College Football's Top 15 Safeties for the 2012 Season

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IJuly 23, 2012

College Football's Top 15 Safeties for the 2012 Season

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    Safety may be one of the least glamorous positions in football, but it also happens to be one of the most important.

    In today’s day and age where sophisticated passing attacks have taken over the sport, safeties are asked to play a crucial and vital role in a defense’s success.

    Playing a position where you’ll rarely be given much attention unless you’re beaten for a big passing play is obviously an unenviable task, which is why truly great safeties are such a special breed that deserve more appreciation than they receive.

    With the college football season just a little over a month away, it’s now time to shine a light on some of the top safeties for the upcoming 2012 season.

    The SEC has produced some of college football’s best safeties in recent years such as Mark Barron, Eric Berry and LaRon Landry, and this year, the conference is once again home to the most talented player at the position—LSU’s Eric Reid.

    Reid is the premier safety in the sport, but there are also plenty of other safeties around the country that deserve recognition as well.

    Here’s a look at college football’s top 15 safeties for the 2012 season.

1. Eric Reid, LSU

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    Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu may be the most famous player in the LSU secondary, but as far as pure talent is concerned, he's not the best. That honor belongs to safety Eric Reid, who has all the makings of a future top-15 NFL draft pick.

    Reid, the son of former LSU All-American hurdler Eric Reid Sr., is one of the most athletic and instinctive safeties we've seen in the college ranks in years.

    Not only does he have the type of range and speed to make plays all over the field, he also has the type of valuable football intelligence that sets apart elite safeties from the rest of the crowd. 

    Reid finished tied with Mathieu for the team lead with 76 tackles in 2011.

    He also picked off two passes, one of which was a crucial goal line takeaway from Alabama TE Michael Williams in the "Game of the Century," a critical interception that might have been the single most important play of LSU's season. 

    The 6'2'', 205-pound junior definitely proved what type of playmaker he was in 2011, and this season he'll get the opportunity to step out of the Honey Badger's shadow and show the country that he's one of the top defensive players in all of college football. 

2. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

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    Texas' secondary ranked first in the Big 12 in pass defense last year, and the Longhorns gave up an average of just six yards per pass attempt in 2011.

    Now, with three starters returning, the team should once again have the conference's top defensive backfield in 2012, and the leader of the unit will yet again be safety Kenny Vaccaro. 

    Vaccaro could have entered the 2012 NFL draft and likely been a second-round pick, but instead, he decided to return to Austin to try to boost his stock even more.

    After his performance in 2011, he most certainly belongs in the conversation for the title of college football's best safety. 

    Last year, the 6'1'', 215-pound senior took over the full-time starting job at safety and proved to be one of the most dependable defenders in the country, racking up 82 tackles, notching two interceptions and eight pass break-ups and picking up two sacks. 

    Vaccaro definitely deserved the title of "playmaker" and he's proven that he can fly around the field and come up with key stops when counted on. 

    With Vaccaro and potential All-Big 12 corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom all returning, it'll again be difficult for opposing offenses to find consistent success through the air against the Longhorns in 2012. 

3. John Boyett, Oregon

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    Oregon's high-powered offense has been the main story during Chip Kelly's three-year tenure in Eugene, but this season, the Ducks' defense will be looking to garner some national respect of it's own. 

    This year's unit features its fair share of standout playmakers, but the unquestioned leader of the group will again be safety John Boyett.

    Boyett is a veteran three-year starter who has led the Ducks in tackles in two out of the past three seasons, accumulating 276 total stops, nine interceptions and 29 pass break-ups during his career. 

    The 5’10’’, 202-pound senior is the type of secondary stalwart that can seal up the back end of a defense and cause trouble for opposing passing attacks. 

    Although he may not be the biggest or most physically intimidating safety in the country, Boyett has no trouble making his presence felt all over the field, as he has the range to roam around from sideline to sideline. 

    If Oregon’s defense truly wants to take the next step and become a nationally recognized unit this year, it will be Boyett who has to lead the charge in 2012.

4. Matt Elam, Florida

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    Not only does Florida have one of the strongest defensive front-sevens in all of college football for the 2012 season; the Gators also have plenty of difference-makers in the secondary as well. 

    This year, the team's top defensive back will again be safety Matt Elam. 

    Elam finished second on the team with 78 tackles, broke up nine passes, made two interceptions and forced two fumbles in 2011, as he finally lived up to the 5-star recruiting billing that he had coming out of Florida's Dwyer High School. 

    The 5'10'', 210-pound junior is a big, strong and physical safety who shares many similar physical qualities to former Gator standout and current Chicago Bears safety Major Wright. 

    With all four starters returning from last year, Elam will be at the forefront of a Florida secondary that should be one of college football's best defensive backfields in 2012. 

5. Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma

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    It certainly didn't take long for safety Tony Jefferson to make a name for himself at Oklahoma.

    In his first season in a Sooner uniform, Jefferson earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and he found his way onto numerous freshman All-American teams.

    He carried over that success into 2011, as he emerged as one of the best defensive backs in the conference this past season. The 5'10'', 199-pound junior led the team with four interceptions and finished the season with 74 total tackles. 

    Now he'll be asked to be a key leader of what should be one of the best defenses in the country in 2012.

    Jefferson possesses elite coverage skills and physical traits, and he might just be the best safety to play for the Sooners since Roy Williams. 

6. T.J. McDonald, USC

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    Star quarterback Matt Barkley isn’t the only returning USC senior who could have hopped to the NFL a year early and made some major cash. Safety T.J. McDonald also could have entered the 2012 NFL draft and likely been a high pick as well.

    Luckily for the Trojans, though, McDonald made the decision to return to Los Angeles for one more year to try to boost his already solid pro stock. 

    The 6’3’’, 205-pound senior is a big, physical safety who displayed great range and instincts last season when he led the team with three interceptions and finished third on the squad with 67 tackles. 

    McDonald is ready to compete to be one of the top safeties selected in the 2013 NFL draft, and if he has the season many are expecting, USC’s secondary should be one of the strongest units in college football in 2012.

7. Robert Lester, Alabama

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    Alabama's long-time secondary leader Mark Barron has moved on to the NFL, which means it will now be Robert Lester's turn to step up and help guide a defensive backfield that lost its three other starters from last year's championship squad. 

    Lester has found himself in a similar position to the one that Barron was in at the start of the 2010 season when Bama's defense lost so much star power from their BCS championship team the year before. 

    It's a good thing that the 6'2'', 210-pound senior has two years of starting experience under his belt, as he's the type of veteran presence that the Tide will need in the back on its defense this year. 

    The former 4-star recruit has the type of size and athleticism that you would expect from an Alabama defensive back, and with one of the best defensive coaching staffs in college football showing him the ropes, he's really made a vast improvement as a football player during his time in Tuscaloosa. 

    After losing some very prominent defenders this offseason, Alabama will now need Lester to really step his play up in 2012 and finally fully maximize the great potential that he possesses. 

8. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia

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    After sitting out Georgia's season-opening loss to Boise State for undisclosed reasons, Bacarri Rambo returned to action with a new-found focus and motivation, and he turned out to be an absolute ballhawk for the Bulldogs defense in 2011. 

    The 6'0'', 218-pound senior finished second in the country with eight interceptions and also broke up eight passes while notching 55 total tackles, which helped to earn him All-American honors last year.

    Rambo showed that he has a great radar for finding the football, and he's also the type of tough and physical safety that never hesitates to come up and stick someone. 

    While he'll reportedly have to sit out the first four games of the season due to a positive drug test, when he does return, Rambo will be the leader of what should be one of the best secondaries in the country in 2012. 

9. Hakeem Smith, Louisville

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    With a ton of key players returning to a defense that ranked in the Top 25 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense last season, the Louisville Cardinals will once again be putting the Big East's strongest defense out on the field in 2012. 

    The undisputed leader of that unit will be veteran safety Hakeem Smith.

    Smith is a former Big East Rookie of the Year who appears to have an NFL future ahead of him. 

    After finishing tied for second on the team with 84 tackles in 2011, the 6'1'', 183-pound junior will return to lead a Louisville secondary that has the chance to surprise a lot of people this season.

    Smith is arguably the top overall defensive back in the Big East, and he'll be the key leader for a Cardinals defense that should be one of the strongest units in the country in 2012. 

10. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

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    After making the move from cornerback to safety in 2011, Lamarcus Joyner was finally able to utilize his full array of abilities last season. 

    The former 5-star recruit emerged as one of the top defensive backs in the ACC, and he turned out to be a valuable member of Florida State's talented secondary, as he finished fourth on the Seminoles with 54 tackles while also picking off four passes and notching three sacks. 

    The 5'8'', 193-pound junior may not have the desired size you look for in a safety, but he makes up for his lack of prototypical height with his speed, range and his terrific recognition skills and coverage ability. 

    After helping Florida State finish first in the ACC in pass defense last year, Joyner will now once again team up with the highly capable cornerback duo of Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid to give the Seminoles one of the most stacked secondaries in the country for 2012. 

11. Isaiah Johnson, Georgia Tech

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    Cornerback Rod Sweeting will be the most talked about NFL prospect in Georgia Tech's secondary this season, but the real MVP of the unit might just be safety Isaiah Johnson. 

    During his first season as a full-time starter in 2011, Johnson proved to be one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC, as he finished second on the Yellow Jackets with 78 tackles and also picked off three passes. 

    The 6'2'', 205-pound junior is a big, athletic and physical safety who has a nose for the football, and he'll be counted on to be a key defensive leader this season. 

    Last year, Johnson helped the Yellow Jackets finish second in the conference in pass defense, and he should guide the secondary to similar success in 2012. 

12. C.J. Barnett, Ohio State

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    Ohio State's defense had to break in a host of new starters last season, yet the Buckeyes still ranked 19th in the country in total defense and 27th in scoring defense in 2011.

    One of the breakout performers on last year's unit was safety C.J. Barnett, who led the team with 75 tackles and also picked off two passes and broke up another six throws. 

    After returning from a knee injury that cut his freshman season short in 2010, Barnett emerged as one of the premier safeties in the Big Ten last season. 

    The 6'1'', 202-pound junior has all of the physical tools to be Ohio State's next great defensive back. 

    With all four starters returning from last year's defensive backfield, including Barnett and potential All-American cornerback Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes secondary should be one of the most stout units in college football in 2012. 

13. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina

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    South Carolina's secondary was hurt by the early exit of reliable three-year starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was the 10th overall selection in this year's NFL draft, as well as the departures of cornerbacks C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett and safety Antonio Allen. 

    Luckily, the Gamecocks have one of the SEC's premier defenders, D.J. Swearinger, back to guide what's going to be a somewhat inexperienced unit in 2012. 

    Swearinger finished second on the team with 80 tackles last year, and he also picked off three passes and broke up another three throws in coverage. 

    The 6'0'', 210-pound senior is a well-built safety, who's a sure tackler, and he's the type of playmaker that South Carolina needs in the back end.

    South Carolina may not be able to finish second in the country in pass defense again this season like it did in 2011. However, with solid players like Swearinger and cornerback Akeem Auguste leading the way in the defensive backfield, the Gamecocks should still have one of the SEC's strongest secondaries in 2012. 

14. Dexter McCoil, Tulsa

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    If you're looking for the best safety outside of the spotlight of the BCS conferences, then you're going to have to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma to find him.

    That's where Tulsa's Dexter McCoil is preparing for a showcase senior season in 2012. 

    McCoil has enjoyed an outstanding career during his time as a member of the Golden Hurricane, and he'll now enter his fourth season as a starter.

    The 6'4'', 222-pound senior has compiled 225 tackles, 13 interceptions and 16 pass break-ups over the last three years, and the bandit safety will be looking to add to those numbers this year. 

    With an impressive combination of size, speed, range, physicality and instincts, McCoil should once again be one of the standout defenders in Conference-USA in 2012. 

15. Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State

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    Cornerback Johnny Adams will be the undisputed leader of Michigan State's secondary this season, but he won't be the only impact player in the Spartans' defensive backfield in 2012. 

    Safety Isaiah Lewis will also play a major role in the unit's success this season, just like he did last year. Lewis finished the 2011 season with 74 tackles, four interceptions and three pass break-ups and he solidified his status as one of the strongest safeties in the Big Ten. 

    The 5'10'', 195-pound junior may have been charged with the key penalty that cost the Spartans a chance to win the Big Ten championship game last year, but that mistake was an aberration of an otherwise terrific campaign. 

    This season, look for Lewis to emerge as one of the most talked about players on a stacked Michigan State defense—a unit which is setting up to be one of the most dominant defenses in the country in 2012. 

Honorable Mention: The Hybrids

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    There are two hybrid linebacker-safeties who also deserve recognition: West Virginia's Terence Garvin and South Carolina's DeVonte Holloman. 

    Since West Virginia has switched from its old 3-3-5 defense to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Joe DeForest, Terence Garvin will now man the"Star" position after two seasons spent at "Spur" safety.

    Garvin is the Mountaineers' most talented and experienced veteran defender, and he'll once again be one of the units' key leaders in 2012. 

    Last year, the 6'2'', 223-pound senior tallied 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions, and he showed that he was equally adept at playing the run as he was the pass. 

    After losing important starters such as Bruce Irvin, Julian Miller, Najee Goode, Keith Tandy and Eain Smith, West Virginia's defense will now have plenty of new faces in the lineup this season. Therefore, it will be up to players like Garvin to lead the way as the team tries to handle the more powerful offenses that it will face in the Big 12 in 2012. 

    DeVonte Holloman, on the other hand, will man the "Spur" position for the Gamecocks defense this season.

    Holloman had 46 tackles last year and he displayed terrific versatility, as he moved back and forth from outside linebacker to strong safety. 

    The 6'2'', 241-pound senior will be one of South Carolina's most valuable defenders this season, and he should emerge as a coveted pro prospect if he has the performance he's capable of in 2012. 

Other Safeties to Watch

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    Anthony Watkins, Oregon State

    Bradley McDougald, Kansas

    Brandon Bishop, N.C. State

    Brian Blechen, Utah

    Brian Randolph, Tennessee

    Brynden Trawick, Troy

    Charles Sawyer, Ole Miss

    Cody Davis, Texas Tech

    Craig Loston, LSU

    Daimion Stafford, Nebraska 

    Darwin Cook, West Virginia

    Daytawion Lowe, Oklahoma State

    Deone Bucannon, Washington State

    Drew Frey, Cincinnati

    Duke Williams, Nevada

    Duron Harmon, Rutgers

    Earl Wolff, N.C. State

    Eric Bennett, Arkansas

    Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern

    Jahleel Addae, Central Michigan

    Jamoris Slaughter, Notre Dame

    Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh

    Javon Harris, Oklahoma 

    Jermaine Robinson, Toledo

    Jim Noel, Boston College

    Jon Lejiste, South Florida

    Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

    Kemal Ishmael, Central Florida

    Marquis Flowers, Arizona

    Martavius Neloms, Kentucky

    Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State

    Rashard Hall, Clemson

    Ray Polk, Colorado

    Sam Holl, Baylor

    Sean Parker, Washington

    Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

    Shawn Williams, Georgia

    Shelton Johnson, Wisconsin

    Steven Campbell, Texas A&M

    Suppo Sanni, Illinois

    Tanner Miller, Iowa

    Tevin McDonald, UCLA

    Thomas Gordon, Michigan

    Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Arizona

    Tre Boston, North Carolina 

    Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State

    Vaughn Telemaque, Miami

    Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama