Ranking the SEC's best safeties after spring ball
Post-spring position rankings
In the weeks following the 2015 spring practice season, we at SDS have been ranking our top 10 players by position as of the end of the spring.
You can take a look at our previous position rankings above, and can check out our top 10 SEC safeties after spring ball below:
10. Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Watts is one of the most gifted safeties on this list, and he’d rank so much higher if only he could tackle well. Unfortunately, a heap of missed tackles in 2014 (albeit Watt’s freshman season) kept Watts from emerging as the playmaker Aggies fans hoped he’d be, even though he regularly positioned himself in the right place to make a play on most snaps. He’s above-average in coverage and has great instincts for a young player, and if John Chavis continues to improve his tackling the way he did this spring, Watts will rank much higher on next year’s edition of this list.
9. A.J. Stamps, Kentucky: Stamps is a natural athlete who’s incredible explosiveness and closing speed make him a treat to watch in the secondary. He’s still working on positioning himself better in different situations, but he possesses the natural ability to make up for a minor mistake on a given play, resulting in one of the conference’s toughest safeties to attack. His one-handed leaping interception in his first career FBS game last season proved that Stamps is a natural playmaker, and as a rising senior with a year of SEC experience under his belt he should be even better this fall as the anchor of UK’s secondary.
8. Trae Elston, Ole Miss: Elston plays the unique Rover position on the Ole Miss defense, allowing him to lineup all over the field depending on the opponent’s personnel and the situation in a game. Although he’s not the biggest safety on this list, he’ll line up deep in coverage or close to the line of scrimmage, and his aggressive nature, in tandem with the talent surrounding him on the Rebels’ defense, should allow him to amass some impressive numbers in 2015. He’s a veteran who knows the position well, and that should allow him to maximize his role as a rising senior.
7. Marcus Maye, Florida: Maye might be the luckiest safety in the SEC, getting to play in a secondary that includes three above-average corners: junior and two-time All-SEC selection Vernon Hargreaves, senior Brian Poole and sophomore Jalen Tabor. Those three will all give Maye more freedom to break on plays from sideline to sideline, allowing him to add to his 62 tackles, five pass breakups, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 2014.
6. Johnathan Ford, Auburn: Ford returns to a secondary that just lost two starters from a year ago, meaning he and Jonathan Jones will have to step up and take on added responsibilities in 2015. Ford led the team with 93 tackles a year ago, due in large part to a lackluster front seven in front of him, but it does show he has a tremendous ability to keep plays in front of him and to limit big gains from turning into long touchdowns for the opposition. He added three interceptions, and with a better front seven in front of him this season in Will Muschamp’s defense look for Whitehead to have more freedom to make plays all over the field.
5. Jamal Adams, LSU: Adams spent last season coming off the bench behind Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin, but he’s shown flashes of excellence during his brief career that lead us to believe he will emerge as a star on the LSU defense this fall. He logged 66 tackles a year ago, four more than Mills (although Adams plays strong safety so that’s not completely unusual), and is explosive when playing in the box, tracking down ball-carriers or getting after the quarterback with a tremendous motor. Now a full-time starter, Adams should excel in additional playing time this season.
4. Quincy Mauger, Georgia: Mauger broke out in 2014 with 51 tackles and a whopping four interceptions, tied for the second-most by any player returning to the SEC this season. He’s instinctive in coverage and a courageous tackler, and those traits will serve him well in the SEC East this fall as his Georgia Bulldogs aim to capitalize on a weak division. With a tremendous amount of talent returning in Georgia’s front seven, look for Mauger to be a playmaker in the secondary.
3. Brian Randolph, Tennessee: Randolph is a rare veteran on Tennessee’s young, emerging roster, and his experience at the safety position will go a long way in bettering the Tennessee defense. His 88 tackles a year ago indicate a player who excels as the last line of defense, making tackles that if not made would have resulted in touchdowns by the opposition. He also picked off two passes a year ago and scored the team’s only defensive touchdown all season. But most importantly, he’s a player who is almost always in the right place to make a play, and he and junior Cam Sutton will be charged with carrying the Tennessee secondary this fall in a league lacking quarterback talent.
2. Jalen Mills, LSU: Mills enjoyed a breakout season a year ago, converting from cornerback to safety on his way to becoming one of the best coverage safeties in the conference. His 62 tackles also ranked seventh on the team a year ago and third among players returning in 2015, and that added dimension to his game is what makes him such a dangerous playmaker at the back end of the defense. It’s still early, but Mills will receive plenty of NFL draft buzz if he performs this season as he did a year ago.
1. Tony Conner, Ole Miss: Conner is the best strong safety in the SEC, excelling when playing close to the line of scrimmage but also handling himself better in coverage than most at his position. He’s certainly among the hardest-hitting defensive backs in the conference, and his ability to make plays all over the field should continue to elevate the vaunted Landshark defense again this fall. Conner has begun receiving hype as a potential first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft should he choose to leave school a year early, and that NFL-caliber talent will serve him well as a junior this year.