Top 5 incoming DB recruits
The prestigious title of DBU (defensive back university) is one that many players and schools covet. The SEC boasts multiple schools that could make a case, including LSU, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, each of which has multiple starters spread across the NFL.
Due to the depth at the position, however, the 2016 class of freshmen was rarely able to see the field. Instead, the SEC All-Freshman team was highlighted by redshirts Ronnell Perkins of Missouri and Javaris Davis of Auburn.
Perkins played in all 12 of the Tigers’ games, starting in two. He collected 43 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and broke up two passes. Though 2016 was his second year in Mizzou’s system, it was his first as a safety, as he switched over from wide receiver before the season.
Davis, who led the group with two picks, has a similar story. He was called into action early, drawing five starts in 2016, the most of any freshman defensive back. During his first season as part of the active roster, Davis was a solid contributor for an Auburn defense that finished ninth in passing yards allowed per game at 229.2.
The aforementioned depth at DB across the conference isn’t going away anytime soon, but 2017’s class still has a chance to make an impact. Here are the stars of tomorrow who signed in the SEC this year.
1. LSU reeled in the backfield of the future, and it’s nasty:
JaCoby Stevens – No. 1 S, No. 18 overall
— JaCoby Stevens (@jacobystevens7) August 8, 2016
Grant Delpit – No. 9 S, No. 65 overall
Todd Harris – No. 11 S, No. 86 overall
— ️️️Todd Harris (@ToddHarris_6) April 14, 2016
Kary Vincent – No. 12 CB, No. 90 overall
— 2|27 (@__KCINCO) December 4, 2016
For the second straight year, LSU out-recruited Alabama to land the best class of defensive backs in the conference. In line with the team’s strong tradition at the position, this group of Tigers brings a passion for the school to Baton Rouge. At the Under Armour All-America game, the perpetually bubbly Kary Vincent made a point to discuss the closeness of the group and his role in helping to recruit them.
Thanks to the recruiting talents of people such as Vincent, Ed Orgeron, Dave Aranda and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond, the Bayou Bengals brought in quite the haul. In terms of the conference, LSU landed both the highest-rated commit in 5-star safety JaCoby Stevens, and the deepest class, with four DBs in the top-100 overall players available.
For the purposes of this list, it’s best to focus on Stevens, the most talented of the group.
LSU fans know that uniform number “7” carries special meaning, and it stands to reason that Stevens could bring his high school number back as a member of the purple and gold one day. In the past, LSU’s number “7” often has been a leader and a playmaker, and the Tigers’ top recruit of 2017 fits the bill.
Against high school talent, Stevens looked like an absolute cheat code. A three-way athlete, he made plays as a safety, wide receiver and return man. His total stat line rounded out with 64 tackles and nine interceptions as a DB, and 34 receptions, 673 yards and 12 touchdowns as a receiver – and that’s without a reliable total of his production as a returner.
His standout trait, especially as a defender, is his hands.
Many defensive backs end up on that side of the ball because they can’t catch. That’s hardly the case for Stevens, who probably could have gotten an offer from LSU without taking a snap on defense. His athleticism, soft hands and nose for the football are assets, and they will be helpful on an LSU team that tallied only nine picks last year.
Moreover, Stevens’ experience with the ball in his hands makes him dangerous after the catch and as a returner. If he reaches his potential, opposing offenses’ nightmares will begin with him breaking on the ball and end with him trotting into the end zone. His size, speed and toughness make him hard to bring down, especially by players who aren’t used to tackling.
Stevens committed to LSU in August of 2016, and his status as an early enrollee puts him in play to see the field as a freshman. The 6-1, 200-pound safety is already big for the position, and his talent is such that he could make the jump to college without much adjustment outside of the playbook. Look for Stevens in a gadget role or as a return man in 2017.
2. Georgia’s one-two punch:
Richard LeCounte III – No. 2 S, No. 22 overall
— Richard LeCounte III (@LilEasy_35) January 2, 2017
Deangelo Gibbs – No. 4 S, No. 49 overall
— Deangelo Gibbs (@TheHercules8) January 1, 2017
Though JaCoby Stevens narrowly edges out Georgia’s Richard LeCounte III for the highest-rated incoming defensive back in the SEC, Georgia still boasts two of the top three recruits at the position. Kirby Smart has quieted concerns after an 8-5 season by bringing to Athens one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory, headlined by 5-star LeCounte and 4-star DeAngelo Gibbs at DB.
Richard LeCounte III
LeCounte might be the most well-rounded prospect on this list. He is a natural playmaker, a big hitter, trustworthy in coverage, and a dynamic athlete. His smaller size at 5-10, 183 pounds comes with much slipperiness, as his highlights look a bit like Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson once the ball is in his hands.
He was used as a bit of a Swiss army knife in high school, taking snaps in the shotgun, playing receiver and returning punts in addition to playing DB, which led many to classify him as an athlete instead of a just a safety. His ball skills are unquestionable, making highlight-reel one-handed catches that both bailed his quarterback out and left opposing ones scratching their heads.
Though he will probably need to add some size to play in the SEC, his mindset is in the right place. He may lose a bit of his dynamic speed, but adding muscle will make his hits more bone-jarring and his injury risk lower.
For a Bulldogs team that just lost a valuable playmaker in Isaiah McKenzie, fans can feel confident that the next one is in the pipeline – and his name is Richard LeCounte III.
Speaking of one-handed catches, the ‘Dawgs will add another playmaking safety in Deangelo Gibbs. If these two reach their potential, SEC quarterbacks will become check-down masters, as each one could reach out and snatch any pass that isn’t on they money.
While Gibbs lacks LeCounte’s game-breaking speed, he makes up for it in size. The 6-2, 204-pound ballhawk patrols the defensive backfield like a centerfielder, turning passes into interceptions and completions into drops with big hits. That size is one of his greatest assets, as his long arms snare ball-carriers dead in their tracks, and his large body produces enough momentum to level receivers over the middle.
While he didn’t see as many positions as LeCounte, Gibbs was certainly more developed at wide receiver. At the high school level, he showed off his huge catch radius, athleticism and ball tracking skills as Grayson’s number-one target.
Kirby Smart, himself a former Bulldogs defensive back, is looking to start a defensive culture at Georgia. These two safeties from the Peach State are great building blocks and will be a fearsome tandem for years to come.
3. Xavier McKinney, Alabama – No. 6 S, No. 58 overall
Finally, Alabama makes this list.
There is no Dre Kirkpatrick, Landon Collins, or Marlon Humphrey in this class, but Alabama will gladly take Xavier McKinney, who will be a natural fit into their defensive scheme.
McKinney has the speed to compete in the SEC, but his real talent comes when he slows the pace down. He is a naturally perceptive runner whose strides would appear to be a nonchalant glide if not for their speed. He’s incredibly patient with his movements, especially for a DB. As a ball-carrier on returns and as a member of the offense, he waits for his blocks to set up and the lanes to develop instead of rushing forward and relying on pure speed. He is also very cerebral, having a knack for winding up in the right place at the right time in coverage.
His game is predicated on the little things – a slight step to the right in zone coverage that baits a quarterback, an early cut on a return that throws off a would-be tackler in pursuit, or reading an offense throughout the game to know when to jump on a route.
Alabama loves players with a high football IQ and those who respond well to coaching. If McKinney can showcase his talent and ability to make winning plays to the coaching staff, he could see some run in the near future.
4. Jamyest Williams, South Carolina – No. 8 CB, No. 74 overall
You not gone find somebody like me 💯✅™ pic.twitter.com/VLYk1iRMls
— Jamyest williams (@jamy0602) January 27, 2017
Jamyest Williams and Deangelo Gibbs were high school teammates. That seems unfair to everyone else involved.
Williams will follow Gibbs’ lead to the SEC East, picking Will Muschamp as his defensive guru instead of Kirby Smart, but with Muschamp’s history and the Gamecocks’ proud tradition of NFL defensive backs, it’s easy to see why.
Both on and off the tape, Williams may have the most swagger of anyone on this list. Though his frame measures up at a diminutive 5-9, 174 pounds, he makes up for it with speed, dedication and big-play ability.
Another athlete who played all over the field, he could be an impactful cog for Muschamp, who is known for his innovative defenses. Williams was actually recruited as a running back by Ohio State, but the Gamecocks were able to reel him in by promising to play him at corner.
Now that the Gamecocks have their quarterback of the future in Jake Bentley, gimmicky plays will be much easier to execute on offense. It would be easy to imagine Williams coming in on third down to put an extra playmaker on the field. Wherever he winds up playing, the Georgia native will make an impact.
5. Maleik Gray, Tennessee – No. 10 S, No. 78 overall
As this list goes on, it becomes more and more clear why schools such as Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal tend to get the elite quarterback recruits. Nearly all of these SEC-bound defensive backs have great hands, as most of them were big-time receivers in high school. It makes sense that inbound quarterbacks would want no part of guys like Maleik Gray, who can use their diverse skills to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Gray does a bit of everything. He’s skilled in coverage, with the speed to match number-one receivers step for step in high school. He’s huge, and he uses his 6-2, 193-pound frame with malice off the edge. He is the most versatile player within the safety position on this list, as he lines up everywhere from out wide man-to-man with receivers, to deep in the backfield, to on the edge with the linebackers.
In space, he’s a big hitter and reliable tackler who was able to shed blocks with ease at the high school level. For a Tennessee defense that was decimated by injuries last season, a player such as Gray is a huge get because he could be pressed to play out of position if push comes to shove.
Butch Jones is trying to build a culture in Knoxville, and hard-hitting players like Gray will go a long way to make it one of toughness. It’s all about getting over the hump for the Volunteers, who fell short of expectations in 2016. If they keep recruiting like this, they may finally cross that threshold.
*All rankings based on 247 Sports Composite