Ranking the Top College Football Defensive Backs Set to Play This Fall
A lot of things factor into making a great defensive back, and much of it cannot be measured in stat lines.
It's easy to pull up a player's tackle sheet, see how many interceptions he had or look at pass deflections. But there are plenty of times when great defensive backs don't have loaded box scores because opponents stay away from them.
Addition of value for defensive backs sometimes equals a subtraction of stats.
From the snap-and-clear mentality necessary to play the position to lockdown capability to the swagger to go against athletic receivers, stare them down and hop back on that island play after play, it takes a special athlete with a short memory to play in the secondary.
Some great cornerbacks and safeties return to college football in 2020, even though two Power Five conferences are on hiatus and even with all the talent off to the NFL a year ago.
The star value took a hit since guys like Washington's Elijah Molden, Ohio State's Shaun Wade and Stanford's Paulson Adebo won't suit up as their conferences hit a pandemic pause, but plenty will still take the field.
Narrowly missing the list were Florida's Kaiir Elam, Virginia's Joey Blount, Iowa State's Greg Eisworth II, TCU's Ar'Darius Washington and Texas Tech's DaMarcus Fields.
Let's rank the sport's top defensive backs for the upcoming season.
15. Cornerback Shaun Jolly, Appalachian State
Despite the coaching churn at Appalachian State the past two years—Scott Satterfield left for Louisville, and successor Eli Drinkwitz headed to Missouri after just one season—several things haven't changed.
The Mountaineers continue to win and be the cream of the Sun Belt Conference, and they also keep producing exceptional defenses that carry the team.
They hope that trend continues under new head coach Shawn Clark. If so, it will be because of players like cornerback Shaun Jolly.
Leading Appy's zone defensive scheme, Jolly finished the year with 45 tackles and five interceptions. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the fourth-best returning defensive back, loving his deep-diving statistical comparisons:
"His man coverage wasn't terrible by any means, but Jolly was elite in zone, allowing just 12 first downs on 354 coverage snaps and a 39.7 passer rating when targeted. Jolly's 2019 season was highlighted by his Week 12 performance against Georgia State when he recorded one of the best PFF grades we saw this season from a corner (95.7), intercepting two passes and breaking up three of his eight targets in coverage."
Jolly is getting recognized despite not playing for a Power Five powerhouse. He has been named a second-team preseason All-American by USA Today and CBS Sports, according to the Statesville Record & Landmark.
Though he isn't the biggest DB at 5'9", 175 pounds, he packs a punch in a variety of ways and is arguably the most valuable Group of Five defensive back.
14. Safety Caden Sterns, Texas
There is no questioning Caden Sterns' ability.
Two years ago, he became the only Texas Longhorns true freshman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors and the first since Earl Campbell in 1974 to earn first-team all-conference honors of any kind, according to Horns247's Jeff Howe.
Since then, however, injuries have clouded that talent.
Knee and ankle injuries hobbled him a season ago, and production tumbled as Sterns struggled to stay on the field. The 6'1", 207-pound playmaker still wound up with 59 tackles and a sack in nine games. When you factor in that he was never truly healthy, the dip is understandable.
Expect the numbers to swing back in a positive direction under new coordinator Chris Ash. Sterns should announce himself among the top defenders in the nation again in 2020.
There's no doubt he can do it all at safety, and it is equally obvious he was worthy of his lofty prospect rankings coming out of high school. He is one of coach Tom Herman's most valuable players, a do-it-all defender who can come up in the box and stop runners, get after quarterbacks and be a ball-hawking force.
Howe noted how much Sterns meant to the defense in the 38-10 Alamo Bowl win over Utah in December.
"With Sterns back and as healthy as he was at any point in the season, the Longhorns held the Utes to a lowly 126 passing yards (8.4 yards per completion, 5.5 yards per pass attempt) and a season-low 4.2 yards per play," Howe wrote.
Hopefully for the 'Horns, that's the type of defense they'll see with Sterns at the helm this season.
13. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
When it comes to pro prospects in Group of Five schools, Ahmad Gardner has to be on the short list with high-level NFL interest.
At 6'2", 188 pounds, he has pro size, and he anchors the back end of the Bearcats defense. Gardner is a shutdown force for coach Luke Fickell and is a big part of why Cincy could win the AAC in 2020.
Named to the watch lists for the Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year) and Thorpe Award (best defensive back), Gardner seems poised to have another breakout year as a sophomore. When you factor in that he has to stick around for this season and another one, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about his elite potential.
A season ago, he played in all 13 games, starting the final six, and wound up with 31 tackles and 11 passes defended. He didn't allow a scoring reception either, according to the school website. His biggest performance perhaps came in a 27-24 win over UCF when he had a pick-six.
He added another interception returned for a touchdown against East Carolina and was a first-team all-conference player, which is quite a feat for a true freshman. He isn't quite on Derek Stingley Jr.'s level, but it would be fair to say he is the Group of Five version.
Gardner has a great size and speed combo and shows elite break on the ball and excellent ball instincts. He proved as a first-year collegian he has a nose for the end zone too. If he continues to perform like this, everybody on the Bearcats schedule will avoid him at all costs.
The Detroit native has upper-level pro cornerback potential.
12. Safety Richard LeCounte III, Georgia
One of the guys whose complete value can't be found on stat sheets is Georgia rising senior Richard LeCounte III.
The 5'11", 190-pound playmaker from Riceboro, Georgia, edged into the secondary rotation immediately after a decorated high school career that saw him become a highly regarded recruit. He has gotten better each year under coach Kirby Smart.
Case in point: Though LeCounte led the Bulldogs in tackles as a sophomore with 74, he shared the defense's Most Improved Player award last year.
The numbers took a bit of a hit on Smart's loaded unit a season ago as he finished third on UGA with 61 tackles, but he led the SEC with three fumble recoveries and was second with four interceptions. Shockingly, he was left off the all-conference selections.
Don't expect that to happen this year. LeCounte is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award, the Thorpe Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive player).
"Richard is a player that plays with instincts and that shows up," UGA defensive coordinator Dan Lanning told the Thomasville Times-Enterprise's Clint Thompson. "What he has learned over the years is to play with those same instincts within the framework of our defense and our system."
Growing into the player he is, LeCounte can be counted on to produce. With Georgia poised for a potential title run, the senior is ready to step in as the alpha with J.R. Reed gone and could have a huge season.
11. Cornerback Derion Kendrick, Clemson
The Clemson Tigers have experienced no shortage of defensive talent in recent years. 2020 NFL draftees Isaiah Simmons, A.J. Terrell and Tanner Muse played for last year's national runner-up program.
This year, the steady star ready to step into the spotlight is cornerback Derion Kendrick, who is poised to be a breakout player for defensive coordinator Brent Venables on a team that should compete for the title yet again.
Kendrick is a converted wide receiver who was a coveted offensive prospect coming out of high school in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The 6'0", 190-pound athlete made the switch to the other side of the ball, and the rest is history. The move will make him a lot of money.
Two springs ago, he moved over, and Kendrick earned plenty of playing time as a sophomore, earning second-team All-ACC honors with 51 tackles and two interceptions. In the Fiesta Bowl, he added another line to his resume with nine tackles against Ohio State.
Kendrick followed that performance with another nine-tackle showing against LSU. He has proved he can play in coverage and is a sure tackler. Expect him to make a similar jump this year to Terrell's a season ago, and when you factor in that he's been at the position a little more than a year, the ceiling is exciting.
He is on the preseason Thorpe Award watch list, but being mentioned for the nation's top DB award means little if you don't back it up, according to SI.com's Christopher Hall.
"It really means nothing," he said. "Anybody can be on the list, depending on what they did the year before or whatever. But you just have to be motivated to keep going and keep getting better. My goal is to win it, I'm not trying to be a list player."
Not many DBs are better than Kendrick.
10. Cornerback Israel Mukuamu, South Carolina
With all the offensive question marks (like who is going to start at quarterback), injuries (RB MarShawn Lloyd's season-ending ACL injury) and the losses at the receiver position, South Carolina is going to rely on its defense to carry it in 2020.
It's a good thing for hot-seat candidate Will Muschamp he has a lot of star quality on that side of the ball, and there are few bigger sure things than cornerback Israel Mukuamu.
If you know his name, it's likely because his biggest performance came in the Gamecocks' most impressive win of the 2019 season when they upset Georgia 20-17 in overtime on the strength of Mukuamu's three interceptions.
After that game, Mukuamu told The State's Greg Hadley: "Coach [Travaris Robinson] told us all week ... [Jake Fromm] hasn't thrown one pick yet, but they never played a defense like us, they never played a D-line like us. I was just able to get my hands on the ball."
Mukuamu and the Gamecocks defense need to play with that kind of swagger if they're going to make more noise in the SEC in a swing season for Muschamp's era.
The Louisiana native finished his sophomore season as a second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press with 59 tackles, four interceptions and 13 passes defended. He needs to be more consistent, and if he can, at 6'4", 205 pounds, he is almost certain to be a high draft pick.
Mukuamu should be moved all over the field, showing the physicality to play safety and the speed and ranginess to play cornerback. He's a valuable asset and could surge up this list as the year progresses.
9. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
When you talk about growth potential, the biggest riser may end up being Alabama junior Patrick Surtain II.
Though the light hasn't come on completely in his two years in Tuscaloosa, perhaps that's because everybody expected so much out of the former 5-star and nation's top-ranked high school cornerback.
All the 6'2", 205-pound defender did was start 12 of his first 15 games for the Crimson Tide, earning Freshman All-American honors from The Athletic. Then last year, PFF named him an honorable mention All-American after another strong campaign on a mediocre defense.
Are there some big busts in coverage? Sure. But those are going to happen since teams throw the ball so much against Alabama because they're playing from behind. Surtain is going to make many more plays than he gives up, and he has the potential to be even better than his All-Pro father.
Alabama is going to be a lot better on defense in 2020, and Surtain will benefit from that growth as well. Big things are expected from him and the Tide, who expect to compete for national titles every season under Nick Saban.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding told reporters Surtain could be a lockdown corner this year. "I definitely could see myself playing that role," Surtain said. "I feel like [Golding] trusts me in that position, and I feel like I've got to live up to the expectation."
Surtain is one of the most athletically gifted players at any position in the nation, and he has gotten better each year at the Capstone. Look for him to take another step. He could wind up being a first-team All-American.
8. Safety Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State
New Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller must feel like one of the luckiest guys in college football because of the talent he inherited on all three levels of the Seminoles defense.
Anchoring the front is Marvin Wilson, and with some solid linebackers, it could be a nice rebound season in Mike Norvell's first campaign in Tallahassee. Perhaps the most exciting, loaded group is the secondary, where several playmakers reside. None has been a more consistent force than Hamsah Nasirildeen.
The 6'4", 220-pound rising senior has been the most important to the team and the most consistent through the program's recent on-field turmoil.
Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, Nasirildeen is a new-age DB who can play all over the field, much like Clemson's Isaiah Simmons did a season ago and like Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton may blossom into for the Fighting Irish.
Pro Football Network's Scott Gorman likens him to the former Tigers star, who was a top selection in this past NFL draft.
On some pretty bad 'Noles teams, Nasirildeen has been a calming influence, registering 101 tackles a season ago. If you think he's just a run-stopper, though, he had interceptions against Alabama State and Clemson, proving he can defend the pass as well.
Against the run-heavy Boston College Eagles, Nasirildeen was in heaven, registering 22 stops. It's going to be fun to see what he can do this year as an encore and how teams on the next level view his upside.
After earning second-team All-ACC honors a season ago, he will expect bigger things in his final year. Look for him to make the first team, compete for All-America honors and play his way into the conversation to go in the top two rounds of the draft.
7. Safety Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
Speaking of rangy, versatile defensive backs like Israel Mukuamu, the one on the list who may have the highest upside is Notre Dame rising sophomore Kyle Hamilton.
He could wind up being the best safety in the nation.
At 6'4", 219 pounds, he has the size and versatility to play all over the field. Even though he started just one game a season ago, he finished with four interceptions, was heavily involved in the Fighting Irish's defensive back rotation and had a pick-six against New Mexico.
He displayed the versatility to play against the run and made The Athletic's Freshman All-American team.
When you factor in his growing leadership, according to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, there are plenty of reasons to go full steam ahead on the hype train.
"He was a freshman who was emerging and certainly made a big splash early on," Kelly told reporters. "He's physically much more mature. He has a presence about him. He has exhibited leadership qualities already. I would say night and day. That would be the best way to describe Kyle Hamilton."
Since Notre Dame is playing as part of the ACC this fall, Hamilton will be nearer to his Atlanta home, and his comfort level against that conference and with the Irish's scheme could equal a huge season. Some players on this list may have better stats, but there aren't many with Hamilton's ability.
It's just a matter of time before he's one of the most well-known defensive backs in the nation.
6. Safety Trevon Moehrig, TCU
Lost in the fact that TCU finished last season 5-7 and limped to one of the worst seasons in coach Gary Patterson's stellar career was the Horned Frogs' sneaky strong defense.
That is Patterson's forte, and TCU did plenty on that side of the ball in a scoring-happy Big 12, leading the league in passing defense and total defense. One of the biggest reasons for that and a glimmer of hope for 2020 was the play of the young secondary, led by Trevon Moehrig.
Patterson has several stars on his hands like Ar'Darius Washington and Moehrig, the latter of whom earns this spot with his terrific sophomore season and the upside he has to look forward to.
Moehrig did everything on the back end of the defense for the Frogs a season ago, and the 6'2", 202-pound first-team Big 12 selection could be an All-American this year. He should expect to be.
There's a lot of meat left on the bone for Moehrig, who is only scraping the surface of his potential.
Advanced stats love Moehrig, whose value was greater than even a loaded stat sheet that included 62 tackles, four interceptions and 15 pass deflections showed.
"Regardless of draft class, Trevon Moehrig was the most valuable safety of 2019 and had the third-most valuable season we have seen in the PFF College era," Pro Football Focus's Anthony Treash wrote. "And regardless of where he was on the field, Moehrig was an absolute playmaker."
With numbers like that, NFL teams will come calling. He will be a household name by the end of the year.
5. Safety Paris Ford, Pittsburgh
Paris Ford personifies the hard-nosed attitude of a Pat Narduzzi defense, and the safety is going to ride that skill set blended with physicality into the NFL, maybe as soon as following this season.
The 6'0", 190-pound redshirt junior had an exceptional sophomore year that made him a known commodity, leading the Panthers in tackles and interceptions and earning first-team All-ACC honors. He can pack a punch when it comes to unloading on opponents and possesses great ball skills too.
Ford can do it all, and that's why he surged all the way up this list. He is yet another great defensive back from the Atlanta area, and if he played on a powerhouse like Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State, everybody would know his name.
He's on the preseason watch lists for the Thorpe, Bednarik and Nagurski awards and has a great chance to make the All-America first team.
Pro Football Network's Nick Farabaugh broke down Ford's game, noting his physical traits and highlighting his intangible qualities.
"Many of these players have an infectious brand of swagger and physicality," Farabaugh wrote. "If you love guys that play with a chip on their shoulder, then Pittsburgh Panthers safety Paris Ford is going to be a favorite of yours."
Ford also had 11 passes defended a year ago and had several massive games, including a 12-tackle performance that included a pick-six (and another interception) against Duke. He also had double-digit tackles against Penn State and Virginia Tech.
If you need him to drop back into coverage, he's got you. If you want him to step up and stop the run, he can do that too. That versatility ranks him high on this list.
4. Safety Andre Cisco, Syracuse
Tucked away in the Northeast is another little-known defensive back who—like Oklahoma State's Kolby Harvell-Peel—plays for a head coach in Dino Babers more known for his offensive acumen.
But the Syracuse Orange can play a little defense, and there are few better safeties than team leader Andre Cisco. The FBS' active leader in interceptions with 12 has led the ACC the past two seasons. He did so last year despite missing three games.
In 2019, he also made 65 tackles and finished as a second-team All-ACC selection. Yet he is underrated as an NFL prospect and probably in college football circles.
Cisco can do a little bit of everything, and he is hurt by the fact that he doesn't play on a powerhouse program and wasn't a highly rated recruit. Even so, the 6'0", 206-pound player will go down as one of the best defenders in school history and could play his way up the draft board with a big 2020.
The New York native is an ideal fit for a 3-3-5 defense and fits right in with a lot of defensive backs on the field at once. Even with a loaded secondary, he stands out and will probably be a factor for awards season and All-America teams, as Pro Football Network's Andrew DiCecco wrote:
"Though somewhat overshadowed by some of his more highly-touted counterparts, Cisco will almost certainly be in the discussion for the Bednarik and Jim Thorpe Awards once again this season. In fact, one could argue that he has a better chance of coming away with one—or both—of the prestigious honors in 2020, after two seasons of consistent production."
Cisco may even be underrated on this list with two safeties above him. He'll try to prove everybody wrong yet again.
3. Safety JaCoby Stevens, LSU
Several big-time playmakers have opted out of the season on top of the defections from last year's national championship team, so LSU is going to need its remaining stars to have big seasons.
Expect JaCoby Stevens to rise to the challenge.
He won't get the same kind of publicity as elite cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., but Stevens is a different type of defensive back who is a back-end enforcer. After some difficulty finding a positional home on the Bayou, he blossomed late in his sophomore season in 2018 at safety.
Last year, the 6'2", 230-pounder from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, became one of the best players on a team full of standouts.
His value comes in calling the defense on the back end, and he is perhaps the nation's best run-defending safety, roaming all over the field from sideline to sideline. He finished 2019 with 92 total tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and nine passes defended. He was a three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Week too.
Stevens is too good to play in anybody's shadow this season. Bo Pelini takes over the defense after Dave Aranda left to be Baylor's head coach, so he may see his role change a bit this year.
"The difference is that the front's going to take care of a lot of stuff," Stevens said, according to the Daily Advertiser's Glenn Gilbeau. "Our front seven is going to take care of the run game a lot. I have to adjust. I'll be blitzing, doing what the team needs. I'm willing to anything to help the defense be a great defense and the team win."
It wouldn't be shocking to see Stevens wind up with more sacks and picks than a season ago. Proving he can do it all would go a long way toward making him a coveted NFL prospect, as valuable a college player as he already is.
2. Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel, Oklahoma State
When you think of Oklahoma State, your mind drifts to offensive playmakers under the tutelage of scoring-minded head coach and former Cowboys quarterback Mike Gundy.
But there may be a little bit of defense played in Stillwater this year. The group that could be one of the most surprising units in the Big 12, if not the country, is led by elite safety Kolby Harvell-Peel.
He will team with Tre Sterling this year to form one of the best safety duos in all the nation, and there may not be a better pass-defending safety in the nation than Harvell-Peel. Despite playing in the Big 12 where everybody throws the ball, he makes the most of his opportunities and shuts down receivers week in and out.
Harvell-Peel also is a force stopping the run, finishing last year with 71 tackles, five interceptions and 13 passes broken up. At 6'0", 210 pounds, he has the size to get NFL teams' attention and enjoyed several massive games a season ago.
He had two interceptions apiece in wins over TCU and Kansas, intercepted a ball against Texas and had six pass deflections in a road win at Ohio State. Harvell-Peel also was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week three times and is a near-guarantee to be an All-American candidate.
He can do it all in the secondary. That's why SI.com's Marshall Levenson wrote he was stunned Harvell-Peel didn't get more consideration for the Thorpe Award, even including a chart that compared his numbers to the finalists.
"Harvell-Peel churned out one of the best seasons from a safety in the country last year and in fact, it was one of the best by any safety in years," Levinson wrote. "It is shocking to me that Harvell-Peel was not even mentioned in the Jim Thorpe Award conversation."
He almost certainly will be in the conversation this year.
1. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
It's Derek Stingley Jr.'s world, and everybody else is just living in it.
Well, he may have to share it with Kayvon Thibodeaux, but the duo of rising sophomores had unreal freshman seasons a year ago and should make the leap to being among college football's best. Everybody who follows the sport knows who they are.
Stingley is already in elite company. There wasn't a better cornerback in the nation a season ago. There's no reason to believe he won't be the nation's best defensive back for the second year in a row.
It's just a matter of eligibility before he is the first defensive back taken in the NFL draft. He's that much of a sure thing. And before you think it's just a hype machine, Pro Football Focus took a deep dive into stats and named Stingley the best secondary member returning in 2020 as well.
"The term 'generational talent' is thrown around loosely," PFF's Anthony Treash wrote, "but if there is any proper time to use it to describe a player in college football, it should be used next to Derek Stingley Jr.’s name."
Stingley started for the national champions basically from the moment he stepped on campus. He wound up a consensus All-American, starting 14 games at cornerback and finishing with six interceptions, breaking up 21 passes and causing jaws to drop around the nation.
At 6'1", 190 pounds, he has ideal cornerback size and could wind up being the greatest defensive back ever at a school known as Defensive Back U.
What's next for Stingley? Maybe playing both ways? LSU coach Ed Orgeron told WWL Radio (h/t LSU Country's Glen West): "During recruiting, I promised him two years on defense and then the next year, the third year, I think you're going to see Derek play both ways for us."
Given all the holes Orgeron must fill, it may not be a bad idea to speed that up a year.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.