushing defense despite having zero future NFL players other than Hobson and an injury-stricken Orr.
Second Team: Pierre Woods(2003), Shawn Crable(2007), Lawrence Reid(2004)
Pierre Woods did something almost but not quite bad enough to get booted off the team after his breakout sophomore season (68 tackles, 14 TFL, 7 sacks) and spent the rest of his career playing sparingly—probably the only thing that has infuriated both Ted Ginn Sr and myself—until injury forced Michigan to deploy him extensively in the '05 Iowa game, whereupon he totally saved Michigan's bacon. Though he'd moved to defensive end by then, his bust-out year was at linebacker so here he goes.
Poor star-crossed Shawn Crable will go down in history as the best player to ever put on a winged helmet who Michigan fans have exclusively terrible memories of. In the span of three games at the end of the 2006 season and beginning of 2007, Crable delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on a scrambling Troy Smith that turned a fourth-down punt into first down and eventually the winning points for OSU and failed to execute a simple blocking assignment on the field goal that could have turned The Horror into the worst win ever.
When he wasn't doing either of those things, though, he was a unique weapon. He is the current holder of Michigan's TFL record and spent his college days bouncing from linebacker to defensive end to crazy 6'6" chicken-legged defensive tackle in certain spread packages, finding ways into the backfield wherever he lined up. He also was the Ryan Mallett of defense as an underclassman, overran a bunch of plays even after he got his head on straight, and appears twice on the upcoming Worst Moments Of The Decade list. That disqualifies him from the first team, but not the second.
Finally, Lawrence Reid saw his career end prematurely as his back went out; late in the 2004 season it was clear he was laboring. Despite that he finished with 70 tackles, 12 for loss, 3 sacks, and an interception. Without the injury his senior season could have made it on to the first team… and seriously aided the 2005 team's efforts to not play the unready Shawn Crable.
Marlin Jackson(2002), Leon Hall(2006)
Leon Hall was sneaky great, one of the few players that the NFL ended up drafting well before I expected them to. Before Hall went halfway through the first round I'd pegged him as another LeSueur sort who'd go in the second and have a decent career; instead he's kind of ridiculously good. Hall leapt into the starting lineup midway through his freshman year an continued improving until he was a hidden beast on the '06 team. Hall's tackles declined from 61 to 45 as teams targeted neophyte Morgan Trent and whichever slot receiver Chris Graham had no hope of covering. At the same time his PBUs leapt from 5 to 15(!). That's impressive. Hall was a deserved Thorpe finalist.
Jackson, meanwhile, has the rare privilege of being the only sophomore to feature in the All-Decade first team. His opening-day matchup against Reggie Williams, Washington's star receiver and a player who had seriously considered Michigan before choosing to stay home, was electric. Jackson got in Williams's grill all day and the Huskies would not back off; by the third quarter he'd set an all-time Michigan record for pass breakups.
By the end of the year he was a second-team All-American to the AP, third team to Sporting News, and (whoopee!) first team to College Football News. He would spent his junior year at safety, battling injury, and though a return to corner as a senior found him on All-America teams again, Jackson never quite recaptured that sophomore magic.
Second team: Jeremy LeSueur (2003), Donovan Warren (2009)
LeSueur was a true rarity on the Michigan roster: a kid who managed to escape the state of Mississippi's immense gravitational pull. He started off slightly wonky—it was his face-mask penalty on Charles Rogers that extended Michigan State's final drive in 2001, setting up both the Spartan Bob play and Lloyd Carr's public dressing-down of Drew Sharp—but finally developed into the guy I thought Leon Hall was: an All-Big Ten type of player destined for a solid NFL career. That wasn't quite the case—LeSueur is currently playing for Bon Jovi, but no one else from the decade comes close.
The final spot is a tossup between Morgan Trent in the one year he wasn't clueless or unmotivated (2007), Donovan Warren this year, Grant Mason's year that exemplifies totally average play, and the nine starts James Whitley made in 2000 before succumbing to his personal demons. The vote here is for Warren, who I actually thought was good, over Trent, who I thought was okay trending towards good.
SAFETY… SORT OF
Jamar Adams (2007), Julius Curry (2000)
Michigan fans will be unsurprised to find a wasteland here after nine defensive positions occupied by world-wrecking All-Americans who have embarked on long NFL careers—everyone on the first team to this point is still in the NFL and almost all will start this year. Safety? Well, Cato June is still kicking around as a linebacker, but at Michigan he was a wreck thanks to an ACL tear that took years for him to fully recover from. And that's almost it.
The almost: Jamar Adams, bless his heart, was the closest thing to a star safety Michigan had in the aughts. He was actually good. Not good enough to get on the All Big Ten first team or get drafted, but good enough to be on the second team two years running and stick with the Seahawks long enough to actually get on the field in six games last year. This makes him a slam-dunk lock as the best safety in the last ten years of Michigan football.
And now: guh. After Adams it's a choice between the most massively overrated Michigan player of the decade—Ernest Shazor—or the guys towards the beginning of the aughts that no one remembers being specifically terrible. You can feel free to disagree but there is no way I'm putting Shazor here. While he did decapitate Dorien Bryant in that one Purdue game, his Michigan career ceased there unbeknownst to the coaches and most of the fans. He was about 80% of the reason Braylon Edwards had to hulk up and smash Michigan State in the Braylonfest game and when he entered the NFL draft he went from a projected second-round pick to totally undrafted, but not before various organizations made him a first-team All American. I will exercise my Minute Observer of Michigan Football privileges and say this: ha, ha, ha.
The problem then is that as I went through the names that vaguely occupied the safety spots for Michigan over the last decade I thought to myself "I should probably write down Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon." Sadly, I cannot vouch for two guys who couldn't stay healthy or maintain their starting jobs, nor can I seriously support anyone I've seen take the field in the UFR era. So let's reach back into the long, long ago when memories are fuzzy and haul out easily the most unlikely member of the All Aughts: Julius Curry.
I can't tell you that I have detailed knowledge of Curry's play anymore, but I do remember liking the guy a lot and being seriously disappointed when his junior and senior years were wrecked by injury. As a sophomore in 2000, he put up an impressive collection of statistics: 59 tackles, 5 TFLs, 5 PBUs, and 3 forced fumbles, plus two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Ohio State in a 38-26 win. Michigan managed to scrape out the 49th-best pass efficiency defense despite deploying Todd Howard and a very confused James Whitley—this was the heart of the "suspects" era—thanks to Curry's unregarded efforts. Maybe he never decapitated anyone, but by God he definitely would have tackled DeAndra Cobb by the second time.
Second Team: DeWayne Patmon(2000), Ernest Shazor(2004)
Patmon was the second member of the safety unit I remember not being specifically terrified about; Shazor was discussed above. He does deserve to be here because even if he gave up a ton of big plays he made more big plays in Michigan's favor than the other safeties kicking around this decade, and those guys gave up about as many plays.
Garrett Rivas (2006)
Rivas never had a huge leg but he was good out to 47-48 yards and stands as the most accurate kicker of the decade, hitting 64 of 82 in his four years as Michigan's kicker. That's a 78% strike rate; in 2006 he checked in at 85%. He was reliable, and that's all you ask for in a college kicker.
The official teams just bucket players into three categories: line, LB, and DB. I think this is dumb. For instance, all four first-team DBs are cornerbacks. Uh... okay. This list breaks the line down into DT and DE and the defensive backs into CB and S. Linebackers are still one big bin.
Remember: Notre Dame worthies are included, though this is way less funny for the defensive side of the ball.
1. Lamarr Woodley, Michigan
If you read this blog, you know about Woodley. He has 11.5 sacks and equal-if-not-greater contributions that only show up in OCD game charting. He is the face of the Michigan defense that was so magnificent for 11 of Michigan's 12 games and one of the premiere defensive ends in the country. Justifying his inclusion is like justifying Troy Smith's.
1. Anthony Spencer, Purdue
If Spencer's luck holds -- and let's hope it doesn't -- he'll be playing for the Detroit Lions next year. He was a capital-M Man without a defense in 2006. Anything the Boilermakers managed to do right on that side of the ball was a direct result of something Spencer did. And lord, he did a lot: a Matt-Rothian 26.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. His most impressive/depressing statistic, though was his 86 tackles, second on the team. At defensive end! Spencer was the Kevin Garnett of the Big Ten in 2006. Like Garnett, he should be commended for not snapping and breaking the neck of any of his incompetent teammates.
2. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State
Alternated terrifying edge rushes with equally terrifying (to Ohio State fans) wild run irresponsibility early. As the season wore on the former remained and the latter dwindled, making Gholston scary to only one set of fans. I don't like the idea of him next year, and that's what this list is: Michigan players I love and opposing players I hate. So, yeah. I hate Gholston. Congratulations.
2. Brian Mattison, Iowa
Doesn't have the stats a few others do, but what can I say? I just like the guy. Uh... hate the guy. You know what I mean. When I UFRed the Iowa-Michigan game, he was all over Michigan's zone running game. When I did a tape review of the Iowa-Ohio State game, he was the only guy with a concept of containment and the only guy capable of getting to Troy Smith. Those were Iowa's two biggest games of the year, and he was one of the best players on the field in both
1. Alan Branch, Michigan
Mountain of a defensive tackle who didn't rack up a ton of flashy stats except this one: #1, as in Michigan's rushing defense (despite those, uh, hiccups versus Ohio State, which only served to bring that defense back down into the realms of the mortal). Branch is a disruptor on the interior and a guy you single block at your peril, just like...
1. Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State
A sure first-rounder in April's NFL draft, Pitcock was far and away the best player on Ohio State's defense, crashing through interior lines like they were made of the slightest cotton en route to eight sacks, eleven tackles for loss, and a lot of easy plays for his linebackers.
2. Ed Johnson, Penn State
I know Alford had more sacks and tackles for loss, but when I watched Penn State it was Johnson who was the more consistent of the two Penn State tackles. Alford is a penetrator who relies a lot on quickness and runs himself out of plays here and there, while Johnson is one of those 6'0", 310 pound fireplugs that drives people into the backfield with remarkable regularity. Johnson made more plays than his partner, but fewer of them showed up in his statistics.
2. David Patterson/Terrance Taylor/Jay Alford, OSU/UM/PSU
Yes, this is a cop out. Each benefited from playing next to the above terrors. Alford is a penetrator and a playmaker like Pitcock, while Patterson and Taylor are more in the mold of Johnson. Each filled the space next to their partner with a second playmaking defensive tackle and created havoc in opposing offenses.
1. David Harris, Michigan
Made the leap from pretty good to outstanding his senior year, tracking down backs sideline-to-sideline on all manner of run and pass plays. Other than Branch, he was the man most responsible for Michigan's #1 rush defense. Criminally left off the Butkus finalist list, he's the best Michigan linebacker I can remember (this extends only back to Jarrett Irons, freaked out 40-something Michigan fans). He played nearly every snap Michigan's defense faced and made only one glaring error, a busted coverage that led to Wisconsin's touchdown. I hate the idea of a middle linebacker other than him.
1. J Leman, Illinois
Does anyone remember how awful the Illinois defense was a year ago? Probably not. If you have data about the 2005 Fighting Illini in your head, you are wasting space that could be more productively used with something like the jeans preferences of squirrels. Well, I know nothing about the sartorial splendor of squirrels (imagine Lou Holth thaying that five timeth fath), but I do remember that the 2005 Illinois defense was an abomination.
So if I told you that the 2006 version of same was above average, you'd want to hand out a medal. Well: here's the medal. Leman racked up 152 tackles, 19 for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, and two forced fumbles as the Illini shot up to 40th in total defense. He was the guy running around against Ohio State stuffing the Buckeye's six million second-half runs. He was... good. Which is weird to say about an Illinois player, let me tell you.
Also: his first name is "J". No period. No abbreviation. Just a letter. He is also unmistakably rocking a mullet in that headshot. Rocking a mullet and wearing an American flag tie. He is Joe Dirt, linebacker. That demands recognition.
1. Dan Connor, Penn State
Outperformed his more touted partner in the opinion of most Penn State fans, and that's good enough for me. He was a force in the PSU games I watched, slightly more likley to burst into the backfield and maul an unsuspecting running back. His 103 tackles came from an outside linebacker position, while Posluszny's 108 came in the middle: slight advantage Connor.
2. Paul Posluszny, Penn State
Probably didn't deserve the Butkus last year (AJ Hawk) or his finalist status this year (arrrrgh David Harris), but still a damn good linebacker. Against Michigan he refused to stay blocked on the second level, slanting and shedding his way to bottle up Mike Hart time and again. Though Hart would finish with 112 yards, they would be his toughest of the season.
2. Mark Zalewski, Wisconsin
I'm mildly upset at my own list here, which is virtually ignoring the Big Ten's fourth badass defense: Wisconsin. They have a couple first-teamers in the secondary, but hardly any representation up front, largely because they suffer from the same problem Ohio State wide receivers do: too much balance. Zalewski doesn't have a million tackles but he does have a mohawk and a bad attitude. (I was briefly tempted to have the second team linebackers be Zalewski, Prescott Burgess, and Shawn Crable so I could make some comment about pityi ng the fool who tries to run on them, but I was quickly tackled and injected with sedatives when I mentioned it. And thank God for that.)
2. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
My position on Laurinaitis and his magic, leather-magnetized hands has been made clear: dude is way overrated and belongs nowhere near the Butkus finalist list or the All-American teams he'll no doubt feature on. I blame two people: Troy Smith and Brent Musberger. Smith is the primary motor for Ohio State's #1 ranking and Musberger's intolerable boosterism of him during the Texas game, Iowa game, and every other game was repeated so often that it became true in the minds of the brainwashed masses.
...but he does have his good points. He is fast, able in zone drops -- to get Drew Tate to throw the ball right at you you have to be in good position -- and a good blitzer. If he's kept clean he will fill and tackle ably. He's not bad by any stretch of the imagination and... sigh... deserves a place on this team. But on the second team, dammit, until he defeats a block. Any block.
1. Leon Hall, Michigan
I was confused about the Hall hype -- top corner in the draft, Playboy All-American -- going into the season, thinking him more a Jeremy Lesueur type who would be first or second team all conference and a second or third round pick. I was wrong. Hall is the best Michigan corner since Woodson, solid against both the run and the pass, a superb tackler and technician. He does not have the outrageous athleticism of someone like Justin King, but makes up for it with instincts and smarts. A probable top-ten pick in April's draft.
1. Jack Ikegwuonu, Wisconsin
By all rights should be playing for Purdue with that last name, but the Badgers are glad to have him. Ikegwuonu's matchup with Manningham was the most difficult the Michigan sophomore faced all year -- his long touchdown victimized Allen Langford -- as he found his outs, slants, and the like blanketed, leaving Michigan almost no margin for error on those throws. That's all you can do as a cornerback.
2. Justin King, Penn State
Let's get this out of the way: he can't tackle worth a lick. Run at him and he may as well be a ballerina. But in pure coverage terms, he might be the best in the league. Living up to the recruiting hype, as corners tend to do, his athleticism is NFL-caliber and his instincts are good. Hard to beat deep and hard to sit down in front of, King is a thorn in the side of opposing passing games.
2. Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
A jam artist and a tough customer in run support, Jenkins is an up-and-comer in the league. If he manages to rein in his aggression and be smarter about when to back off, he'll be a complete corner. As of now he still gets burnt-crispy deep with some regularity. This year it wasn't relevant since Ohio State got so many sacks and faced so many hobbled or plain bad quarterbacks.
1. Roderick Rogers, Wisconsin
Rogers didn't have to do much against the run thanks to the imposing Wisconsin front seven (their absence from this team should not reflect poorly on them -- it's a tough year to get on this team up there). Free to play centerfield, Rogers picked off two passes, broke up seven others, and was key in Wisconsin's #1 ranked pass efficiency defense -- a number that's overstated due to the Badgers' Minnesota-worthy schedule but still damn impressive.
1. Brandon Mitchell, Ohio State
Ohio State safeties are beginning to bother me like Ohio State kickers do. Where do they unearth these people, and do they have a patent? I bet there's a lab somewhere.
2. Anthony Scirroto, Penn State
I give up and give in to five interceptions. I don't like doing this, but I begin to understand why there are four cornerbacks on the All Big Ten first teams.
2. Jamar Adams, Michigan
Michigan rotated four safeties all year, but what they really did is rotate three guys through free safety and have them play next to Adams, a solid run defender who's comptetent-ish in pass coverage. Yes, it's a weak year for safeties.