August 7, 2011

Preseason unit rankings: Secondaries

Fall practice is under way, and that means the 2011 college football season has started.

Today, we unveil the sixth of our national unit rankings. We're revealing one unit per day and end Tuesday with overall coaching staffs.

The rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. But production does trump potential.

Here are the secondary rankings. Next up: special teams.


BUZZ: The Sooners return both starting corners in Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst. Fleming has had some off-field issues, though. Depth is good at cornerback. Both starting safeties are new, but OU seems to always come up with safeties who are, at the least, competent; most of the time, they're better than that and are all-league contenders

BUZZ: The Falcons quietly have put together tremendous pass-defense numbers the past few seasons. They have allowed fewer than 200 passing yards per game in each of the past three seasons. Three starters return this season, including star CB Anthony Wright, who will be a four-year starter. He has 10 career interceptions, the most of any current Mountain West player. FS Jon Davis is another who will contend for all-league honors, and SS Anthony Wooding made a big impact as a true freshman last season. The one new starter should be senior CB Josh Hall, which would give the Falcons three senior starters in the secondary. Depth is good, too.

BUZZ: The Hokies always seem to have one legitimate All-America candidate in the secondary, and this season, it's junior CB Jayron Hosley. He led the nation with nine interceptions last season, and he also had eight pass breakups. FS Eddie Whitley is an All-ACC candidate after making 80 tackles last season, and SS Antoine Exum led the Hokies with nine pass breakups last season. Sophomore Kyle Fuller is a likely starter at corner, though senior Cris Hill also has a shot at the job. Depth is good with this unit.

BUZZ: The Huskers lost a ton of talented defensive backs, but they also have a few returning. In addition, a move to the Big Ten likely means less time spent in nickel and dime packages. CB Alfonzo Dennard was overshadowed last season by Prince Amukamara, but Dennard is an All-America candidate in his own right and can be a shutdown corner. FS Courtney Osborne and SS Austin Cassidy were part-time starters last season and are well-versed in what coach Bo Pelini wants from his defensive backs. Sophomore Ciante Evans steps in to replace Amukamara, but coaches like Evans and think he potentially can be an all-league guy.

BUZZ: Three starters are back for the Ducks, though the best - CB Cliff Harris - currently is indefinitely suspended. Harris is a big-play guy on defense and on special teams; he had six picks and a nation's-leading 17 pass breakups last season. He's a burner with excellent ball skills. FS John Boyett had five interceptions and nine pass breakups, and also was second on the team with 78 tackles. SS Eddie Pleasant performed well after moving from outside linebacker before last season and is solid in run support. Depth is good - and experienced.

BUZZ: What often was overlooked last season amid all the Andrew Luck hoopla was that Stanford was quite nasty on defense. The Cardinal return three starters in the secondary, including SS Delano Howell, who should be a top contender for All-America honors this season. Howell had 60 tackles, five picks and five pass breakups last season, and is heading into his third season as a starter. FS Michael Thomas went from key reserve to important starter last season, and CB Johnson Bademosi is heading into his third season as starter. The one new starter is sophomore Barry Browning, who made three starts as a true freshman last season.

BUZZ: All four starters are back for the Seminoles. Sophomore CB Xavier Rhodes exceeded expectations last season, when he had four picks and 12 pass breakups. Greg Reid is an able running mate at corner, and depth is good at the position, as well, as third CB Mike Harris also is a productive player. FS Nick Moody and SS Terrance Parks aren't as good as their counterparts at corner, but they nevertheless form a solid tandem. They combined for 123 tackles last season. There are high expectations for true freshman S Karlos Williams.

3. LSU
BUZZ: The Tigers lost stud CB Patrick Peterson, but they won't miss him as much as most think. Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu should give LSU one of the 10 or so best corner duos in the nation. Claiborne had five picks and six pass breakups as a starter last season, while Mathieu had two picks, seven breakups and 4.5 sacks in his role as a nickel back as a true freshman. Senior Brandon Taylor returns as the starter at strong safety; he'll be a three-year starter for the Tigers. Former mega-recruit Craig Loston is the new starter at free safety; he's replacing Karnell Hatcher, who has moved to linebacker. Depth at corner is excellent, but it's not as good at safety.

BUZZ: All four starters are back for the Nittany Lions, with senior CB D'Anton Lynn the guy to watch. He has good size (6-1/210) and the ability to be a shutdown corner. He's also not afraid to stick his nose in there on run support; he is the Nittany Lions' leading returning tackler, with 75. Stephon Morris and Chaz Powell will vie for the other corner spot, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Powell edges out Morris, who is the returning starter. Both safeties have all-league potential, especially SS Drew Astorino. He had 70 tackles last season. FS Nick Sukay has had some injury issues, but when healthy, he is a steady performer. Backup FS Malcolm Willis did a nice job when called upon last season, too.

BUZZ: Here's another team with all four starters back. The Tide's safety duo - FS Robert Lester and SS Mark Barron - is the best in the nation. Barron is heading into his third season as a starter and was the team's leading tackler with 75 last season; he also had three interceptions and six pass breakups. Lester filled a big hole at free safety last season - and did it so well that he garnered some All-America notice; he had four picks and eight breakups. CB Dre Kirkpatrick had an up-and-down freshman season, but turned into a steady performer last season; he has excellent size (6-3/192). Dee Milliner was thrown into the fray as a true freshman last season and performed admirably, with four interceptions and seven breakups. DeQuan Menzie is a solid No. 3 corner and will see a lot of time. Depth at safety is a bit iffy, though.

(Text by Mike Huguenin. Rankings by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.)

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