Ranking the Big Ten: Cornerback
As the 2016 season draws nearer by the day, it’s time to start taking a look at some of the top players to watch in the Big Ten Conference.
We continue our Ranking the Big Ten series today by taking a look at the cornerbacks, a group that features some of college football's top lockdown players.
1. Desmond King, Iowa
Though he could have easily foregone his senior season and made the jump to the NFL, the 2015 Thorpe Award winner and unanimous consensus All-American returns to the Hawkeyes as one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football, already being listed as a 2016 Preseason All-American.
King, who tied the school record and ranked second nationally with eight interceptions in 2015, will once again be matched up against every opposing No. 1 wide receiver, and in most cases he’ll likely be able to take away an entire half of the field.
On top of that, he’s expected to continue his role as Iowa’s primary return man. King averaged 14.2 yards on 17 punt returns and 24.4 yards on 29 kickoff returns last year to earn honorable mention all-conference honors at return specialist.
2. Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Like King, Michigan’s Lewis also turned down a chance to make an early jump to the NFL this offseason to return for his senior year. As a result, the Wolverines will boast one of the top shutdown corners in the country in 2016.
A first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America selection last year as a junior, Lewis was a semifinalist for the Thorpe and Bednarik awards after registering 52 tackles, two interceptions and setting a school record with 20 pass breakups.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder is now regarded as one of the top cornerback prospects in the 2017 NFL draft class and will anchor a UM secondary that ranked third in all of college football against the pass last season.
3. William Likely, Maryland
There are few players in all of college football that are as versatile and productive as Maryland’s Likely.
Having just been named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list, Likely is coming off a 2015 season that saw him earn first-team All-Big Ten honors at cornerback and first-team All-American at punt returner. On top of that, he even moved over to the other side of the ball to play receiver, catching five passes and getting the start at wide out vs. Wisconsin.
New head coach D.J. Durkin hinted strongly this spring that he plans to continue to use Likely in all three phases again this season in an effort to keep him on the field as much as possible. With a more attacking defense this year, it could lend itself to Likely putting up one of his most productive seasons yet.
4. Joshua Kalu, Nebraska
Though Nebraska’s pass defense certainly had its share of issues early on last season, it steadily improved by the week into a formidable unit, and Kalu was at the forefront of that turnaround.
Finishing with 75 total tackles, a team-high 51 solo stops, and 5.0 tackles for loss, Kalu also ranked second on the team with three interceptions and first with seven passes defended as a sophomore. The 6-1, 190-pounder saved his best game for last, racking up eight tackles with an interception in the Huskers’ Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA.
He returns not only as NU’s top cornerback, but as arguably one of the top overall defenders on the entire team. With a year of experience in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme now under his belt, the expectations are for Kalu to be even better in 2016.
5. Gareon Conley, Ohio State
Just like it’s doing at nearly every position, Ohio State is trying to replace yet another first-round draft pick at cornerback this season following the early departure of No. 10 overall selection Eli Apple.
In typical Buckeye fashion, though, it looks to be a matter of reloading and not rebuilding with Conley rising to the surface as the new top corner.
The junior started all 13 games for OSU last season opposite Apple and finished with 49 tackles, five pass breakups, and ranked second on the team with two interceptions. He was the only new starter in Ohio State’s secondary last year, and now this season he’ll be the veteran leader of the group as the lone returning starter.