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, Alabama and Florida consistently bring in and develop defensive back talent. And it’s no surprise these three SEC squads are near the top of the rankings. Additionally, Washington and Michigan should boast two of the nation's top defensive backfields this fall.
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 2016 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 2016, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2015.
College Football's Top 50 Defensive Backfields for 2016
The Tigers were expected to boast a standout secondary in 2015 but finished 51st nationally in pass efficiency defense. There’s too much talent to expect a repeat in 2016. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams are two All-America candidates for new coordinator Dave Aranda. White is also expected to slide into the nickel back at times, with Donte Jackson projected to work as his top backup. Ed Paris and Kevin Toliver are battling for snaps at the other corner spot. The Tigers also inked two of the nation's top prospects at cornerback in Kristian Fulton and Saivion Smith. Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas join Adams as key contributors at safety.
The Crimson Tide finished eighth nationally in pass efficiency defense last season, and there’s reason to believe this unit could be even better in 2016. Former five-star recruits Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick combined for five interceptions and 19 pass breakups as freshmen last season and are slotted in as the two starters at cornerback. Moving Eddie Jackson to safety provided the secondary with more athleticism and versatility, and he responded with six interceptions and 46 stops in 2015. Sophomore Ronnie Harrison is projected to start alongside Jackson at safety.
Safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones anchor one of the stingiest pass defenses in the nation. Baker and Jones are candidates for All-America honors after leading a secondary that held conference opponents to just nine passing scores and a No. 2 ranking in pass efficiency defense in the Pac-12. Senior Kevin King is expected to start opposite of Jones at cornerback, while sophomore Jojo McIntosh round out the starting group at safety. There’s quality depth here with the return of safety Ezekiel Turner and cornerbacks Darren Gardenhire and Jordan Miller.
Success for opposing quarterbacks was hard to come by against Michigan’s secondary last year. The Wolverines finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense and held quarterbacks to a 47.5 completion percentage. Even with safety Jabrill Peppers moving to linebacker under new coordinator Don Brown, the Wolverines won’t suffer too much in pass coverage. Standout cornerback Jourdan Lewis recorded 20 pass breakups and 52 tackles last year in earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. Experience at this position is a huge asset for Brown, as all four projected starters will be seniors in 2016.
The departures of Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole certainly sting, but Florida has enough returning pieces to remain near the top of the nation in pass defense. Jalen Tabor quietly turned in a solid performance last season in the shadow of Hargreaves, finishing with 40 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Tabor is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for the 2016 season. Junior Quincy Wilson had a standout spring and is slated to start opposite Tabor, with Duke Dawson and true freshman Chauncey Gardner also factoring into the mix. The safety position is in good hands with All-America candidate Marcus Maye and junior Nick Washington. The Gators surrendered only eight passing scores in SEC play last year.
6. Florida State
Jalen Ramsey’s departure to the NFL is a huge loss, but the Seminoles might not miss the first-round pick as much as some believe. Marquez White was a standout in pass coverage last season and replaces Ramsey as this unit’s No. 1 corner. Vying for Ramsey’s starting spot will be two talented sophomores in Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis. Nate Andrews and Trey Marshall are the team’s most experienced options at safety, but sophomore Derwin James could develop into the defense’s best player by the end of 2016. Five-star recruit Levonta Taylor will be tough to keep on the sidelines and should see plenty of snaps this fall.
Washington gets the nod as our top secondary from the Pac-12, but the Bruins aren’t far behind. This unit allowed only 15 passing scores in league play, while opposing quarterbacks completed just 57.1 percent of their throws against UCLA. Three starters are back for coach Jim Mora, and this unit will receive a boost with the return of cornerback Fabian Moreau from injury. With Moreau and Marcus Rios returning at cornerback, Mora was able to move dynamic senior Ishmael Adams to receiver. The safety combination of Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth is among the nation’s best.
Three starters return for an Oklahoma secondary that led the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense in 2015. Zack Sanchez garnered most of the attention as the team’s top cornerback last year, but Jordan Thomas quietly turned in a standout year and moves into the No. 1 corner role in 2016. Senior Dakota Austin is slated to replace Sanchez on the other side, while junior Will Johnson is penciled in at nickel back. Converted receiver Michiah Quick, sophomore P.J. Mbanasor and former Baylor signee Parrish Cobb will provide depth at cornerback. The safety combination of Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker is the best in the Big 12.
Big Ten quarterbacks didn’t find much room to throw against the Iowa secondary last season. The Hawkeyes allowed only seven passing scores and held quarterbacks to a 53.6 completion percentage through nine conference games in 2015. This unit should be just as strong in 2016. Cornerback Desmond King is one of the nation’s top returning defenders and the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner. King broke up 13 passes and collected eight interceptions last fall. Senior Greg Mabin is expected to start opposite of King at cornerback. Junior Miles Taylor (69 stops) returns after starting all 14 games last season, while sophomore Brandon Snyder is expected to claim the free safety spot vacated by Jordan Lomax (expired eligibility).
The Bulldogs led all SEC teams in pass efficiency defense last season and surrendered only six passing scores all year in league action. However, new coach Kirby Smart is challenging this group to elevate its play. The pass defense numbers were skewed slightly with with two matchups against option teams, as well as a weak group of quarterbacks from the SEC East. Even if this group has room to improve, there’s a lot to like about this secondary. Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish return as the starters are cornerback, with sophomores Rico McGraw and Juwuan Briscoe and freshmen Mecole Hardman providing depth. Senior Quincy Mauger returns at free safety, while Dominick Sanders – a candidate for All-America honors – is back at strong safety. Alabama transfer Maurice Smith is expected to slide into the nickel back role.
11. Michigan State
16. Ohio State
19. Ole Miss
20. North Carolina
23. Texas A&M
24. Penn State
27. Oklahoma State
29. Boston College
30. Virginia Tech
31. San Diego State
32. Washington State
33. Kent State
35. Notre Dame
45. Kansas State
50. Iowa State