College Football's Top DBs Entering 2014 Spring Practice
As the bulk of the nation watched for offensive fireworks, the young men on the other side of the ball were putting together quality years as well in 2013.
Cornerbacks like Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert caused problems for receivers, showing that defense can still be played in today's college football world.
Safeties such as Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Washington State's Deone Bucannon proved to be assertive forces, delivering punishment and helping put their defenses in the position to succeed. These guys played against the run and the pass—something that is required more from safeties than ever before.
Now with those players transitioning to the next level, 2014 will see a new crop of secondary players step up to take their places. Here is a list, in alphabetical order, of the defensive backs to watch heading into next season.
The Indiana Hoosiers were a close loss or two from reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2007. While the offense grabbed the headlines for scoring points and moving the ball, Tim Bennett was a standout on the defensive side, and he returns to challenge for All-Big Ten honors.
He led the nation in passes defended with 20 breakups and one interception, per CFBStats. The defensive back showed a knack for getting his hands on the football to prevent opponents from making catches. Entering 2014, the senior will be looking to build on those successes.
Watch for Bennett to get physical with opponents as the Hoosiers try to improve their defense to close games out in the fourth quarter. Indiana will need quality production out of the cornerback to compete in the new East Division of the conference.
Landon Collins was pushed into full-time safety action for the Alabama Crimson Tide once starter Vinnie Sunseri went down with a knee injury. Collins responded well, proving that he was capable of filling the void.
Now, in 2014, he has to prove he can be consistent while assuming a stronger leadership role in the back end.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the safety opposite Collins in 2013, is expected to be a first-round pick come May, and that means the Tide have an opening in the secondary. Add in the fact that cornerback Deion Belue is gone, and Alabama is even less equipped to fix the issues that plagued the secondary in 2013. Getting the secondary on the same and correct page will be job No. 1 for the team.
As far as safeties go, Collins is the total package. The rising junior can come down in the box to make tackles and run well to cover plenty of ground. When given the chance, he can turn defense into offense. As the elder statesman in the back end, he will have to demonstrate he can be the leader in the secondary.
Su'a Cravens was the No. 1 safety in the class of 2013 in 247Sports composite rankings, and the USC defensive back proved the service right as he played his way through 2013. The freshman earned Honorable Mention Pac-12 All-Conference as he showed his talents against the run and the pass.
He started the first game of the season for the Trojans, something that was unheard of at USC at the usually talent rich safety position. Although his youth was exploited at times, overall his debut season was a major success.
2014 will be about getting to that next level, both individually and as a team. Dion Bailey is gone from the secondary, but overall, the group, and the defense as a whole, is poised to improve this season. Spring will be about getting new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's system down so that all the speed on the field can fly to the football.
With a solid season, Cravens could challenge for an All-American spot, much like Alabama's Landon Collins.
In a bit of a surprise move, Quandre Diggs elected to return to Texas for his final season, even as the Longhorns go through a coaching change. The rising senior cornerback will be a major cog on and off the field in helping new head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford revamp this Texas defense.
Diggs told ESPN: "I want to have a full year healthy and this will hopefully be my first spring to be that way in two years. I'm looking forward to winning a lot of games and getting my degree. I'm just looking forward to being a senior leader and getting this thing back on top."
This statement makes it clear that he not only is excited about the transition, but he understands he will have to play a big role. In a time when players have offered resistance to certain coaching moves, seeing an experience leader such as Diggs return to embrace the new coach is huge for Texas.
Spring will be big in Austin as Diggs and his teammates learn the new schemes and terminology. Getting a high-quality corner back into the fold was a big coup for Strong, and given the head coach's knack for elevating defenses, it should prove beneficial for Diggs as well.
Like Diggs, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu coming back for his senior year at Oregon is a bit of a surprise. The cornerback is an elite talent who showed he can impact the game all over the field, and now he is back in the fold for the Ducks.
As Don Pellum, a longtime Oregon assistant, takes on the new role of defensive coordinator, look for Ekpre-Olomu to continue as a big part of the Ducks defense.
He is one of the few players who can make a claim to being the best corner in college football. The rising senior is a talented athlete who, despite his size (5'10", 190 pounds), has a zeal for getting physical, especially in the run game. He is the rare corner who seems to take pride in coming up to help limit gains by rushers.
In pass coverage, he is solid in both zone and man. With the bulk of Oregon's secondary leaving, the lone returning starter will have to be not only a quality player but also a leader as youth transitions into bigger roles.
One of the many players who made his debut in 2013 and saw stellar results, Jacoby Glenn is back for UCF and should see his star grow in 2014. After redshirting his first year, he was a revelation on coordinator Jim Fleming's defense using his quickness to break on balls and make it tough on opponents.
This year, Paul Ferraro is the defensive coordinator, as Fleming left to be the head coach at Rhode Island. Transition or not, look for Glenn to keep improving as his comfort level with the game continues to grow with each rep he gets.
Offensively, Central Florida will be doing plenty of rebuilding as quarterback Blake Bortles moves onto the NFL. For the Knights defense, that means improving to shut down opponents and give the new quarterback chances to win. Glenn will be a major part of that heading into 2014.
Vernon Hargreaves III
Vernon Hargreaves III entered college as the No. 1 cornerback in the class of 2013, according to the 247Sports, and he lived up to every expectation. The true freshman cracked the starting lineup early, proved to be fluid in coverage and was among the nation's best out of the gate.
He came out of the gate with physical play, fitting the Florida style perfectly as he meshed with Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson to maul receivers at the line and make life hard on pass-catchers. As the season wore on, the freshman had some vulnerable moments, and the grind of the campaign seemed to catch up with him at times, but overall he deserved the accolades.
This year, Hargreaves goes from newcomer to elder statesman as Purifoy, Roberson and Jaylen Watkins head to the NFL and safety Cody Riggs transfers to Notre Dame. The rising sophomore will have to help anchor a secondary that is transitioning in plenty of talent to continue playing aggressive football.
It's tough to get through a list of exciting returning defensive backs without at least mentioning the nation's leader in interceptions, Anthony Harris. The Virginia safety pulled in eight picks and was one of the few bright spots on a team that struggled in the 2013 season.
He is returning for his senior season, and Virginia, not just Harris, has plenty of work to do. Head coach Mike London is entering his fifth season in Charlottesville, and after only going to one bowl game in his first four years, the Cavaliers desperately need to show some progress to help the coach's cause.
For Harris, that means anchoring a defense that should continue to improve in 2014. It also means helping Quin Blanding, the nation's No. 1 safety prospect, transition into the program. Blanding is the future, but Harris is the now. He needs to have a solid 2014 to try and elevate London's team.
Florida State's Secondary
The Seminoles have so much talent in the secondary that it would be criminal to only name one of the guys in the back end. Choosing between safety Jalen Ramsey and star player Nate Andrews would still leave out cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Plus, 2014 brings the triumphant return of Tyler Hunter to the mix, who spent 2013 sidelined due to injury.
This Florida State secondary loses two high-quality defensive backs in Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks yet returns a unit that is among the nation's scariest. There is depth all over the place, and both the starters and backups are talented.
Despite the loss of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the 'Noles are not expected to miss a beat under the eye of newly promoted Charles Kelly. The secondary has elite players at every position, and with the return of Hunter to pair with Ramsey, this group should make it difficult for offenses to move the football.
Michigan State's Secondary
The "No Fly Zone" loses two of its members, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis, but the Spartans should be strong in 2014. As two members leave, their counterparts are prepared and equipped to enter the national stage. Safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes are set to be the new "big things" in East Lansing.
Drummond, like Dennard and Lewis, was a first team All-Big Ten performer a season ago and is back for Sparty to lead the way in the secondary. Waynes played opposite Dennard in 2014, but teams quietly discovered that attempting to target the sophomore was no less troublesome than throwing Dennard's way.
This defense will need new pieces, especially at the linebacker spot, but with solid returners in the front four and secondary, look for Pat Narduzzi's unit to continue to play good football. Drummond will find his way into plenty of best safety discussions, and look for Waynes to see his star grow in 2014.
Virginia Tech's Secondary
The 2014 Hokies secondary will get its strength from the cornerback spot, as two athletes who had remarkable freshman campaigns look to play opposite each other in Blacksburg.
Brandon Facyson was an unexpected treat for Bud Foster's defense in 2013, starring at the cornerback spot when pressed into action.
On the other side, Kendall Fuller, 247Sports' No. 3 cornerback in the 2013 cycle, was expected to come in and compete, and he did just that. Both he and Facyson were starters from the opener against Alabama, and throughout the season, the duo played plenty of football and made a lot of plays.
Fuller spent time at nickelback, but by season's end, due to injuries, both he and Facyson were starting against Virginia and UCLA at cornerback.
2014 will be about both sophomores filling the cornerback spots and challenging each other. Both players are talented, and while the Hokies replace key pieces at linebacker and on the defensive line, familiarity in the back end will help. Having Fuller and Facyson gives the Hokies the best cornerback tandem in the nation entering 2014.
Other Notable Defensive Backs to Watch in 2014
Nationally, there are plenty of quality defensive backs coming back to defend against the rapidly increasing pass-happy schemes. At Oklahoma, Zack Sanchez will be looking to be more consistent as he steps into a larger role on the Sooners defense. Meanwhile, Marcus Peters is looking to settle into the new staff at Washington.
In the Big Ten, the Iowa Hawkeyes are expecting big things out of Desmond King—another on the list of players who had solid freshman seasons in the secondary. UNC's Dominique Green and Miami's Deon Bush are two safeties in the same boat as King and are looking to build off great first years.
Given the bevy of quality players, 2014 should be a stellar year for secondaries on the collegiate landscape.
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