1. Kawann Short, Purdue54 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 17 TFL, 1 forced fumble
The anchor of the Boilermakers defense, Short emerged as dominant presence in the front four after compiling the fifth-most tackles for loss in the conference. Because of his hulking 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame, the 2010 second-team All-Big Ten player is well on his way to climbing the 2013 NFL Draft ladder and into the first round. With multiple seasons of six or more sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss the past two years, Short also has great awareness when it comes to getting his arms up. Despite having only two passes defended as a junior, the 2012 Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list selection broke up a team-high eight passes in 2010.
BigRedReport.com Reasoning: Living up to its designation as a "defense-heavy" league, the Big Ten is home to some of the best defensive tackles in the nation. None of them, though, are better than Short. The 2011 first-team All-Big Ten selection ranks 15thon Purdue's all-time list for tackles for loss with 33.5 and there's little doubt that he won't be able to continue to move up the list as a senior. Although the Boilermakers haven't enjoyed a feared defense in recent years (ranking ninth in total defense in 2011) there's optimism around West Lafayette that this unit, featuring a dynamic duo up front in Short and Bruce Gaston along with an experienced secondary, will be the catalyst for the darkhorse Boilermakers in 2012.
BigRedReport.com Reasoning: Although this season can easily be forgotten considering Ohio State's bowl ban, there's a lot to be excited about in Columbus. With one of the best tandems up front in Hankins, who takes on double-teams on a consistent basis, and the dangerous rusher from the outside John Simon, there will be a lot of uncomfortable quarterbacks lining up opposite the Buckeyes. With his broad-shouldered and massive figure, Hankins is poised to improve upon his numbers from his stellar sophomore season. And if things go according to plan, he has hopes of finding himself alongside his counterpart John Simon on the All-Big Ten first team.
3. Akeem Spence, Illinois69 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
The two-year starter played a key role in leading Illinois' second-ranked run defense in 2011 despite being overshadowed in the Big Ten by names like Kawann Short, Jerel Worthy and even his own teammate, Michael Buchanan. As a sophomore, Spence finished fourth on the Illini defense in tackles with 69, including a monster game against Michigan in which he tied his career-high with nine tackles. Projected as a first-day pick for next year's NFL Draft if he leaves college early, Spence has all the tools a defensive tackle needs to succeed in the gritty Big Ten conference.
BigRedReport.com Reasoning: With a unit that has produced NFL-ready linemen in Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus, there's plenty of optimism surrounding Spence and his NFL stock as he continues to flourish in the Illini defense. While learning a new, but fairly familiar system under new defensive coordinator Tim Banks, Spence will continue to be a force up front in 2012. Despite registering impressive numbers as a sophomore, now is the time for the 6-foot-1, 305-pound tackle to gain national recognition and make a push for All-Big Ten honors in what could be his last season in Champaign.
An honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection last season, Steinkuhler has been the one reliable player up front after starting nearly every game since his sophomore year. With Nebraska having a banged up defensive line the past two seasons, the Academic All-Big Ten selection has developed into a reliable and productive tackle for head coach Bo Pelini. After totaling 40 or more tackles in back-to-back seasons, the one area Steinkuhler would like to see more production in is bringing down the quarterback. Having never posted more than 3.5 sacks in a given season, the Huskers would love to see him play a large role in improving a defense that ranked ninth in the conference with 21 sacks.
BigRedReport.com Reasoning: Needing a new voice to emerge on defense after losing Lavonte David, Jared Crick and Alfonzo Dennard, new coordinator John Papuchis will rely on Steinkuhler to be the team's veteran leader in 2012. With a collection of players who could line up alongside him in the trenches, Steinkuhler will be the one who garners the opposition's attention up front. But despite all that, the 6-foot-6, 290-pound tackle, who was named to Phil Steele's preseason All-Big Ten third team, will have an ample opportunity to make a name for himself on a national level in his senior season. With a lot of expectations on this Husker team, the fans in Lincoln should be seeing major contributions from their hometown player.
Perhaps the most important player on a Penn State defense that features one of the nation's top linebackers in Gerald Hodges, Hill has developed into a tremendous talent in the trenches. After playing alongside last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Devon Still, all eyes will be on Hill as he enters his final season in Happy Valley. He proved just how hard he is to block last season, finishing third on the team with eight tackles for loss, while leading the Nittany Lions and ranking third in the Big Ten with three fumble recoveries.
BigRedReport.com Reasoning: This will be his first season not playing alongside Still on the line, which means all eyes will be on him in the trenches. Penn State has produced many dynamic defensive players throughout their history, and many believe Hill has what it takes to be the next great defensive lineman for the blue and white. While Hill still has a lot to prove in terms of being compared to his former partner up front, his combination of strength and tenacity will fuel what should be a special season for the 6-foot-1, 298-pound lineman. There's no reason Hill shouldn't rank among the leaders at his position at the conclusion of his senior campaign.
*** Big Red Report's Josh Harvey and Kyle Phillippi contributed to these rankings and are not that of Fox Sports. ***