Finding and evaluating cornerbacks and safeties is one of the most difficult jobs for any college football coaching staff. Competition level and a variety of offenses in high school create a several obstacles in player evaluation. But for some programs, finding the next stars at defensive back is an easy task. Florida State and Alabama top Athlon's best defensive backfields for 2017, with Stanford and Virginia Tech headlining the next group of teams. The Seminoles boast two first-team All-Americans in safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, while the Crimson Tide return standout safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different coordinator, the addition of a touted freshman or transfer or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Defensive Backfields for 2017
1. Florida State
The return of safety Derwin James to full strength after a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 is a huge boost for a Florida State secondary that showed marked improvement over the second half of 2016. In addition to his duties at safety, James is an all-around playmaker on defense for coordinator Charles Kelly. Trey Marshall is expected to flank James at the other safety spot, with converted receiver Ermon Lane and A.J. Westbrook providing depth. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden had a breakout year in his first season as a starter, sharing the nation’s lead with eight interceptions. He's a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2017. Sophomore Levonta Taylor is likely to start at the other corner spot, with Kyle Meyers filling in as a reserve and also as the team's starter at the star position. Sophomore Carlos Becker and freshman Stanford Samuels III will provide depth at cornerback.
The Crimson Tide have to overcome the departure of standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey to the NFL, but there’s no reason to expect a drop in production from a secondary that ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency defense in back-to-back years. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s versatility allows Nick Saban to mix and match the personnel at cornerback and safety. With Fitzpatrick, a first-team Athlon Sports preseason All-American, likely to end up at safety, Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and converted receiver Trevon Diggs are slated to round out the top trio at cornerback. Fitzpatrick will be joined by standout Ronnie Harrison at the other safety spot. This secondary allowed only nine passing scores in SEC play last year.
Developing a standout secondary in the offensive-minded Pac-12 isn’t easy. But coach David Shaw and coordinator Lance Anderson have assembled an athletic and versatile group to combat opposing passing attacks. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder form one of the nation’s top cornerback duos, while safety Justin Reid is due for a breakout year after registering 57 stops and seven pass breakups last season. Brandon Simmons is the frontrunner to replace Dallas Lloyd at free safety. Stanford finished 25th nationally in passing efficiency defense in 2016.
4. Virginia Tech
The Hokies finished fifth nationally by limiting opposing passing offenses to a completion percentage of just 50.1 last season. This unit could be even better in 2017 with four returning starters. Cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman are expected to challenge for All-America honors after combining for 21 pass breakups last season. Adonis Alexander works as the No. 3 corner but could start for most Power 5 teams. Terrell Edmunds (four interceptions) is a playmaker at safety, with sophomore Reggie Floyd the lone newcomer. True freshman safety Devon Hunter will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes suffered some heavy losses here for the second year in a row, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb provide a foundation for the rebuilding effort in a secondary that finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2016. Damon Arnette is slated to start at the other corner spot, but top recruits Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield will vie for snaps. Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller are battling to replace Malik Hooker at safety.
The combination of four returning starters and the addition of two top-100 recruits should propel Georgia’s secondary to a place among the nation’s best. Three-year starter Dominick Sanders is a ball hawk at free safety with 12 career interceptions. He’s joined by fellow senior Aaron Davis on the strong side, but true freshman Richard LeCounte III will be tough to keep on the bench. The cornerback duo of Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker was a reliable one for the Bulldogs last year. Tulsa transfer J.R. Reed and freshman Deangelo Gibbs are two other players to watch here in 2017.
Make no mistake: The Gators suffered some significant losses in the secondary. Cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye departed from a unit that finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense last year. But as usual in Gainesville, there’s still plenty of talent in the secondary. Senior Duke Dawson and sophomore Chauncey Gardner should form one of the nation’s top cornerback tandems. The picture is less certain at safety after All-SEC contender Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to injury. Senior Nick Washington is expected to claim one safety spot, while the other could go to sophomore Jeawon Taylor or freshman Quincy Lenton. The Gators will dip into a freshman class that includes Marco Wilson, Brad Stewart and C.J. Henderson for depth.
Coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in college football, so despite some shuffling in the secondary this offseason, LSU’s pass defense will be one of the stingiest in the SEC. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safeties Jamal Adams and Dwayne Thomas leave big shoes to fill for 2017. Aranda and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond are mixing and matching to find the right group this fall, but it’s safe to assume Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver are the starters at cornerback. Jackson is poised to rank as one of the best in the SEC at his position this fall. Ed Paris and John Battle have the inside track at safety, but freshman Eric Monroe and Grant Delpit will be tough to keep on the bench. Fellow freshmen Kary Vincent and Andraez Williams should factor into the mix for snaps at cornerback or in the nickel role. Top recruit JaCoby Stevens joined the team at safety but will shift to wide receiver for 2017.
The Tigers feature three returning starters from a secondary that finished 22nd nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Cornerback Carlton Davis has started 19 games over the last two seasons and looks to put together his best year on campus after an uneven 2016 campaign. Davis should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Joining Davis on the other side will be Javaris Davis or Jamel Dean. Sophomore Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson (back from injury after missing all of 2016) are battling in fall camp to claim the nickel role. The senior duo of Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts returns at safety after combining for three interceptions last year.
Considering the Tigers possess the nation’s No. 1 defensive line, the secondary shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining coverage for too long with a relentless pass rush leading the way. However, maintaining last year’s top-five finish in pass efficiency defense will depend on how fast coordinator Brent Venables can replace standout safety Jadar Johnson and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. The good news for Venables? There’s experience and talent at both positions. Senior Ryan Carter is back as a returning starter at cornerback, with Marcus Edmond, Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen rounding out the next three options. Van Smith finished third on the team with 95 stops last year and leads the way at safety. Sophomore Tanner Muse opened fall camp at the top of the depth chart for the other starting job opposite of Smith at safety.
19. Kansas State
22. Appalachian State
23. Penn State
26. South Carolina
27. Texas A&M
34. North Carolina
35. Notre Dame
38. San Diego State
39. Miami, Ohio
41. Ole Miss
42. Washington State
45. Western Michigan
46. Northern Illinois
48. Boise State
49. Kent State
50. Georgia State