- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NFL draft might not have reflected it, but the Big Ten lost several decorated defensive leaders this year. Spring practice marked a torch-passing around the league, particularly at the linebacker position, as players moved from supporting roles to the spotlight.
Let's take a look at a few of them:
Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 230 pounds; Nashotah, Wis.
Career profile: 28 games, three starts, 81 tackles, two fumbles recovered, one forced fumble, two passes defended
What they're saying: "He is a quiet leader, really a lot like Chris Borland. Not a bunch of rah-rah, but demands respect. He's done a nice job there." -- coach Gary Andersen
The skinny: Wisconsin loses almost its entire starting defensive front seven, including Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year and a starter for three-plus seasons. Landisch won't fill Borland's production and explosiveness by himself, but he's a solid player who should be able to guide younger players. "I'm trying to step up," Landisch said. "We need leaders on defense, we need an identity on defense."
Mike Hull, Penn State
Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 227 pounds; Canonsburg, Pa.
Career profile: 35 games, 154 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries
What they're saying: "Mike is very mature. He's football smart. I think he feels like it's his time. There's not a player I trust more than him." -- defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
The skinny: Hull has plenty of experience, but after understudying Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson, he steps to center stage this fall. He's a bit undersized but exceptionally strong, and while he's not the most vocal player, he understands the need to lead. "I try to be my own person, but I definitely take things from what Mauti did and what Glenn did," Hull said. "Mauti was such a great leader, demanded so much out of the guys. I want to be like the leader he was."
Quinton Alston, Iowa
Vitals: Senior, 6-1, 232 pounds; Sicklerville, N.J.
Career profile: 29 games, one start, 24 tackles, one fumble recovery
What they're saying: "James Morris really helped him out, showing how you need to lead. He takes command of the huddle when he's out there. We really like the progress that he's made. He's really got to be the quarterback of the defense." -- defensive coordinator Phil Parker
The skinny: Alston was Iowa's fourth linebacker last year and would have played more if starters Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey had left the field more. Communication is a strength of Alston's, and while he'll get help from a veteran line, he has to guide a new-look group that includes Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry.
Collin Ellis, Northwestern
Vitals: Senior, 6-2, 230 pounds; St. Gabriel, La.
Career profile: 33 games, 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups
What they're saying: "He's always given us leadership, but playing [middle linebacker] now, he's more positioned to do that because he's making more calls and he's communicating with all the groups. The players respect him." -- defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz
The skinny: Ellis started at outside linebacker last year but shifts to the middle after the loss of Damien Proby. He's a bit undersized for the middle spot but has good speed and intelligence. Ellis recorded two pick-sixes last year and moves well laterally. He also welcomes the increased leadership. "Last year, we were getting hurt up the middle, so that's where I'm supposed to fit," Ellis said. "It's a new position and obviously there's a bit of a learning curve I have to get over, but I played a bit of it last year.
Taiwan Jones, Michigan State
Vitals: Senior, 6-3, 252 pounds; New Baltimore, Mich.
Career profile: 41 games, 17 starts, 123 tackles 13 tackles for loss, four passes defended
What they're saying: "He's a more physical type of guy to begin with, so I think he brings a physical style in the box. He should be a little more at home there." -- defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi
The skinny: Jones moves from weakside linebacker to the middle, where he replaces three-year starter Max Bullough. He has the size to play the position but must master the schematic complexities that Bullough picked up so well in his career. Jones also talked this spring about leading with confidence to get his teammates to trust him.