Examining which teams have the top defensive backfield in college football
Some of college football's top defensive backs from 2017 left for the NFL, but this position is still stocked with talent for the upcoming season. Washington's defense has ranked among the best in college football in each of the last three years, and coach Chris Petersen's group takes the top spot in Athlon's defensive backfield rankings for 2018. Cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp are preseason All-America selections by Athlon Sports and will be the anchors for this unit. Michigan isn't far behind at No. 2, while Florida checks in at No. 3. Clemson and Ohio State round out the top five.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2018 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different coordinator, the addition of a touted freshman or transfer or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2018, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2017.
College Football's Top 25 Defensive Backfields for 2018
A secondary stocked with standout coverage options at cornerback, along with playmakers and speed to cover up mistakes at safety, is a must in the offensive-minded Pac-12. The Huskies certainly have that formula and then some. Cornerback Byron Murphy was poised for a breakout year until he was sidelined for seven games due to injury. If he can stay healthy, Murphy can be an All-America corner this fall. Jordan Miller, Austin Joyner and Myles Bryant are proven starters at cornerback, with Elijah Molden and Julius Irvin providing depth. Athlon Sports first-team All-American Taylor Rapp and senior JoJo McIntosh are set at the safety spots.
Finding open receivers against Michigan’s secondary was nearly impossible last season. The Wolverines limited passers to a 48.8 completion percentage, allowed just 11 passing scores and surrendered only four plays of 40 yards or more. This unit is likely to be even better in 2018. Cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill are more comfortable in their second year as starters. Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus had their share of ups and downs in their first season as the primary safeties but will be pushed by Utah transfer Casey Hughes, Brad Hawkins and sophomores J’Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell for snaps.
Playing cornerback as a true freshman in the SEC isn’t easy. However, Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson played beyond their years last season, providing a strong foundation for the immediate future. Wilson was the better option in coverage, breaking up 10 passes and recording 34 stops over 11 contests. Henderson picked off four passes and returned two for touchdowns. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will slide to the nickel spot after playing at safety the last two years. Brad Stewart and Jeawon Taylor anchor the safety positions.
The Tigers return two starters from a secondary that helped Clemson rank fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential after earning honorable mention All-ACC honors. Mark Fields battled injuries for most of 2017 but is back at full strength to join Mullen at cornerback. Sophomore A.J. Terrell and true freshman Kyler McMichael are expected to work as the backup corners. Juniors Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace enter fall camp penciled into the safety spots. Sophomore Isaiah Simmons recorded 45 tackles last year and is expected to battle for snaps.
5. Ohio State
It’s an annual tradition in Columbus for the Buckeyes to lose standout defensive backs only to have the next wave of stars ready to step up. Cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb depart after guiding the secondary to a No. 13 finish in pass efficiency defense in 2017. Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield are an experienced pair of corners and will be joined by rising star Jeffrey Okudah to give coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch a talented trio at the position. Jordan Fuller collected 70 tackles and two interceptions in a breakout season at safety last fall. He’s joined by Isaiah Pryor at safety.
8. Florida State
10. Michigan State
12. Boise State
15. Penn State
16. Boston College
18. Notre Dame
25. Washington State