College Football's Top Defensive Backs for 2012

Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson should have a big season with Mike Stoops calling the defense in Norman.

Interception totals can be fluky, but even when you take away his 13 picks from last season, NC State's David Amerson is one of college football's top defenders. At 6-foot-3 Amerson has the size to match up against any receiver in the ACC or across the nation. Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks has quietly emerged as one of the top corners in college football and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012. USC's T.J. McDonald leads the way at safety but LSU's Eric Reid, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson and Oregon's John Boyett will push him for the No. 1 ranking this season.

When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential. 

College Football's Top 20 Cornerbacks for 2012

1. David Amerson, NC State
At 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, Amerson has uncommon size for a cornerback. He also put up uncommon results last season. His 13 interceptions last season were an ACC record and one short of the FBS record held by Washington’s Al Worley. Amerson had four multi-interception games last season and returned two picks for touchdowns. Hard to believe, but Amerson did not have any interceptions in his first season in 2010.

2. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
While LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu will grab headlines for being one of the nation’s top playmakers at cornerbacks, Banks is quietly the SEC’s No. 1 coverman. He started all 13 games last season and earned first-team All-SEC honors, while recording 71 tackles and three forced fumbles. Banks is already drawing significant interest from the NFL, especially with his 6-foot-2 frame. The Mississippi native is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.

3. Nickell Robey, USC
An All-State second-team baseball player and district long jump champion, Robey faced no mystery of where he’d fit at USC. The junior has started every game in the secondary since he arrived on campus. Robey will make a bid at All-America status after recording 63 tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions last season (including one returned for a touchdown in the triple-overtime loss to Stanford).

4. Quandre Diggs, Texas
Just a freshman, Diggs stepped into one of the best defensive backfields in the country last season and fit right in. The younger brother of former Longhorn and San Diego Charger Quentin Jammer, Diggs had four interceptions last season. With Diggs a year older, the Texas secondary could be even better than the one that finished 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

5. Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
The Astoria, Ore., cornerback is one of the most underrated players in the entire country. As a lockdown cover corner, few in the league can match the Oregon State Beaver who has returned an interception for a touchdown in two straight seasons. He also took a punt back for a score against UCLA last fall. His special teams prowess make Poyer one of the biggest impact players in all of the Pac-12.

6. Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
While Greg Reid will be missed, Rhodes was Florida State’s top cover corner and should keep the Seminoles ranked among the top 25 in pass defense in 2012. Rhodes had a strong freshman year, recording 58 stops and four interceptions and earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. His play in 2011 dropped off a bit, but at 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, Rhodes should easily bounce back into All-American contention.

7. Johnny Adams, Michigan State
A third-year starter, Adams leads the top secondary in the Big Ten. NFL scouts will watch Adams closely in his final season on campus, a year after the Spartans ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense. He doesn’t have the gaudy interception numbers (though he had three in each of the last two seasons), but he’s an elite cover corner and stands out in run support.

8. Tharold Simon, LSU 
When is comes to NFL upside and potential, few nickelbacks have as much talent as the sophomore from Eunice, La. He finished third in the SEC with 10 pass break-ups in only two starts. He has a huge frame for a corner at 6-foot-3 and 193 pounds and many believe he is the best coverman on the LSU roster. In fact, much like Morris Claiborne did last fall, Simon will likely be locked-up with the opposition’s top wide receiver. It won’t take long for Simon to become a household name nationally in 2012.

9. Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State
It’s never easy being a cornerback in the Big 12, especially when you have to face offenses at Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and now West Virginia. Brown has been one of the league’s top corners over the last two years, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011. The senior isn’t the biggest corner (5-foot-8), but he broke up 15 passes and is a physical presence on the outside.

10. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
A second-team All-ACC selection last season, Fuller established himself as the next great Virginia Tech defensive back in 2011. After playing primarily in the Hokies’ nickel package in 2010, Fuller started all 14 games last season – half of those at nickel back/whip linebacker and the other seven at cornerback. Fuller led the team with 14.5 tackles for a loss and also added 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.

11. Carrington Byndom, Texas
The Lufkin, Texas native has appeared in 25 games during his two-year career. He started every game last fall and recorded 57 tackles, 8.0 tackles for a loss and two interceptions.

12. Dee Milliner, Alabama
The Tide lose three starters in the secondary, including two first-round draft picks, but Milliner has experience with 16 starts in the last two seasons. Like many on the Alabama roster, he’s a one-time stud recruit taking his turn in the spotlight. Three interceptions last season indicate he might be ready.

13. Ricardo Allen, Purdue
Since stepping onto campus in 2010, Allen has been an impact player for the Boilermakers’ defense. He earned freshman All-American accolades in 2010 by starting 12 games and returning two interceptions for a touchdown. Allen followed up his standout freshman year with a solid sophomore season, recording 81 tackles and three interceptions. Allen has been picked to the Thorpe Award watch list (the nation’s top defensive back) and is an Athlon first-team All-Big Ten selection for 2012. 

14. Logan Ryan, Rutgers
As a Thorpe and Benarik Award watch lister, Ryan might be the top pure coverman in the Big East. The in-state product (New Berlin, N.J.) posted 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 14 pass break ups and three interceptions as only a sophomore on what was easily the league’s top defense. Ryan is getting plenty of NFL attention and could be tempted to leave for the next level with another stellar year of play in Piscataway.

15. Micah Hyde, Iowa
Hyde has been a mainstay in the Hawkeyes’ secondary over the past two seasons, with 25 starts at cornerback and two at safety. Last season, he tied for first in the Big Ten in passes defended (11) and added three interceptions. He is a 2012 preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick by Athlon Sports.

16. Nigel Malone, Kansas State
The senior from Manteca, Calif., didn’t take long to prove to be another JUCO gem for Bill Snyder. The first-year player led the Big 12 in interceptions a year ago with seven and is the leading returnee in what is a depleted secondary. Expect quarterbacks to avoid Malone’s side of the field this time around.

17. Demontre Hurst, Oklahoma
Improving the pass defense is one of the top priorities for new coordinator Mike Stoops. The Sooners allowed 241.5 yards per game through the air last season, including 485 in the loss to Baylor. Hurst was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last season and has started 27 games over the last two years. The senior should be Oklahoma’s top corner, but this unit will have an uphill battle to earn first-team all-conference honors with Quandre Diggs, Brodrick Brown, Nigel Malone and Carrington Byndom all returning.

18. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Gilbert’s ability to cover wide receivers on the edge isn't the only thing he does extremely well. He is one of the league's fastest players and can be a dangerous return specialist as well — as indicated by his OSU record four kick return touchdowns.

19. Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Roby was a consensus three-star recruit out of Suwanee, Ga., but he must have learned something in his redshirt season in Columbus. The sophomore stepped right into the starting cornerback job last season. After finishing with 47 tackles and three interceptions in 2011, the new staff hopes to take advantage of Roby’s playmaking ability in his second season on the field.

20. Merrill Noel, Wake Forest
Jim Grobe’s penchant for redshirting freshmen paid off again as Noel was widely recognized as a freshman All-American last season. The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year had an astonishing 19 pass breakouts to go with 66 tackles and two picks.

College Football's Top 20 Safeties for 2012

1. T.J. McDonald, USC
The USC legacy — his father Tim was a two-time All-American at USC from 1983-1986 — is a powerful hitter at the back end of the No. 1 team in the nation. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior has 23 career starts, 163 career tackles and six career interceptions. The Fresno (Calif.) Edison product is an Athlon Sports All-American and Thorpe Award candidate heading into his final season.

2. Eric Reid, LSU
The hard-hitting safety became a force during his sophomore season, tying for the team lead in tackles (76) with cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Reid also forced two fumbles, had two interceptions and recovered a fumble last season for John Chavis’ stellar defense. Reid was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after an excellent performance in LSU’s 9-6 victory at Alabama during the regular season. His critical fourth-quarter interception in that game was a top play of the 2011 campaign.

3. Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
Few players exhibit as much raw athletic ability as the 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety. After playing a hybrid safety position which required much more time in the box, Jefferson has moved to his natural position of free safety. He will be allowed to flow all over the field and make plays now that Mike Stoops and Tim Kish are calling the plays. Jefferson has loads of talent supporting him, so the Sooners should be vastly improved in the secondary this fall.

4. John Boyett, Oregon
Playing for an underrated defense, Boyett’s status as one of the nation’s best safeties does not get much attention. Entering his fourth-season as a starter, Boyett has 276 career tackles. He fell one tackle short in 2010 of leading the Ducks in tackles in each of his three seasons on campus. Boyett is a touchdown-saving safety who also has nine career interceptions.

5. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
A stable force at the back end of Mack Brown’s defense since 2009, Vaccarro has played in 38 games in three seasons. The Brownwood, Texas safety nearly claimed the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award (honorable mention POY). He did a little bit of everything for Manny Diaz last fall as he set career highs in tackles (82) but also proved to be able to get into the opponent’s backfield with 8.0 TFL and 2.0 sacks. With loads of starting experience, and plenty of talent around him, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is easily one of the best safeties in the nation.

6. Matt Elam, Florida
Elam is the key player in a secondary that could be one of the SEC’s best. Elam was one of only five Gators to start every game last season, recording 78 tackles with 11 for a loss and seven pass break ups.

7. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
After playing in all 14 games at cornerback as a true freshman in 2010, Joyner moved back to safety in time for 2011 and emerged as one of the ACC’s top defensive backs. He recorded 54 stops and four interceptions, while earning first-team All-ACC honors. At 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, Joyner is a tad undersized for safety, but his physical presence, speed and range make up for any concerns about his height.

8. Robert Lester, Alabama
With Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick off to the NFL, the secondary needs a big year from Lester. The Alabama native been a starter over the last two years, earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2010 and has picked off 10 passes in his career. With inexperience at cornerback, Lester’s leadership will be valuable to a unit that could be under attack early in the year with games against Michigan and Arkansas. The senior is an Athlon Sports second-team All-SEC selection for 2012.

9. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
Rambo may be absent for the start of the season due to a suspension, which would be a major blow to the Georgia defense. Rambo was an AP first-team All-American last season after recording 55 tackles with a team-leading eight interceptions. Rambo was the key playmaker for a secondary that helped Georgia finish fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense.

10. C.J. Barnett, Ohio State
Barnett missed all but two games of 2010 but didn’t miss a beat when he returned to the Buckeyes last season. He led Ohio State with 75 tackles and provided his share of thundering hits in the secondary. He also had interceptions against Miami and Michigan State.

11. Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
Lewis quietly earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 74 tackles and four interceptions in his first year as a starter. The junior is regarded as one of the biggest hitters in the Big Ten and will have to assume more of a leadership role in 2012 with the departure of Trenton Robinson. 

12. Hakeem Smith, Louisville
After a Big East Rookie of the Year award back in 2010, Smith turned in a first-team All-Big East season as only a sophomore last fall. The Jonesboro, Ga., native has quickly supplanted himself as one of the most versatile safeties in the country. The junior has posted back-to-back 80-tackle seasons and has a chance to enter the NFL Draft in 2013 with another great campaign this year. Especially, if he can lead the Cardinals defense to a Big East Championship.

13. Shaq Thompson, Washington
This special freshman is a once in a decade type of prospect and it won't take long for wide receivers and running backs to take note of the massive safety. He should start right away and will be a force in run support as well as a head hunter in the passing game.

14. Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh
Holley is entering his fourth season as a starter for his third head coach with the Panthers. Holley set a career high in tackles last season with 67, but he’s also proven to be a ball hawk with five interceptions as a sophomore and three as a redshirt freshman. 

15. Terence Garvin, West Virginia
Garvin has been a steady performer for West Virginia over the last three years and will play a key role in the new 3-4 scheme in 2012. The Baltimore native has 158 tackles in his career and recorded two picks last season. With the Mountaineers moving to the Big 12, the defense will be facing more pass-first offenses in 2012. Sliding Garvin from safety to linebacker should help West Virginia counter some of those passing attacks, while also allowing him to roam around the line of the scrimmage a little more.

16. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Dixon was a huge catch for Baylor on the recruiting trail and the former top 100 recruit is poised for his best season in Waco. He made 89 stops and recorded one interception last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Dixon will man Baylor’s hybrid linebacker/defensive back position and should make a push for first or second-team all-conference honors.

17. Earl Wolff, NC State 
In one of the nation’s top secondaries, Wolff locks down the back end. He is a physical player at 6-foot-0 and 207 pounds and it showed with his 105 tackles last year — good for second on the team. He intercepted three passes while playing for a defense that led the ACC in turnover margin (+1.08/game). The senior from Raeford, N.C., returns for his final season with eyes on a conference championship.

18. Duron Harmon, Rutgers
After spending his first two years as a backup, Harmon emerged as one of the leaders in the secondary in 2011. He made 49 tackles and picked off five passes, en route to earning first-team All-Big East honors. With another offseason to work as the starter, Harmon build upon last year's success with another All-Big East campaign in 2012.

19. Isaiah Johnson, Georgia Tech
Johnson is a player on the rise after starting all 13 games as a sophomore last season. The Georgia native recorded 78 stops and three interceptions last year and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-ACC selection for 2012. Expect Johnson to be active around the line of scrimmage, as well as contributing significantly to Georgia Tech's pass defense.

20. Brian Blechen, Utah
Blechen improved upon his standout freshman season as a sophomore, recording 78 tackles with two sacks, nine tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and three interceptions.


Writeups compiled by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Mark Ross and Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

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