Finding and evaluating cornerbacks and safeties is one of the most difficult jobs for any college football coaching staff. Competition level and a variety of offenses in high school create a several obstacles in player evaluation. But for some programs, finding the next stars at defensive back is an easy task. LSU and Florida consistently bring in and develop defensive back talent. And it’s no surprise the Tigers and Gators are at the top of the defensive backfield rankings for 2015.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2015 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2015, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2014.
College Football's Top 30 Defensive Backfields for 2015
Pass defense is an annual strength in Baton Rouge, and the 2015 version of LSU’s defensive backfield will be tough on opposing quarterbacks once again. Two starters depart, but the Tigers will reload with another wave of elite recruits. Tre’Davious White was one of the SEC’s top cover corners last season, recording two interceptions and helping LSU rank third nationally in pass efficiency defense. Sophomore Ed Paris, junior Dwayne Thomas or five-star freshman Kevin Toliver II will start opposite White at corner. True freshman Donte Jackson is another name to watch at cornerback. Jalen Mills and rising star Jamal Adams form one of the nation’s top duos at safety, but Mills is out indefinitely due to an ankle injury suffered in fall camp. The Tigers allowed only nine passing scores in SEC games last year.
Despite an offense that ranked near the bottom of the SEC, Florida’s defense led the conference by holding opponents to 4.6 yards per play. And even with end Dante Fowler off to the NFL, the Gators should be near the top of the league once again. New coordinator Geoff Collins is known for his aggressive play-calling and inherits a secondary loaded with elite talent, including All-America corner Vernon Hargreaves III. Sophomore Jalen Tabor is expected to win the battle to start at the other corner spot. Safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye and nickel back Brian Poole round out a starting group that limited SEC opponents to 11 passing scores in 2014.
3. Ohio State
Standout corner Doran Grant will be missed, but Ohio State returns three starters from a secondary that ranked 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Eli Apple started 14 games as a redshirt freshman last season and led all Buckeye defenders with 10 pass breakups. Sophomore Gareon Conley is expected to replace Grant, while Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb provide extra support at corner. Juniors Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell are as active as any starting safety combination in the nation, recording 10 interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2014.
Despite ranking 14th nationally in pass efficiency defense last year, Virginia Tech had trouble stopping big plays in the passing game. The Hokies surprisingly allowed 21 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up four of 50-plus yards. With junior Kendall Fuller — an Athlon Sports first-team All-American — back at cornerback, along with the return of Brandon Facyson from injury, Virginia Tech’s secondary should eliminate some of the big plays that plagued this unit last year. Chuck Clark, Donovan Riley, Desmond Frye and Greg Stroman opened fall practice as the favorites to claim the starting spots at safety and rover. True freshmen Mook Reynolds and Adonis Alexander are also expected to factor into the mix for snaps.
5. Ole Miss
Two starters — cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt — depart from a secondary that picked off 19 passes and ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense last year. Additionally, cornerback Mike Hilton was shifted to safety, opening the door for two new cornerbacks at Ole Miss in 2015. Despite the player movement, the Rebels will be tough against the pass once again. Safety Tony Conner should assume Prewitt’s job as an all-around playmaker in the secondary, while junior college recruits Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges are ready to step into the starting jobs at cornerback after standout spring performances.
Some of the statistical numbers for USC were a bit unsightly in terms of pass defense last season. However, the overall pass defense numbers aren’t the best way to evaluate a secondary. While the Trojans were 115th nationally in pass defense, this unit ranked 38th nationally in pass efficiency defense (a better metric to evaluate defensive backfields) and gave up only 12 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014. With three starters returning, along with a full season of Adoree’ Jackson at cornerback, USC’s pass defense is poised to rank among the best in the Pac-12 this season. Jackson will be joined by senior Kevon Seymour at cornerback, with Chris Hawkins, John Plattenburg, Leon McQuay III and Marvell Tell rounding out the top options at safety.
The Big 12’s top defensive backfields usually reside at Texas, Oklahoma or TCU. But that’s not the case in 2015. The Mountaineers return all five starters from a unit that limited Big 12 quarterbacks to a 51.1 completion percentage and surrendered only 12 passing scores in conference games. Cornerback Daryl Worley missed two games due to suspension last season but still tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and recorded 52 tackles. Worley is one of the nation’s most underrated defenders. Joining Worley at cornerback will be Terrell Chestnut, while the safety positions are in good hands with Dravon Henry, All-America candidate Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon.
P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby will be missed at cornerback, but coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well at this position and a quick reload should be in order. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Jalen Ramsey – arguably the best defensive back in college football – is shifting from safety to cornerback to ease the loss of Williams and Darby. Not only is Ramsey an elite cornerback, his versatility is a huge asset for coordinator Charles Kelly. Marquez White is expected to win the spot opposite of Ramsey at cornerback. Nate Andrews, Tyler Hunter, Lamarcus Brutus and Trey Marshall (a rising star) will anchor the safety/nickel positions. True freshman Derwin James will be tough for Kelly keep on the sidelines.
9. Boise State
This group has work to do, but there are plenty of reasons for coordinator Marcel Yates to be optimistic. Three starters return, including All-Mountain West picks in cornerback Donte Deayon and safety Darian Thompson. This duo combined for 13 interceptions last season and anchored a secondary ranked 31st nationally in pass efficiency defense. Joining Thompson and Deayon in the lineup should be Jonathan Moxey (cornerback), rising star Dylan Sumner-Gardner at safety, while Chanceller James and Mercy Maston are fighting for the edge at nickelback. The Broncos allowed only 10 passing scores in Mountain West games last season.
The Badgers quietly had one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backfields last season. This unit ranked 32nd nationally in pass efficiency defense and limited Big Ten quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 47.4. With three starters back, high expectations surround this group. The cornerback duo of Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton should be among the nation’s best, and safety Michael Caputo should push for All-America honors. One goal of this unit in 2015: Improve takeaways. Wisconsin picked off only three passes in Big Ten games last year.
11. Penn State
14. Notre Dame
24. Oklahoma State
26. Kansas State