Projecting Every Conference's Best Secondary for the 2022 CFB Season
As modern offenses keep learning new ways to attack every inch of the field, the value of an elite secondary has soared.
Winning in the trenches is important, but cornerbacks, nickelbacks and safeties can carry a defense. Yes, that takes a very special group. It's hardly a coincidence that Top 25 programs often have a formidable secondary, though.
The fourth edition of B/R's offseason series is focused on defensive backs. As always, the list is subjective but considers both returning production and projected performance.
American: UCF Knights
Continuity is the major appeal of UCF's secondary.
At corner, the Knights bring back Davonte Brown, Corey Thornton, Brandon Adams and nickel Justin Hodges. Adams notched 19 tackles while the other three defenders each made 30-plus stops, also combining for 27 pass breakups.
Second-team All-AAC safety Divaad Wilson will again start alongside Quadric Bullard, and top reserve Dyllon Lester returns, too.
Cincinnati's star-studded group understandably attracted the most attention in 2021. However, UCF finished just a tenth behind the Bearcats in yards allowed per pass and doesn't have to rebuild like UC.
ACC: NC State Wolfpack
Last year, North Carolina State tied Clemson with an ACC-best 6.0 yards allowed per pass attempt. No team ceded a lower completion percentage, and the Wolfpack's 15 interceptions only trailed Pitt's 16 in the league.
And in 2022, everyone is back.
That group includes first-team All-ACC safety Tanner Ingle, along with two honorable-mention players in nickel Tyler Baker-Williams and corner Shyheim Battle. Derrek Pitts Jr. started opposite Battle, while safeties Jakeen Harris and Devan Boykin split time next to Ingle.
Cyrus Fagan, who initially won a safety job before a bicep injury ended his 2021 season in the opener, also returns. So do key rotational corners Joshua Pierre-Louis and Aydan White.
NC State should have one of the nation's stingiest secondaries for the second successive year.
Big 12: Kansas State Wildcats
It seems like the entire Big 12 is revamping its secondary. Baylor, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all lost several key pieces, and Texas has much to prove in 2022.
The sleeper pick is transfer-infused Kansas State.
Starting cornerbacks Ekow Boye-Doe and Julius Brents lead the unit, which also returns safety TJ Smith and versatile piece Cincere Mason. Top newcomers—safety Shawn Robinson (Missouri) and Josh Hayes (North Dakota State, Virginia)—are both expected to hold major roles.
In the 10-team Big 12 last season, K-State ranked fifth in yards allowed per throw but allowed the second-fewest touchdown passes. This unit should be awfully stingy.
Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes
Whether the pick should be Iowa or Penn State is a worthwhile debate, as both programs are deserving. We're siding with Iowa, which has crafted a well-deserved reputation for lockdown coverage units.
Last year, the Hawkeyes led the nation with 25 interceptions. Starting cornerbacks Riley Moss—the reigning Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year—and Jermari Harris each snagged four of them.
Veteran safety Kaevon Merriweather is the last returning starter, but Quinn Schulte has emerged as a likely first-stringer next to him.
Additionally, cornerback Terry Roberts played a key role before an injury last season. He should see the field regularly, along with possible CASH starter Cooper DeJean. Xavier Nwankpa, the jewel of the 2022 signing class, will be a high-profile depth piece to begin the season.
C-USA: UAB Blazers
The surprise retirement of head coach Bill Clark has thrown a wrench into UAB's outlook. Still, this secondary is loaded with upside.
In 2021, safety Grayson Cash was a second-team All-Conference USA choice. Additionally, cornerback Starling Thomas V, nickel Keondre Swoopes and safety Will Boler each landed All-C-USA honorable mention.
One of CD Daniels and Mac McWilliams—a C-USA All-Freshman Team corner—will be opposite Thomas. While safety Damon Miller is a potential starter when healthy, Damien Miller and Jaylen Key are also experienced backups at the position.
Providing the coaching transition goes smoothly, UAB can rely on the back end to stabilize the defense.
MAC: Toledo Rockets
Toledo needs to replace first-team All-MAC players Sam Womack and Tycen Anderson. This projection, then, is a testament to the depth of last season's group.
Third-team All-MAC safety Maxen Hook, 2020 All-MAC safety Nate Bauer and cornerback Quinyon Mitchell have each started for the Rockets. Corner/nickel Chris McDonald and safety Zachary Ford were key contributors last season, too.
Reserve cornerback Ronald Delancy III and safety Troy Simon will likely hold bigger roles in 2022, and transfers Nick Turner (Arkansas) and Andre Fuller (Arkansas Pine Bluff) should fortify the secondary.
Toledo has a great shot at a second successive No. 1 finish in yards allowed per pass within the MAC.
Mountain West: Boise State Broncos
As usual, San Diego State's secondary figures to cause some headaches. The best defensive backfield, however, may belong to Boise State.
Last season, safeties JL Skinner and Tyreque Jones both earned All-Mountain West recognition. Caleb Biggers, Kaonohi Kaniho, Markel Red and Tyric LeBeauf served as the Broncos' four primary cornerbacks, while Rodney Robinson was a top reserve.
Although the unit ceded 7.7 yards per attempt—which certainly needs to improve—it had more interceptions (13) than touchdowns allowed (12).
Given the depth of experience coming back, Boise State may have stellar numbers in 2022.
Pac-12: Utah Utes
Based on its horrendous showing in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, Utah might seem like a surprising pick. Beyond that loss, though, the Utes surrendered just 6.3 yards per pass attempt in 2021.
Not bad for a freshman-heavy group.
Clark Phillips III put together a second-team All-Pac-12 campaign, commanding one corner spot ahead of Zemaiah Vaughn and Faybian Marks. Cole Bishop played all over the middle of the field, too.
In addition to returning nickel Malone Mataele, Utah has starting corner JaTravis Broughton returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of 2021. Illinois State transfer Clayton Isbell, who posted 62 tackles and three interceptions last season, can make an immediate impact at safety, as well.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
With no hesitation, Georgia will be an elite unit. Kelee Ringo, Chris Smith, Tykee Smith and William Poole are the foundation of another tremendous UGA secondary.
As with Iowa and Penn State in the Big Ten, there are multiple high-level contenders for the SEC's spot. Texas A&M even has a compelling case led by potential All-America nickel Antonio Johnson, corner Tyreek Chappell and safety Demani Richardson.
But the Aggies and Dawgs are ever-so-slightly behind the Crimson Tide machine.
Alabama returns five core pieces of the secondary with slot defenders Brian Branch and Malachi Moore, cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, and safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams. Perhaps most notably, the Tide swiped cornerback Eli Ricks, a heavily coveted transfer, from LSU.
Factor in a likely overwhelming front with Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner, and Alabama's pass defense should be suffocating in 2022.
Sun Belt: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Louisiana coach Billy Napier is now at Florida. Standout defensive backs Mekhi Garner and Percy Butler went to LSU and the NFL, respectively.
And the Ragin' Cajuns won't be panicking.
Eric Garror and Trey Amos are a strong 1-2 at corner, and Kam Pedescleaux is a reliable nickel/safety. Sixth-year senior Bralen Trahan, who's grabbed nine career interceptions, is entering his fourth season as a starting safety.
Plus, both nickel Brandon Bishop and corner AJ Washington held top rotational roles for Louisiana in 2021. Jayrin Wilson is a possible starter next to Trahan, too.
Thee Sun Belt's stingiest team last season in both completion percentage and yards allowed per attempt is built to thrive again.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.