The Enemy, Ranked: Defensive Backs

Submitted by Ace on August 30th, 2017 at 10:31 AM

Previously: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers & Tight EndsOffensive LineDefensive Line, Linebackers

Denzel Ward takes over as OSU's top corner. [Patrick Barron]

I'm sorry, but I couldn't bring myself to rank Indiana first.

Explanations for the stats used in this post can be found here. I leaned towards being generous with returning starters in this category because in today's football the nickel is a starter in all but name.

1. Ohio State

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 125.2 (8) 36.8% (24) 1.40 (30) 7.2% (35) 34.6% (50)

This year, like last year, will test Ohio State's ability to reload in the secondary. They passed that test with flying colors last year, hardly missing a beat despite losing Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell. Now they must replace three first-round draft picks: corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley and safety Malik Hooker.

The talent is there for another reload. Denzel Ward, who played close to starter-level snaps as the third corner, allowed only a 55.4 passer rating when targeted; he's yet another NFL prospect. Damon Arnette, who saw action as a redshirt freshman last year, is competing for the other corner spot with JuCo transfer Kendall Sheffield, a former five-star Alabama signee; both will play quite a bit. There's probably going to be a drop in quality from two first-rounders, but it still may not be much.

Safety is a bit more uncertain. Senior Damon Webb was the weak link among last year's starters, and unlike Arnette he couldn't blame youth for his subpar play. The other spot is still a tossup between sophomore Jordan Fuller and senior Erick Smith, who both played fewer than 100 snaps last year. The development on the back end will determine if this continues to be an elite pass defense or merely a good one. They'll be helped mightily either way by what should be a fearsome pass rush.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]

2. Indiana

Hybrid safety Marcelino Ball is a breakout candidate. [Bryan Fuller]

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
5 101.8 (57) 35.8% (17) 1.52 (92) 7.8% (22) 38.9% (13)

While Indiana still gave up a few more explosive plays than ideal in the passing game, their improvement on a down-to-down basis in Tom Allen's 4-2-5 defense was nothing short of remarkable, and they bring everyone back this year.

Cornerback Rashad Fant went from a guy who broke up a lot of passes and gave up a lot of completions to a guy who just did the former. He had 17 pass breakups and three picks last year. His counterpart, A'Shon Riggins, wasn't far off with nine PBUs and an interception. Meanwhile, safeties Jonathan Crawford and Tony Fields allowed the two lowest passer ratings among returning Big Ten safeties, and box safety Marcelino Ball showed a lot of potential as a freshman—while he gave up some plays, he stuffed the stat sheet with 4.5 TFLs, eight PBUs, and two picks.

I still can't fully trust an Indiana secondary. This group is close to earning that trust, though.

3. Penn State

[Eric Upchurch]

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 103.8 (48) 39.8% (54) 1.37 (21) 5.9% (78) 32.8% (67)

Penn State boasts a potential first-rounder at safety in hard-hitting Marcus Allen, an excellent run defender who's good enough in pass coverage. He's paired with another senior safety, Troy Apke. Both cornerbacks, Christian Campbell and Grant Haley, are seniors too. Campbell served as the third corner last year but was the team's best in coverage on a per-snap basis; Haley is undersized but steady.

What keeps PSU from ranking higher is depth. Last year's top corner, John Reid, is lost for the year with a knee injury, and his ability to cover slots was invaluable for this defense. Junior Amani Oruwariye is the only backup corner with any real experience, and most of his snaps have come in garbage time or on special teams.

4. Florida

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 130.8 (6) 30.6% (4) 1.45 (58) 7.7% (23) 31.7% (78)

Florida had an excellent pass defense last year, but like Ohio State they lost a lot to the NFL. Corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson both went in the second round of the draft, as did safety Marcus Maye. Leading tackler Marcell Harris, meanwhile, will miss the year with a torn Achilles, forcing UF to scrap plans to move promising sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner to corner.

They should still have a solid #1 corner. Duke Dawson excelled in the nickel role last year; he should be a strong cover man on the outside. It's pretty much all freshmen at corner beyond him, though, including true freshman starter Marco Wilson, Quincy's younger brother. The backups are sparingly used JuCo transfer Joseph Putu and true freshman CJ Henderson. There's plenty of talent in this group, but they going to undergo some growing pains, and injuries would be a major problem.

5. Wisconsin

Derrick Tindal was a half-step behind the conference's best WRs. [Fuller]

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 120.2 (12) 35.9% (19) 1.43 (46) 7.9% (18) 38.6% (16)

Wisconsin also had an excellent pass defense last year. They also lose their two best defensive backs, cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Leo Musso.

Top corner Derrick Tindal was generally solid last year, but prone to being victimized by the conference's top-tier receivers—you may remember Amara Darboh beating him on a go route for what was ultimately the winning touchdown last year. Safety D'Cota Dixon is an aggressive, physical player; while those traits sometimes worked against him last year, he can be very good if he reins it in a bit. The new starters have solid experience; Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson brings 21 career starts to the cornerback position, safety Natrell Jamerson started two games at nickel last year, and backup corner Lubern Figaro is a senior. 

6. Minnesota

Yes, we're all old.

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 113.7 (24) 34.6% (14) 1.39 (25) 6.6% (53) 26.3% (119)

Minnesota has two of the better safeties in the conference in Duke McGhee, an excellent cover safety, and Antoine Winfield Jr., son of the Ohio State legend. They'll be good on the back end. Cornerback is worrisome, however, as the Gophers lost both of last year's starters and have seen a lot of talent leave that group over the last couple years. Junior Antonio Shenault had only two pass breakups in 11 games last year, while the other week-one starter is redshirt freshman Kiondre Thomas, the #83 corner in the 2016 class.

7. Rutgers

Making it difficult, at least. [Paul Sherman]

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
3 92.4 (94) 40.2% (59) 1.64 (119) 6.4% (56) 40.7% (6)

Cornerback is Rutgers's strongest position group, and while that's obviously a relative measure, they could be decent by Big Ten standards. Bill Connelly, in fact, thinks the whole secondary could be on their way to being... good?

Cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton. The juniors were tasked with far more than expected last year and combined for a healthy 21 passes defensed. They’ll be joined by sophomores Damon Hayes and 2015 contributor Jarius Adams, and if junior safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton are healthy (they missed a combined nine games), Rutgers should have a solid secondary in 2017 and a downright awesome one in 2018.

I'm a bit more skeptical, because Rutgers. This unit could very well be better than the numbers will indicate at the end of the year; a major reason RU struggled to stop the pass is they couldn't generate any pressure on the quarterback, and I don't see that changing much this year.

8. Maryland

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
3 95.5 (80) 41.8% (74) 1.28 (8) 5.0% (110) 27.7% (114)

Tiny yet awesome nickel Will Likely has finally exhausted his eligibilty, as did top corner Alvin Hill. There's potential for improvement with both safeties and former four-star corner JC Jackson back in the fold, and there's some young talent emerging with the likes of former four-star Tino Ellis. This group has a lot of room for improvement, however, as they were bad against the pass while barely making any plays on the ball last year.

9. Cincinnati

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
4 93.1 (90) 45.3% (105) 1.32 (9) 6.6% (49) 38.0% (19)

While the Bearcats only lose safety Zach Edwards among their top five defensive backs, continuity may not be the best thing given how easy it was to nickel-and-dime this defense down the field last year. Junior corner Alex Thomas did show off some potential as a playmaker, intercepting four passes and breaking up three more last year.

10. Purdue

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
2 88.8 (109) 44.5% (101) 1.50 (84) 3.7% (128) 27.3% (116)

Purdue cycled through a bunch of defensive backs last year and couldn't find anything approaching a passable starting unit, finishing 109th against the pass and dead last in DB havoc rate. Alarmingly, they lose three of their top six from that secondary. Several returning still saw at least spot snaps last year, but nobody impressed.

11. Air Force

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
0 91.7 (99) 39.4% (51) 1.82 (125) 6.8% (41) 33.5% (57)

Air Force's aggressive, high-variance defense generally produces TFLs, turnovers, or opponent big-play touchdowns. They don't bring back a single starter from last year, which is disappointing given their top safety was WESTON STEELHAMMER. Scheme is always going to prevent AF from looking very good in the secondary. We'll have to wait and see if some playmakers emerge to offset the inevitable long bombs when the Falcons are RPS'd.

12. Michigan State

Meet the new safety, same as the old safety. [Barron]

Returning Starters Passing S&P+ (Rank) Passing Success Rate (Rank) Passing IsoPPP (Rank) DB Havoc Rate (Rank) PD to INC
0 84.4 (120) 44.2% (99) 1.42 (38) 4.8% (115) 30.6% (91)

Pretty much. Michigan State's secondary was an abomination last year. It really can't get worse than the safety duo of Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox, but Khari Willis—the starting strong safety—looked just as bad when he saw the field last year.

Everything else is an unknown quantity. The top corner is true sophomore Justin Layne, who had one pass breakup and one pick last year after moving mid-year from wide receiver. The other corner spot will be manned by either sophomore Josh Butler, who couldn't break through to see significan time last year, or Josiah Scott, a 5'10", 173-pound true freshman who barely cracked the composite top 1000. Tyson Smith, who suffered a freakin' stroke last year, is Layne's primary backup. Free safety Matt Morrissey is a junior who the coaching staff didn't find worth playing over last year's guys, which can't be a good sign.

It's going to be hard for MSU's secondary to be worse than last year. It's also entirely within the realm of possibility.

Where Would Michigan Rank?

Given the inexperience and alarmingly thin depth, I can't put Michigan higher than sixth right now, but it wouldn't surprise me if they ended up being much better than that by the end of the year.



August 30th, 2017 at 12:59 PM ^

Ace may have ranked OSU #1, but their secondary is far from perfect. There are a lot of question marks, as Ace alluded to regarding the new starters. And the 2nd safety spot is the biggest weakness on the entire defense.

I can see the safeties being the vulnerability of the defense; they may or may not single-handedly cost them a game or two.


August 30th, 2017 at 3:14 PM ^

Nicholson is going to make the 53 man roster - so that is not a wasted pick. We did not dodge a bullet - we would have been glad to have him. How many guys in college start as a freshman? Not many. He was not bad at MSU - he was not coached or used properly at all. Do you know how many times he blitzed at MSU? Zero! You have a guy that big and fast, and you never sent him after the QB? Trust me - if he played at Michigan, he would have been used better, and would have had a huge role in our secondary the past few years. 

He is still an athletic freak - one that is getting paid in the NFL now. I have watched him in the pre-season: he belongs in the NFL.

And who are you to call him names and question his character? He has never once gotten into any trouble, and he comes from an amazing family.

Everyone Murders

August 30th, 2017 at 11:09 AM ^

Ace's caveat on Rutgers was spot-on:

Cornerback is Rutgers's strongest position group ... obviously a relative measure.

The observation is akin to saying that "the Cabbage Patch is EM's best dance move".  It may be technically true, but it also ain't pretty.


August 30th, 2017 at 11:15 AM ^

But most of the other competition is pretty weak-   OSU's pass defense was elite (top 10) last year.   With Harbaugh's recruiting, Michigan will field similarly talented teams in 2018 and beyond.  

Indiana's was maybe top 30, after that most of our competition were worse than 50th.

What i don't understand is how Wisconsin was rated highly in pass defense but gave up about 100 deep throws to Penn State in the B10 Championship.   

Blue in PA

August 30th, 2017 at 11:23 AM ^

Just wait til they drop their first two games at the hands of the Hoosiers and Sooners..... could happen.


would pretty much screw the market for my osu at Michigan tickets, but I'm good with that.+


3 more days.... GO BLUE!