Big Ten Football: The Best Defensive Backs of the Decade, 2001-2010
"On an island."
That is what life is like as a defensive back, especially a cornerback.
When the D-back in question messes up, it usually means a big gain for the offense and the back in question becomes the goat.
When he does his job, more often than not, nobody pays attention to him because the ball goes nowhere near him.
That is something one notices when looking at the careers of the best defensive backs. Their statistics seem to deflate as their career progresses.
The thing is, it is not so much a matter of the back in question playing more poorly, but of the opposing offenses simply avoiding his part of the field.
If a cornerback is All-Conference caliber, then the opposing quarterback will simply throw the other way. If a team has two strong and highly instinctive safeties, then the quarterback will avoid throwing over the middle.
In a way, if a defensive back seems to have a dearth of statistics in his senior year, then it is probably a safe bet that the back in question did a good job.
As has been the case with the previous installments of this series, this list is not about "talent," per se. Rather, it is purely about on-the-field productivity and presence. In effect, a one-and-done player simply produced less over a period of time, and thus, probably got less consideration than a three-year starter.
Moreover, what the player did after graduating is of no concern to me. I am only concerned with what the player in question did on the gridirons of the Big Ten.
Honorable Mention (In No Particular Order)
Ernest Shazor: Michigan Wolverines strong safety, 2001-2004 (redshirt year, 2001)
Nate Salley: Ohio State Buckeyes free safety, 2002-2005
Ashton Youboty: Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback, 2003-2005
Kurt Coleman: Ohio State Buckeyes strong safety, 2006-2009
Leon Hall: Michigan Wolverines cornerback, 2003-2006
Donte Whitner: Ohio State Buckeyes SS, 2003-2005
Whitner was the top-ranked cornerback in the country coming out of high school. He graduated from prestigious Glenville High School, which also produced fellow Buckeyes Ted Ginn Jr. and Troy Smith.
Whitner played a backup and special teams role his freshman year, immediately developing a reputation for being a heavy hitter.
He became the starting strong safety as a sophomore, racking up 69 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, one pass defended and one interception.
However, he made his biggest splash in 2005.
He had 73 tackles, nine tackles for loss, four sacks, six passes defended, two interceptions and one forced fumble en route to a first team All-Big Ten season. He was also a consensus All-American.
Following his junior season, Whitner opted to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft.
The Buffalo Bills drafted Whitner eighth overall in the 2006 draft.
He has been the Bills' starting strong safety since his rookie season.
Jack Ikegwuonu: Wisconsin Badgers CB, 2004-2007
Ikegwuonu was a lightly recruited player out of Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin. The only schools that extended him a scholarship offer other than UW were MAC schools.
He projected to play either cornerback or receiver at the college level.
Ikegwuonu redshirted his first year on campus.
As a redshirt freshman, he was a key reserve and special teams player, picking up 26 tackles, two tackles for loss and three interceptions.
He became the full-time starter in 2006, accumulating 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, one forced fumble and 11 pass breakups. He was voted first team All-Big Ten and appeared on a number of All-American squads.
In 2007, he had 24 tackles, one interception and 15 pass breakups. He was once again named first team All-Big Ten.
He opted out of his senior season and declared himself eligible for the NFL.
Ikegwuonu was selected in the fourth round of the 2007 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was picked much lower than his talent level, primarily due to an injury suffered in a pre-draft workout.
He missed his entire rookie season and didn't play in his first game until midway through the 2009 season. He was subsequently cut the week after that game.
He has since run into a good deal of legal trouble and hasn't had any more activity in the NFL.
Tyler Sash: Iowa Hawkeyes SS, 2007-2010
Sash was a moderately recruited safety and receiver prospect out of Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Sash redshirted his first year on campus.
In his first year of eligibility, Sash began the season as a backup, but grabbed the starting strong safety spot by the second week of the season.
He finished the season with 53 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, six passes defended, five interceptions and one forced fumble. He was named to a number of freshmen All-American teams.
As a sophomore, Sash recorded 85 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, six passes defended, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was named first team All-Big Ten and appeared on a number of All-American teams.
In 2010, he totaled 79 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two passes defended and two picks. He was once again named first team All-Big Ten.
Following his junior year, Sash opted to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft.
Not having terribly impressive measurables, Sash projects to get picked in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
Vontae Davis: Illinois Illini CB, 2006-2008
Davis was a moderately recruited defensive back out of Washington D.C.
Davis started as a true freshman, picking up 52 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, six passes defended and one interception. He was named a freshman All-American.
As a sophomore, Davis helped lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl, totaling 76 tackles, four tackles for loss, eight passes defended, four interceptions and two blocked kicks. He was named first team All-Big Ten.
In 2008, he had 78 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, eight passes defended and three picks. He was once again named first team All-Big Ten.
Davis opted to forgo his senior season and declare himself eligible for the NFL draft.
The Miami Dolphins took Davis 25th overall in the 2009 NFL draft.
In 2009, he started nine games and was selected to Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie team. In 2010, he started 15 of 16 games.
Alan Zemaitis: Penn State Nittany Lions CB, 2001-2005
Zemaitis was a moderately recruited defensive back and receiver out of Westport, New York.
After redshirting his true freshman year, Zemaitis was a key contributor on special teams and in a nickelback role.
As a sophomore, he stepped into the starting cornerback spot, despite being involved in a violent car crash in the previous offseason. He finished the season with 71 tackles, one tackle for loss, 18 passes defended, four interceptions and one forced fumble. He earned his first inclusion on the first team All-Big Ten squad.
As a junior, he was once again first team All-Big Ten, tallying 47 tackles, one tackle for loss, six pass breakups and two interceptions.
In his senior season, he captained the Nits as they won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Orange Bowl. Individually, Zemaitis contributed 51 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 10 passes defended, six interceptions and two forced fumbles.
He was once again included as a first team All-Big Ten player and found himself on a number of All-American squads.
Zemaitis is very much a scheme player and only fits in the right scheme. That scheme is the Cover 2/Tampa 2.
Consequently, he fell to the fourth round in the 2006 NFL draft, where he was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Overall, Zemaitis failed to impress the Bucs and he was released before the end of his rookie season.
He has since played in the Canadian Football League and the Indoor Football League.
Jim Leonhard: Wisconsin Badgers SS/FS, 2001-2004
Leonhard played quarterback and safety at Flambeau High School in Tony, Wisconsin (population 105).
He didn't receive a single FBS (Division I, at the time) offer and opted to walk on at the University of Wisconsin.
Leonhard played in all 12 games in his first year as a Badger. He was mostly used on special teams.
As a sophomore, he earned the starting strong safety spot and returned punts. He finished the season with 99 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, 25 passes defended and a nation-leading 11 interceptions. He was named first team All-Big Ten and made a number of All-American teams.
As a junior, he moved to free safety and had 98 tackles, four tackles for loss, 12 passes defended and seven interceptions. He was once again named first team All-Big Ten.
Finally, as a senior, Leonhard was finally given a scholarship. He also had 72 tackles, 13 passes defended and three picks. He earned his third first team All-Big Ten recognition.
As with his college career, Leonhard had to prove his worth in the truest sense.
After going undrafted in the 2005 draft, Leonhard signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills and made their final 53-man roster. He wound up playing in 10 games.
In 2006, he played in 15 games and got one start. Finally, in 2007, he became the full-time starter.
Then, in 2008, he moved to the Baltimore Ravens, where he started 13 of 16 games. In 2009, he moved to the New York Jets, where he once again earned the starting spot.
Nevertheless, his 2010 season was cut short by a broken leg.
Malcolm Jenkins: Ohio State Buckeyes CB, 2005-2008
Jenkins came to the Buckeyes as a moderately recruited safety prospect out of Piscataway, New Jersey.
Jenkins played in his true freshman year, though he was mostly used on special teams and as a nickelback.
In 2006, he started all 13 games at cornerback. He finished the season with 55 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three passes defended, four interceptions and one forced fumble. He was named first team All-Big Ten.
As a junior, he had 47 tackles, five tackles for loss, three passes defended and four picks. He was once again named first team All-Big Ten and was also voted onto a number of All-American teams.
He opted to come back to the Bucks as a senior and he accumulated 57 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, nine passes defended, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. He was first team All-Big Ten for the third year in a row. He was also consensus All-American and he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back.
Due to Jenkins' slow 40 time, most teams felt he was more suited to the safety position. Nevertheless, the Saints took him 14th overall in the 2009 draft.
He began his career as a cornerback, but was eventually moved to free safety where he became a starter and has remained so for two seasons.
Bob Sanders: Iowa Hawkeyes SS, 2000-2003
Sanders was a lightly recruited defensive back prospect out of Erie, Pennsylvania. In fact, Iowa was the only BCS conference offer he had.
Sanders began his Iowa career as a special teams standout. By the end of his true freshman year, he had become the starter at strong safety.
He retained the starting position as a sophomore and wracked up 122 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack, 12 passes defended, four interceptions and one forced fumble. For this, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors.
As a junior, he led the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the country to the Orange Bowl. He totaled 102 tackles, one sack, 12 passes defended, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. He was once again voted first-team All-Big Ten.
In his senior year, he missed some time with injuries. However, he still accumulated 72 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, five passes defended, one interception and six forced fumbles. He finished his career with his third inclusion as a first-team All-Conference player and found himself on numerous All-American teams.
Sanders had first-round talent, but was short (5'8") by NFL standards. Consequently, the Indianapolis Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft.
Sanders brought the same reckless and punishing approach to the NFL as he did to his college ball. In effect, he revamped the Colts defense the same way he did the Hawkeyes'.
The problem has been that the same style of play that has made him successful has also led to him being constantly dinged up.
In seven seasons, Sanders has never been healthy enough to play in every game. In the two seasons in which he has managed to play at least 14 games, he has been All-Pro. In 2007, he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
However, after only playing in a total of nine games between 2008-2010, the Colts recently released him.
Marlin Jackson: Michigan Wolverines CB/FS, 2001-2004
Jackson was a highly recruited player out of Sharon, Pennsylvania. He played both defensive back and receiver in high school and projected to play on either side of the ball in college.
As a true freshman, Jackson started seven games as a cornerback. He picked up 47 tackles, one tackle for loss, seven passes defended, three interceptions, one forced fumble and a blocked kick. He was picked as a freshman All-American by the Sporting News.
As a sophomore, he had 51 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack,18 passes defended, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was first team All-Big Ten and found himself on a number of All-American teams.
In 2003, he moved to free safety. Despite having some injury problems, Jackson totaled 50 tackles, one tackle for loss, four passes defended, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one blocked kick. He was named first team All-Big Ten and consensus All-American.
As a senior, he moved back to cornerback. He had 47 tackles, one sack, five passes defended, one interception and one forced fumble. The primary reason for his slight drop in stats was because opposing quarterbacks avoided his side of the field, only throwing in his direction 12 percent of the time.
Jackson was once again named first team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American.
The Indianapolis Colts selected Jackson as the 29th pick overall in the 2005 NFL draft.
In his rookie season, he mostly played on special teams and passing downs. In 2006, he started eight games in place of an injured Bob Sanders, and in 2007, he started all 16 games at cornerback.
A midseason injury in 2008 ended his season and he played sparingly in 2009. Jackson was declared a free agent previous to the 2010 season and he was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, an Achilles' tendon rupture ended his 2010 season before it began.
Mike Doss: Ohio State Buckeyes SS, 1999-2002
Doss was a highly recruited defensive back prospect out of Canton, Ohio's McKinley High School.
Doss began his true freshman year mostly as a special teams player. However, he did start two games at strong safety.
As a sophomore, he became the full-time starter and totaled 94 tackles, three sacks, six passes defended, three interceptions and one forced fumble. He was named first team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American.
As a junior, he had 87 tackles, three sacks, four passes defended and three picks. He was once again first team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American.
In his senior year, he captained the No. 2 scoring defense in the country and led them to a national championship game victory. He totaled 107 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions. He was voted the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and, for the third time, was both first team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American.
The Indianapolis Colts picked Doss in the second round of the 2003 NFL draft.
In his rookie season, he started 15 games. However, he struggled to stay healthy in his second pro season. Ultimately, he wound up competing for the job with the aforementioned Bob Sanders. Sanders won the job in 2006 and Doss was released.
He spent a year with the Minnesota Vikings, during which he played in eight games.
In 2008, he was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals, though he saw very little playing time. Since being released from the Bengals following the 2008 season, Doss has been inactive.