August 17, 2006

Preseason safety rankings loaded with talent

What makes a great safety? A little bit of everything.

The Rivals.com list of top safeties reveals many of the characteristics. A safety has to have decent size, probably at least 6 feet and in the 200-pound neighborhood.

He also generally has to like to join the fray, because many safeties are counted on in run support. The players on this list aren't afraid to bring it, as their tackle totals attest.

But they aren't just glorified linebackers with a little more room to roam. They also have to make plays in the secondary, be it shutting down tight ends or helping take away wide receivers.

They're cerebral assassins, which also might explain the heavy emphasis on seniors. Playing well at safety is more about learning the game than it is a birthright, Kenny Phillips notwithstanding. Safeties often are the quarterbacks of a defense, watching plays unfold in front of them and trying to get their teammates in the best position to make plays.

It's an excellent year for safeties. We really like our top three - and NFL scouts do, too. It's a solid list from top to bottom.

About the only bad things that can be said about it will be from opposing running backs and wide receivers.

Rivals.com 2006 Preseason Top Safeties
1. LaRon Landry, LSU, Sr., 6-2, 202
The Tigers are glad to have Landry back for his senior year after he was named first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American last season. He helped LSU achieve the No. 3 rank in total defense in the country by recording 69 tackles, including four for loss and a sack. He added three interceptions and enters this season with nine picks in his career, the most among active SEC players. He has made 35 consecutive starts and figures to be among the favorites for the Jim Thorpe Award.
2. Brandon Meriweather, Miami, Sr., 6-0, 195
It would be tough to find a safety with a better combination of cover skills and tackling ability than this three-year letterman. He has never missed a game in his Hurricanes career. Meriweather was everywhere for the nation's fourth-ranked defense in 2005, leading it in tackles with a career-high 115 (77 solo) and tying for the team lead in interceptions with three. He added 13 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, three QB pressures, one sack, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. He'll give Landry stiff competition for the Thorpe.
3. Michael Griffin, Texas, Sr., 6-0, 205
Because of Vince Young and the explosive offense, the Longhorns defense was often overlooked in 2005. Griffin was a major cog for the national champs, leading UT with 124 tackles. He added three interceptions, eight pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. And just when you thought that was enough of a contribution from one player, you see he also tied UT's single-season record with four blocked punts. As much as quarterbacks need to keep an eye out for him, punters had better as well.
4. Eric Weddle, Utah, Sr., 6-0, 200
A starter in the secondary as a freshman, Weddle has been used almost everywhere by the Utes. He has shown his versatility at strong safety, cornerback, nickel back, quarterback, punt returner, punter and holder for field goals. He had four interceptions and 12 pass breakups last season to lead the Mountain West in passes defended. He was at his best in the Emerald Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, helping the Utes limit Georgia Tech All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson to just 19 yards on two receptions.
5. Kenny Phillips, Miami, So., 6-2, 202
A Rivals.com Freshman All-American last season, Phillips was as good as advertised coming out of high school. He stepped in as a starter in the second game of the season when Anthony Reddick went down to injury. Phillips came up with 88 tackles (58 solo), three tackles for loss, one interception, four pass breakups, two QB pressures and one fumble recovery. One of his interceptions came in the third overtime against Clemson to seal a victory for the Hurricanes.
6. Tom Zbikowski, Notre Dame, Sr. 6-0, 210
The Irish found a playmaker in the senior from the Chicago area. He accounted for four touchdowns last season, two on interceptions and two on punt returns. Zbikowski led the Irish with five interceptions, and he posted 62 tackles. He single-handedly demoralized Tennessee in 2005, returning a punt 78 yards for one touchdown and an interception 33 yards for another TD. He added nine tackles and a sack for good measure.
7. Tra Battle, Georgia, Sr., 5-11, 176
He's not the biggest guy on the roster, but Battle throws himself around and loves to mix it up. He was UGA's third-leading tackler last season with 71 total tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions. He's a preseason first-team All-SEC selection and he won the hustle award in spring drills. Lest you think that's not such a big deal, how many senior starters are busting their tails to the point in spring where they are winning the hustle award?
8. Sabby Piscitelli, Oregon State, Sr., 6-3, 224
The Florida native actually is one of the fastest players on the Beavers roster. Piscitelli had four interceptions in 2005 to lead the team, and he was third in tackles with 53. He earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention for the second consecutive season, and figures to break through and earn first-team honors in his final season. His 10 career interceptions are the most among active players in the Pac-10.
9. Zach Catanese, Arizona State, Sr., 6-2, 230
Catanese made an immediate impact as a junior college transfer. He was one of only five Sun Devils to start all 12 games last season, and he brought a toughness and attitude to the ASU secondary. Catanese finished with 107 tackles (62 solo), good for second on the team and fourth in the Pac-10. He added two sacks, one interception, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
10. Joe Stellmacher, Wisconsin, Sr., 6-1, 218
Stellmacher finished second on the team in tackles with 90 (and 10th in the Big Ten with 8.2 tackles per game). He had the first two interceptions of his collegiate career last season, and he added three pass breakups. Stellmacher had his season-best performance against Minnesota, notching 14 tackles. The Wisconsin native won or shared UW's defensive player of the week honor four times in 2005.
Best of the rest
11. David Overstreet, Missouri, Sr. 6-0, 210
12. Eric Wicks, West Virginia, 6-1, 215
13. Dowayne Davis, Syracuse, Jr., 6-1, 195
14. J.D. Nelson, Oregon, Sr., 5-11, 219
15. Marcus Paschal, Iowa, Sr., 6-0, 207
16. Aaron Rouse, Virginia Tech, Sr., 6-3, 222
17. Patrick Chung, Oregon, So., 5-11, 205
18. Jonathan Hefney, Tennessee, Jr., 5-10, 185
19. Jamie Silva, Boston College, Jr., 5-11, 205
20. J.J. Billingsley, Colorado, Sr., 5-11, 185

More Preseason Player Rankings:
Quarterbacks | Running backs | Offensive linemen | Kickers/Punters | Return Specialists
Wide receivers | Tight ends | Linebackers | Defensive linemen | Cornerbacks | Safeties

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