SEC Defenses have held the bragging post the last few seasons, producing a number of high draft picks—14 first rounders on that side of the ball since 2006—and leading the charge to four straight national titles.
While most of those picks lineup in the front seven, cornerbacks are well represented.
As spread-variant offenses continue to become more popular in the SEC, the role of players in the defensive backfield, especially on the corners, is increasingly important.
Here’s a quick look at some cornerbacks you should be keeping an eye on during the upcoming season.
Top 5 Returning Cornerbacks
1. Patrick Peterson, LSU
Peterson is a physical specimen, listed at a powerful 6’1” and 211lbs. He has proven to be a legitimate playmaker at cornerback with 13 pass breakups last season in addition to a couple of INT’s and some really good special teams play.
He is aggressive and not afraid of contact, and his above average closing speed has many NFL analysts currently predicting him as a first round—if not top 10—draft prospect.
2. Janoris Jenkins, FLA
Jenkins was the other half of the most talented corner tandem in the conference last season. His partner, Joe Haden, will be a first rounder this year, most likely taken in the top half of the round.
At only 5’11” and 188lbs, Jenkins plays a little bigger than his frame would suggest. He actually had more tackles-for-loss (3.0) than interceptions (2) last season. As he steps into the primary role for the Gators this year, many around the league are predicting Jenkins as a breakout player.
3. Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
Whatever expectations the Gamecocks held for Gilmore when he arrived in Columbia, he certainly surpassed them in his first year on campus.
He played in all 13 games and his stat line was impressive: 56 tackles including 39 solos; 6 TFL’s including 3 sacks; 8 pass breakups, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles.
Head Coach Steve Spurrier has moved the uber-athletic Gilmore into a working role on the offensive side of the ball this spring, which could affect his production. When watching the kid play, however, you cannot argue with wanting to get the ball in his hands.
4. Neiko Thorpe, Auburn
I admit I may be reaching on Thorpe, but I just like the way the guy plays football. His 6’2” frame is lean at roughly 180lbs, but his body control and fluidity are just plain seductive to me.
He plays physically, registering 58 solo tackles last year to compliment his passes defended line of 9 breakups and 2 picks.
If rising expectations around the Tiger program are to be met this season, improvement of defense is paramount, and Thorpe could be a difference maker.
5. Rudell Crim, Arkansas
Speaking of expectations, Bobby Petrino’s Hog Squad is the media’s sweetheart choice to surprise in the SEC. For that to happen, the Arkansas Defense—categorically last in the SEC in 2009—needs to improve.
Crim has the body—6’0” and 190lbs—and appears to possess the rest of the skills needed to lead a turnaround in the defensive backfield. With a full season under his belt, the JUCO transfer showed consistent improvement opposite Ramon Broadway.
Tests for the pairing will come early and often as the Razorbacks will first have to prove they can stop opposing passing games before a threat of their challenge in the SEC West can be considered real.
Top 5 Upcoming
1 and 2. Whoever Starts For Alabama
The riches in young talent that Nick Saban will pull from to name his starting cornerbacks is the envy of almost every other team in the conference.
True freshman DeMarcus Milliner was already enrolled in school by the time National Signing day rolled around last February. Unanimously rated as one of the Top 5 cornerback prospects in the nation, Saban has described Milliner as one of the most athletic kids he has ever been around.
Joining Milliner in competition for both starting spots is last year’s top prospect Dre Kirkpatrick, BJ Scott and LSU transfer Phelon Jones.
I do not know who will win the starting jobs, but I know they will be worth watching; if not for their talent, then for the fact that Alabama will be trying to repeat as National Champion while replacing so much talent and depth in the secondary.
3. Morris Claiborne, LSU
With the move of Jai Eugene into the safety spot vacated by Chad Jones, the Tigers will need someone to play opposite Patrick Peterson. Claiborne has played well in spring ball, earning accolades and positive commentary from the coaching staff for his efforts.
While not as stout as Peterson, Claiborne plays a similar style of football: tight coverage and strong tackling. How he holds up to being targeted as teams shy away from Peterson is a big question for the Tigers.
As competitive and deep as the SEC is, all it takes is one weakness to end up tallying more losses than expected. Considering LSU has been one of the best programs in the country the last few seasons, Claiborne’s performance carries a lot of weight.
4. Trey Wilson, Vanderbilt
Similar to Thorpe above, I am stepping out on a limb a bit with Wilson. He saw action as a true freshman last season and—again, like Thorpe—I just like his style of football.
He plays more physical than his 5’11” and 185lbs frame, and knows how to hit. Wilson comes from the football strong Evangel Christian program in Shreveport, LA where he was a three year starter.
Vanderbilt has had a rough time of it since the opening kickoff last season, going winless in the SEC and the tragic murder of one of the most touted signees, Rajaan Bennett. While I cannot reasonably expect fans of other teams to root for Vandy, it would be nice to see a little love thrown the Commodores’ way.
If Wilson develops as a sophomore like I believe he should, he might be the next Vandy cornerback to step into the limelight following D.J. Moore and Myron Lewis.
5. Jeremy McGee, Ole Miss
You did not think I would go through a piece like this without mentioning a Rebel, did you?
Ole Miss is also replacing two starters at cornerback, and the importance of man coverage in defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix’s aggressive scheme make McGee a player to watch in the upcoming season.
Ole Miss is rebuilding its secondary, and McGee has the most experience of those players looking to step into starting roles. He has shown flashes of real talent, but has also shown lapses in judgment and an unfortunate knack to concede angles.
If the Landshark’s are going to continue to play among the best defensive fronts in the country, Nix needs to be able to count on McGee to be consistent and smart.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football for the Bleacher Report. He welcomes and appreciates all comments. Click here to visit his profile page for other articles.