They’re the teams within the team — those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it’s the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball — these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a team to New Year’s Day — or beyond.
It’s entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 20 Defensive Backfields for 2012
1. Texas – The Longhorns allowed just over 200 passing yards per game last season, but opponents managed to score only 13 times through the air. Quandre Diggs broke up 13 passes and recorded four interceptions last season to earn Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. Cornerback Carrington Byndom earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in his first season as a starter in 2011. Blake Gideon departs at safety, but Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips should be a standout duo in 2012.
2. LSU – The Tigers will miss shutdown corner Morris Claiborne but should still rank among the best in the nation in pass defense. Tyrann Mathieu can’t match Claiborne’s cover ability, but he is one of the team’s top defensive playmakers. Tharold Simon will start on the other side, while Jalen Collins will be the third corner. Eric Reid is coming off a standout season and will join Craig Loston as a starter at safety.
3. Michigan State – The Spartans allowed 20 touchdown passes last year but ranked 11th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. Three starters are back for 2012, including cornerback Johnny Adams. The senior emerged as a shutdown corner last season and could contend for All-America honors. Darqueze Dennard will start at the other corner spot. Isaiah Lewis is one of the Big Ten’s top safeties, while Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson will vie to replace Trenton Robinson at free safety.
4. Ohio State – Last season was considered a down year for defense in Columbus, but the Buckeyes still finished 14th nationally in pass defense. Four starters return for co-coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers, giving Ohio State one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. Cornerback Bradley Roby is an emerging star, while Travis Howard is expected to start at the other corner spot after recording 41 tackles and two interceptions last year. Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett could be the Big Ten’s top tandem at safety in 2012.
5. USC – The numbers weren’t particularly pretty for the Trojans last season. The secondary allowed 263.3 yards per game through the air, which ranked 102nd nationally and ninth in the Pac-12. While this unit gave up some yardage, it allowed only 17 passing scores. Expect USC to have the Pac-12’s top secondary in 2012, as all four starters return, including All-American safety T.J. McDonald. Cornerback Nickell Robey is an underrated player on the national level, while senior Isiah Wiley and Jawanza Starling look to build off their 2011 seasons.
6. Oklahoma State – Numbers don’t always paint a true picture of the effectiveness of any secondary. The Cowboys ranked 107th nationally in passing yards allowed last season but ranked 20th in pass efficiency defense. This group should improve upon those numbers in 2012, especially with three starters coming back to Stillwater. The cornerback duo of Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert is quietly among the nation’s best, while safety Daytawion Lowe is back after leading the team with 97 tackles last season.
7. Florida State – This unit suffered a setback with the dismissal of cornerback Greg Reid, but the Seminoles still rank No. 1 in the ACC and in the top 10 nationally of defensive backfields. Xavier Rhodes is a shutdown corner and could leave early for the NFL with a big 2012 season. Replacing Reid at the other corner spot will likely be sophomore Nick Waisome. Safety Lamarcus Joyner was a second-team All-ACC selection last year and will be joined by Terrence Brooks and Karlos Williams at free safety.
8. Florida – Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the SEC: The Gators ranked seventh in pass defense last year and could be even better in 2012. Junior Matt Elam is on the verge of becoming an All-American at strong safety, while sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy are coming off solid debut seasons. There’s plenty of proven depth in this unit, as Cody Riggs, Jaylen Watkins and De’Ante Saunders all have experience.
9. Oklahoma – The Sooners took a lot of criticism for their play in the secondary last season, but there is hope for a quick turnaround in 2012. New coordinator Mike Stoops is an excellent secondary coach, and this unit also has four starters from last year back in the mix. The only key departure from the defensive backfield is cornerback Jamell Fleming, but Demontre Hurst, Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin is a good trio to shut down opposing passing attacks. Tony Jefferson should be this unit’s best player, while senior Javon Harris is expected to get the nod at strong safety.
10. Virginia Tech – As long as the Hokies stay healthy, the secondary is one of the best in the ACC. Any injury could be a major issue, especially with very little proven depth in the defensive backfield. Kyle Fuller earned second-team All-ACC honors last season and will be joined by converted safety Antone Exum at cornerback. Sophomore safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner have talent but lack experience.
11. NC State – With 14 returning starters from a team that closed out 2011 with wins in four out of their final five games, the Wolfpack are a popular sleeper pick in 2012. The defense should be one of the best in the ACC this year, especially with the return of cornerback David Amerson, who led the NCAA with 13 picks last year. Three seniors round out the starting jobs around Amerson, including Athlon Sports 2012 first-team All-ACC safety Earl Wolff.
12. Georgia – Suspensions have clouded the Bulldogs’ secondary in uncertainty early in the year, but this unit should rank among the best in the SEC at the end of 2012. Cornerback Sanders Commings is suspended for the first two games (including the SEC opener against Missouri), while safety Bacarri Rambo could miss the first four contests. Senior Branden Smith and safety Shawn Williams will anchor the other two starting spots in the secondary, and this group is expected to get a boost with receiver Malcolm Mitchell playing on both sides of the ball early in the year.
13. Alabama – There are some big shoes to fill this fall as the Crimson Tide look to find replacements for cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron. There’s a solid foundation to build around with senior Robert Lester back at free safety and junior cornerback Dee Milliner returning with 17 career starts. John Fulton and junior college recruits Travell Dixon and Deion Belue will battle to replace Kirkpatrick. Sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and HaHa Clinton-Dix are locked into a tight battle to fill Barron’s strong safety spot.
14. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights were quietly one of the nation’s stingiest pass defenses last season. This unit allowed only eight touchdown passes, while holding quarterbacks to a 51.8 completion percentage. David Rowe must be replaced at strong safety, but three other starters are back, including 2011 second-team All-Big East selection Logan Ryan. Strong safety Duron Harmon earned first-team honors last year after recording 49 tackles and five interceptions.
15. Oregon – Like the other units on Oregon’s defense, the secondary suffered a few losses, but there are few concerns about this group going into 2012. Coordinator Nick Aliotti does a good job of rotating players in and out of the lineup, which allows the reserves to gain plenty of valuable experience. The headliner for this group will be senior John Boyett. Sophomore cornerback Terrance Mitchell is a rising star to watch this season.
16. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs numbers against the pass were a little deceiving last year. Although they finished 11th in the SEC in pass defense, that placed them 27th overall in the nation. Cornerback Johnthan Banks is the SEC’s top cover corner and should be an All-American candidate in 2012. Senior Corey Broomfield doesn’t have the all-conference recognition that Banks gets but is a steady performer on the other side. Safety is a slight concern, especially with Nickoe Whitley recovering from a torn Achilles.
17. Utah – The Utes ranked 74th nationally against the pass last season but allowed only 18 passing scores and recorded 19 interceptions. Expect this unit to be solid once again in 2012 with three returning starters, including likely All-Pac-12 safety Brian Blechen. Fellow safety Eric Rowe started all 13 games as a freshman last year and should be even better as a sophomore. Seniors Mo Lee and Ryan Lacy should be steady options at cornerback.
18. Michigan – Much like the rest of the Wolverines’ defense in 2011, the secondary made significant improvement in the stat column. After allowing 261.9 passing yards per game in 2010, Michigan cut that number to 190.5 in 2011. Three starters are back for 2012, including promising sophomore Blake Countess at cornerback and senior Jordan Kovacs at safety.
19. Nebraska – Replacing Alfonzo Dennard (the Big Ten’s top defensive back in 2011) will be the top priority for new secondary coach Terry Joseph. The good news for the Cornhuskers is three starters are back, including senior safety Daimion Stafford and promising junior college transfer Mohammed Seisay.
20. Georgia Tech – The Yellow Jackets boast an underrated secondary, which returns three All-ACC candidates for 2012. Georgia Tech ranked second in the ACC in pass defense last year, and quarterbacks completed less than 56 percent of throws against this secondary. Cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Isaiah Johnson should be the headliners for this unit in 2012.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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