This is the seventh and final article of the series ranking the Sun Belt's teams position by position.
With several teams facing questions at their quarterback position, the Sun Belt's group of defensive backs would be forgiven for salivating. The prospect of several players forcing ill-advised passes may make for high interception and pass breakup totals.
Which groups are best-equipped to make those young passers pay?
1. Middle Tennessee State
The potential exists for three of MTSU's defensive backs to attain All-Sun Belt honors. Whether or not they actually do so may come down to the front seven's ability to create pressure.
Senior Jeremy Kellem is a rangy free safety who's aiming for a repeat of his first-team All-SBC season. He recorded 64 tackles, three sacks, and three interceptions. As if that wasn't enough, he forced two fumbles and blocked two kicks.
Kellem's fellow senior, 6'1", 205-pound strong safety Kevin Brown, was already established as a stiff presence in run support. His 63 tackles helped to verify that reputation last season. His other reputation, that of being an iffy coverage man, may have been shed through his four interceptions, seven pass breakups, and 11 passes defended.
Another senior, Rod Issac, will inherit the burden of covering opponents' top receivers after the graduation of Alex Suber. Issac recorded an impressive 72 tackles. His 5.5 tackles for loss were equally strong for a corner. Unfortunately, he did not record an interception. He will need to improve in this area to make quarterbacks think twice about testing him.
The other corner spot will be manned by junior college transfer Arness Ikner. Ikner picked off six passes last season in helping Mount San Antonio (Calif.) to a national community college championship. Ikner's is as tough as they come. He will have to be since he measures only 5'9" and 167 pounds.
Another loss off the bench comes in the form of Marcus Udell and his seven interceptions. Someone will also need to step up into the nickel and dime packages.
An intriguing prospect is 2009 SBC All-Freshman performer Kenneth Gilstrap. Gilstrap's a former high school track All-American in the 100 and 200 meters, so his speed goes without saying. Last season he made 20 tackles, recovered two fumbles, and even blew away the Western Kentucky defense by scoring on a 49-yard reverse.
Junior free safety Derrick Crumpton has also shown a nose for the ball by recovering three fumbles in his career. The 5'11" 190-pounder defended four passes last season and made 29 tackles. His knack for being around the play will aid his chances of taking over for Kellem next season.
Sophomore Denzell Guerra is set to caddy for Kevin Brown at strong safety. Most of his 13 tackles were on special teams but his 4.4 speed will allow him to play almost anywhere in the secondary. The coaches have rewarded his improved work habits with a spot on the two-deep chart.
The Ragin' Cajun defensive backs suffer from the lack of a pass rush. If they get any help at all up front, they could prove a very solid group at season's end.
The discussion must start with cornerback duo Dwight Bentley and Orkeys Auriene who are on the list for best starting pair in the conference.
Bentley, a 5'11", 173-pound junior, is the rare skinny corner who appears to relish opportunities to support the run. He racked up 58 tackles last season. Bentley has been criticized for being too focused on the backfield and not enough on his man. His tackling numbers may suffer this season but the potential exists for improvement on his three interceptions and five pass break-ups.
Auriene is a 5'10", 175-pound senior who's more of the stereotypical finesse corner. He racked up 45 tackles last season and broke up six passes. To his credit he plays with the swagger and the short memory a corner needs to forget big plays.
At strong safety, junior Lance Kelley blends size (6'3", 196) and speed (4.5 in the 40) to create a potential all-conference package. In limited time last season he recorded 32 tackles and two interceptions.
Free safety Maurice Rolle is another fierce hitter who occasionally suffers for throwing his 6'1", 192-pound body around. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season and made 33 tackles. Unfortunately, shoulder problems made him miss two games last year.
Reserve strong safety Le'Marcus Gibson was headed to Hawaii before injuring his knee. A 6'0", 205-pound junior, Gibson is renowned as a hitter and he'll get a chance to strike some fear into receivers while caddying for Kelley.
Lionel Stokes, a 5'10", 185-pound junior, has added 10 pounds to his frame and appears to have moved positions as well. Originally projected as a reserve corner, he's now listed as the number two free safety. He averaged almost 11 tackles per game in junior college last season and should figure prominently in nickel and dime packages.
Junior Melvin White has great size (6'3", 181) and good range. Now, he just needs some experience. He recorded only seven tackles last season in limited time.
3. Florida Atlantic
The Owls were so bad against the run last season teams had little need to pass aggressively. When they did the secondary struggled to come up with big plays. The potential, however, is still there.
Cornerback Tavious Polo was named a preseason All-Sun Belt performer this year. This was primarily based on a tremendous freshman year in 2007. Polo hauled in seven picks that year but has recorded only two since. He's bulked up 20 pounds to 175. With three seasons of experience, his coaches are dying to see his nose for the ball exhibited once more.
A good free safety can always rack up insane tackle numbers if playing behind a weak front seven. Exhibit A for that theory is FAU's Marcus Bartels.
Bartels ranked second in the Sun Belt with 112 tackles last year, despite not becoming a starter until the third game. The 5'9", 170-pound junior rolled up five tackles for loss--a tremendous testament to his instincts and range.
At strong safety, Ed Alexander started all 12 games, recording 66 tackles and five break-ups. He's a 6'1", 180-pound senior who has the experience and speed to make even more big plays. If he shows a nose for the ball, opponents may have to abandon the pass altogether.
At the opposite cornerback position, six-foot senior Tavoris Hill gets picked on quite a bit as quarterbacks avoid Polo. This results in chances to make plays that the wiry 169-pounder sometimes misses. He managed 27 tackles but only one pick in a 2009 season cut short by a broken arm.
Redshirt freshman CB Keith Reaser measures 5'10" and 165 pounds. Skinny, yes, but it's a good measure that his skills are good enough to make coaches overlook his size. He's the heir apparent to Polo next season. 2010 may serve as a tempting glimpse of coming attractions.
Junior Curtis Cross started the first game after Hill suffered his broken arm but then went down with a knee injury of his own. In 10 appearances, he carded 17 tackles.
Sophomore Brentley Harstad didn't get a ton of time in the safety rotation last season but he made the most of it, recording a team-leading two interceptions. He also recorded 19 tackles and showed instincts similar to Bartels. The 6'1" 185-pounder may slot into FAU's nickel package this season.
Sophomore Tony Rodriguez was actually the opening day starter at free safety before giving way to Bartels. He racked up 15 tackles in his limited work.
4. Florida International
FIU's group has serious upside if some touted recruits turn out as expected. If they don't the ship may spring a leak and deep-six coach Mario Cristobal's job.
There is a little experience returning led by preseason All-SBC corner Anthony Gaitor. A second-team All-Conference player last year, the 5'10", 185-pound senior picked off two passes and broke up eight others. He does not shy away from contact recording 45 tackles and even 4.5 for loss.
FIU fans will be delirious with joy if six-foot, 215-pound senior SS Ashlyn Parker can actually survive the season after seeing two straight years ended early by injury. Before going down in the opener last year, Parker had recorded seven tackles and one for loss, giving a glimpse of his destructive potential. He made 56 stops as a sophomore in 2007.
Sophomore free safety Jonathan Cyprien established himself quickly, recording 78 tackles, second-most on the team. The six-foot 205-pounder is feared against the run, making big hits and forcing two fumbles last season. The coaches would like to see more big plays in the air, however, and they hope for improvement on his one interception.
The other corner spot opposite Gaitor is still up in the air. Senior Dezeriah Johnson made four starts last year and recorded 22 tackles before getting hurt. He's 6'1" and 190 pounds, big enough to hold his own against just about any receiver in the Sun Belt.
Freshmen Jose Cheeseborough (5'9", 160), Khambrel McGee (5'8", 175), and Sam Miller (5'9", 181) are getting looks at the starting spot as well. Sophomore Emmanuel Souarin (5'11", 175) could also figure in the mix if Cristobal decides he wants more size in the rotation.
Junior Chuck Grace only saw action in nine games, but still finished tenth on the team with 30 tackles. He also tied for the team lead in passes defended (eight, tied with Gaitor) and led in pass break-ups with seven. He may see extensive work in nickel and dime packages this year.
Former walk-on Kreg Brown will see action at either safety position, but should primarily caddy for Parker and work on special teams. The 5'11", 195-pound senior managed 21 tackles and broke up two passes last season.
5. North Texas
UNT's front seven seemed ineffectual at times, resulting in lots of opportunities for the secondary to make tackles. The unit was the Sun Belt's best against the pass but, like FAU, that was primarily due to the ease with which opponents ran on North Texas. There is talent, but there may not be many chances for big plays if the defensive backs don't get help.
The defense could only force 15 turnovers last season and four of those were attributed to cornerback Royce Hill. The six-foot junior picked off three passes and recovered a fumble to go with his 47 tackles. A summer injury hasn't prevented him from getting back atop the two-deep. It remains to be seen how his play will be affected.
Steven Ford, another six-foot junior, has slid ahead of fellow JUCO transfer D'Leon McCord for the spot opposite Hill. He was said to be all over the field in fall camps. The potential may exist for him to hold his own against opponents' primary receivers.
Junior free safety DaWaylon Cook was essentially an extra linebacker with the way he continually supported the run. He made 85 tackles, 69 of them solo, and recovered two fumbles. He, however, failed to pick off a pass.
Safety Ira Smith, a 5'11" senior, has the speed and agility to fill in at corner if the situation dictates. Even though he's bulked up almost 10 pounds to 192, concerns exist that he lacks optimum safety size. None of that stopped him from recording 53 tackles last year.
A pair of 6'1" corners, junior D'Leon McCord and sophomore Hilbert Jackson, should see time in the rotation behind Hill and Ford. Solid athletes, the two may only lack experience.
JUCO transfer Ryan Downing will see action at safety behind Cook. The 6'1" 195-pounder made 62 tackles and three interceptions for Butler County Community College last season.
6. Arkansas State
ASU's secondary might actually be the weak point of the defense. Since the front seven is quite solid, this is not as big an indictment as it sounds. There could be problems, however, if cornerback prospects do not pan out.
First, though, the strength lies in the safeties.
Senior free safety M.D. Jennings was having a solid season before being injured with a game to go. He made 64 tackles, broke up six passes, and recovered three fumbles, but only managed one interception.
Junior Kelcie McCray returns at strong safety after leading the team with four interceptions. The 6'2" 190-pounder may still be learning the position after being a high school quarterback. When it comes to hitting, he's capable of punching above his weight. He made 58 stops last season.
At one corner, junior college transfer Darron Edwards is considered the jewel of this season's recruiting class. He broke up 19 passes for Butler Community College (Kan.) and picked off four others. If the 5'11", 180-pound athlete can exhibit a similar nose for Sun Belt passes, he could contend for conference honors.
Senior Walter Moody could not stay healthy last season, seeing limited action in his seven appearances. He made seven tackles in those games, and making stops is considered a strength of his game. If he ever gets to show off that skill, ASU fans will be quite happy.
Sophomore corner Chaz Scales isn't a dangerous tackler, even though he made ten stops last year in spot duty. More disconcerting for the coaching staff is that he never got his hands on a pass. The 5'8", 160-pound speedster can run with just about anyone, and he needs to get in the way of some throws to stay on the field.
Jaquan Kilcrease will caddy for Jennings, and it may not be surprising to see him put large numbers on stat sheets this fall. He's a 6'2", 200-pound junior with strong hitting ability. Kilcrease showed that off last season to the tune of 29 tackles, two of them for loss.
Troy's pass defense was an unmitigated failure last season, allowing 286.8 yards per game, third-worst in America. This is odd because four of the six departed members of the front seven (and one departed defensive back) saw time in NFL training camps. The secondary has its issues once again, with a corner moving to safety and several unproven prospects.
Barry Valcin was recruited as a safety by schools like Baylor and LSU, both of which he committed to briefly before ending up at a junior college. He spent last season as a corner for Troy, making 51 tackles and five break-ups. Now, the 5'11", 195-pound senior is setting up shop at free safety.
Sophomore corner Bryan Willis was a bright spot from day one, leading the team with four interceptions and 12 break-ups. Of his 73 tackles, 60 were unassisted, showing a rare tackling sureness for a corner. He was named second-team All-Sun Belt last season, and could contend for first-team honors this year.
Freshman Chris Pickett appears to have beaten out the pack for the other cornerback position, but expect a lot of rotation. JUCO transfer Jimmie Anderson, sophomore KeJuan Phillips, and Cincinnati/Rutgers recruit Dionte Ponder will also see snaps. All have good quickness, but none have great size.
Senior Willard Ross will hold down strong safety after making a pair of starts last year. He's a 5'11" 195-pounder who made 26 tackles in 2009, but had little else show up on the stat sheet.
Senior Bryant McKissic, at 6'1" and 214 pounds, is the Trojans' biggest defensive back. He started the GMAC Bowl after primarily being a special teams player before. He managed 20 tackles and a pick last season, and could improve on those numbers seeing time at either safety position.
8. Western Kentucky
The Hilltopper secondary may have occasionally felt all alone on the field behind a front seven that could generate no pressure last season. This year that experience may harden the returnees, none of whom are seniors. If it doesn't several recruits have been added who can challenge for time.
The undisputed leader in the secondary is junior strong safety Mark Santoro, a six-foot, 200-pound dervish who's recorded 151 tackles in his first two seasons. He could be a good coverage man if given the opportunity, but last season, he was too busy charging the box to stop the run.
Sophomore Kareem Peterson has charged into the starting free safety spot. The 5'11" 175-pounder appeared in only eight games, but found time in those games to record 57 tackles, 46 of them solo. On a team where only six players recorded interceptions (and none more than one), it should be no surprise that Peterson had none himself.
A slightly undersized 5'9", 163-pound sophomore, Jamal Forrest started all but one game at corner last season. He broke up four passes, made 32 tackles, and was one of the illustrious six with picks. He can run with anyone but bigger receivers have given him fits.
Former receiver Derrius Brooks has played his way into a starting cornerback spot. He's run track for Western in the past so his speed is undeniable. Coach Willie Taggart has praised his changes in mentality and technique and the 5'10" junior has to go out and justify his coach's reviews.
Junior Ryan Beard has had his career interrupted by both disciplinary problems and injuries. All of which have contributed to him losing his starting free safety position. He appears to have all the tools to excel but staying on the field has got to be paramount.
Santoro's caddy will be redshirt freshman Kiante Young, a 5'11" 205-pounder from Gainesville, Georgia. Young's known as a major hitter and is expected to see time somewhere.
The Warhawks' defensive backs are an inexperienced group in need of extra depth thanks to the 3-3-5 base defense they play. The new personnel will have to hit the ground running or else they'll suffer some long days against the likes of Arkansas and Auburn.
Strong safety Darius Prelow, a six-foot, 210-pound junior, managed to break up 12 passes and make 62 tackles last season. His goal for this season is to turn some of those break-ups into interceptions. He's dangerous in run support as well.
Corner Nate Brown was able to break up six passes himself, and pick off two, in his 12 starts. Of his 40 tackles, three of them were for loss. He's unafraid to throw down against any ball carrier coming his way, in spite of his 5'9", 180-pound frame.
The other corner position is set to be manned by sophomore Robert Nelson. He saw limited defensive work last year but made some special teams plays, including a blocked PAT against Kentucky. The 5'10" 159-pounder recorded six tackles in his eight games.
At free safety, 5'9", 186-pound sophomore Khairi Usher will step in despite only having three tackles to his credit in nine appearances. He's considered a good blend of speed and physicality and he will get tested early and often.
The rover-style H position was capably manned by 64-tackle man James Truxillo last season and now senior Alex Ibe will take over. Ibe's athletic enough to play any of the safety spots. His 6'2", 215-pound frame would qualify him to play linebacker at many SBC schools. Last year, he made 23 tackles, two for loss, and 1.5 sacks.
Skinny redshirt freshman Otis Peterson (5'11", 165) will see action as a reserve corner after moving over from receiver. He's got speed and height but his tackling ability will need to be proven.
Freshmen Roland Veal and Isaiah Newsome are expected to see work at safety.
With more teams seeming to need their running games to bail out inexperienced quarterbacks this season, it may not be open season on the Sun Belt's defensive backs. If these units can compete, more teams may be forced to ponder offensive changes.
Scott Henry covers the MTSU Blue Raiders on his radio show 4 Quarters, airing on WMTS 88.3 FM in Murfreesboro and streaming live at wmts.org. Podcasts may be found at Starr*Rated.
You can also find the show on Facebook and follow Scott's ramblings on Twitter.
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