Ranking the Top 10 SEC defensive backs entering 2016 season
It’s not supposed to be a banner year in the SEC at quarterback. Defensive backs are licking their chops.
Of the 15 defenders in the conference who intercepted three or more passes last season, 12 were cornerbacks and safeties who have eligibility left for 2016. There is a bunch of talent on the back end.
Pass defense has never been tougher to play at the college level, as the proliferation of spread-option schemes — coupled with rules too heavily tilted toward the offense — has put increased pressure on the secondary. If corners and safeties don’t have a reliable pass rush helping them, there’s simply no escape.
But the No. 3 corner off the board in April’s draft was Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves. The No. 2 safety to hear his name called was his teammate, Keanu Neal. The NFL is looking to this league for secondary help.
Here are our Top 10 defensive backs in the SEC for 2016, although one is in for a position switch.
10. Johnathan Ford, Auburn: His greatness is not measured like a traditional defensive back, as his two interceptions and two passes broken up this past year won’t turn any heads. That being said, Ford might be the premier tackler in the league among secondary players. His 118 total stops in 2015 was quite a number, plus he even averaged 28.7 yards on 15 kick returns.
9. Donovan Wilson, Texas A&M: Technically not a starter since he’s listed as a nickel back, Wilson was all over the final statistics for the Aggies in 2015. Not only did he rank third in the conference with five interceptions, but as an in-the-box defender he recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and was credited with 2.0 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder forced three fumbles, too.
8. Chris Westry, Kentucky: Overlooked to some degree on the recruiting trail due to his shooting guard-like frame at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Westry was one of the best pass defenders in the SEC a year ago straight out of high school. Not enough fans noticed, of course, as he did it for a basketball-first program in Lexington. You’ll hear about him more often in 2016, though.
7. Jamal Adams, LSU: Take a look at the defensive stat sheet from a season ago in Baton Rouge, and you’ll see Adams’ name all over the place. He registered 67 tackles. Five were behind the line of scrimmage. Interceptions? Four, tied for fourth in the SEC. Six more passes were broken up after being thrown his way.
6. Cameron Sutton, Tennessee: A first-team All-SEC choice by reporters at Media Days last month, Sutton was actually third on his own team in passes broken up last year. He didn’t get his hands on one interception, either. However, statistics can sometimes be deceiving for a corner when the ball doesn’t come his way that often. He’s a magnificent punt returner, too.
5. Oren Burks, Vanderbilt: The aforementioned defensive back who has been asked to change positions, Burks was a standout lining up at safety for the Commodores in 2015 with three INTs and six PBUs. But he’s such a force near the line of scrimmage that coach Derek Mason is moving him to “star,” which is more of a hybrid safety/linebacker. Burks’ tackle total of 59 from a season ago likely spikes.
4. Tre’Davious White, LSU: Similar to Sutton above, don’t be fooled by the fact that White didn’t pick off any passes in 2015. The Bayou Bengals have put defensive backs in the NFL at a staggering rate under coach Les Miles, and White is on his way to the pros, too. If his fingers get a little stickier defending the pass, he could be destined for Round 1.
3. Dominick Sanders, Georgia: What a 2015 for Sanders. He intercepted six passes, one of which he brought all the way to paydirt. He broke up six others. Now that Kirby Smart has left his post as defensive coordinator at Alabama to take the top job in Athens, Sanders may be set up to enjoy even more success. Remember, Smart has coached safeties at the college and NFL levels as an assistant.
2. Eddie Jackson, Alabama: A quintessential ballhawk patrolling the secondary, Jackson tied for the conference lead in 2015 with six INTs. He also knows what to do with the pigskin in his hands, as two of those picks he returned for touchdowns. The rest of the Crimson Tide secondary is a bit on the young side, but Jackson is now a senior and overflowing with experience.
1. Jalen Tabor, Florida: Hargreaves enjoyed a sensational career in Gainesville for three seasons and went 11th overall in the draft to his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nevertheless, there are tape junkies out there who will tell you Tabor was the better defender in 2015. With Hargreaves and Neal now cashing paychecks, Tabor is the unquestioned Alpha in the secondary.
MISSING THE CUT
Minkah Fitzpatrick/Marlon Humphrey, Alabama: These two corners, plus safety Ronnie Harrison, are rising sophomores soon to be among the elite in the SEC. They might be a year away, though.
Carlton Davis, Auburn: Unlike Ford, who is more of a force in the box, Davis is a classic coverage corner. He had three INTs and eight PBUs as a true freshman last season.
Torren McGaster, Vanderbilt: Among players returning to the league this season, only Tabor broke up more passes in 2015 than McGaster’s 13.
Marcus Maye, Florida: A preseason third-team All-SEC pick, he played fourth banana to Hargreaves, Tabor and Neal last season. We’ll see what he can do with those two first-rounders gone.