In the grind-it-out Big Ten, defense reigns supreme. There are no run-and-gun offenses or hyper-speed Chip Kelly schemes. Teams prevail by winning battles in the trenches and beating the heck out of opponents for 60 minutes. Substance trumps style.
From Pat Fitzgerald to James Laurinaitis, the conference's defensive players of the year have always embodied that approach. This year's winner is no exception.
"To be mentioned in that light is pretty special to me," Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said recently. "They're all tremendous players."
If you don't recognize Kerrigan's name, you're not alone. Few outside of West Lafayette, Ind., do. But he's a player worth getting to know.
To understand why, look at the chart on the right and consider how Kerrigan's past two years with the Boilermakers stack up to Ndamukong Suh's final two seasons with Nebraska -- a span during which Suh was named AP Player of the Year and finished fourth in Heisman voting.
Playing for the floundering Boilermakers, Kerrigan has been overshadowed by fellow Big Ten defensive line standouts such as Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Northwestern's Vince Browne. The Purdue senior is college football's best-kept secret.
Kerrigan's success results from his stamina. He often plays up to 90 snaps per game -- an outrageous number for a defensive lineman -- and wears out tackles with his relentless pursuit of the ball-carrier. His ability to ward off fatigue was evident earlier this summer.
"Our first 12, 13 practices, it was triple-digits heat wise," said Purdue coach Danny Hope. "A lot of guys lost weight, lost strength and wore down. He just kept getting stronger. His stamina really separates him."
So does his strength. The 6-foot-4, 263-pound Kerrigan bench presses a mind-blowing 475 pounds (Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, by comparison, bench presses 385 pounds), but still possesses the speed to blow by offensive linemen. He's repeatedly ripped down quarterbacks with one arm while jarring the ball loose with the other, allowing him to rack up 14 career forced fumbles, the most in Big Ten history.
He's also been a leader. Purdue lost its entire starting secondary and four of its top five linemen entering 2010, forcing Kerrigan to anchor a developing unit. He responded with five sacks and three forced fumbles as the team raced to a 4-2 start, a span during which the defense allowed just 20.3 points per game.
"He certainly wasn't a cheerleader type," said Hope, "but when Ryan needed to get their attention, he spoke up. The rest of the time he led by example."
Purdue's promising start didn't last, as the defense surrendered 37 points per contest during an 0-6 finish. It was a return to normalcy for the Boilermakers, who have gone just 13-23 (8-16 Big Ten) since Kerrigan's sophomore season.
That record has relegated Kerrigan to a spectator during bowl season, but that doesn't mean he'll be resting this December. He plans to watch game film, increase his lifting regimen and complete cardio exercises to better position himself for the NFL combine in the spring. He's looking to improve his draft stock, though many analysts already have him projected as a mid-to-late first round pick.
"I'll work on my flexibility a lot, especially in my hips," Kerrigan said. "I'll also work on incorporating more pass rush moves into my repertoire."
He'll also work on making a name for himself, something that was increasingly difficult at Purdue. Kerrigan's anonymity stems from his team's sustained mediocrity, and despite his staggering statistics he was omitted from consideration for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award and even the Rotary Lombardi Award. He's hardly a blip on the national radar.
During the 2011 NFL Draft, that low-profile could change. Kerrigan's blend of work-ethic and Hulk-like strength make him a desirable prospect, and he'll look to follow Anthony Spencer, Shaun Phillips and Rosevelt Colvin as Purdue linemen who made a splash in the pros.
Hope certainly believes Kerrigan will be a star. "He's the total package in a lot of ways," the coach said. "He has good speed. He has exceptional strength. All the intangibles are there.
"You can't go wrong with Ryan Kerrigan."