The Trojans are thin in a few positions but they are absolutely loaded in the secondary. Safety T.J. McDonald, a Lott Impact Trophy watch-lister, and strong safety Jawanza Sterling return. The two cornerbacks, Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley, are both returning starters with Wiley starting the last six games of the 2011 season. The Trojans' pass defense was ranked No. 102 last year but those stats are deceiving -- USC has a bend-don't-break defense that is designed to yield yardage but not points. USC was ranked No. 45 in scoring defense last year. This unit is the defense's biggest strength.
The Gamecocks' nasty defense took a hit when corner Stephon Gilmore left and the team will have to find a new "Spur" now that Antonio Allen is gone. Strong safety D.J. Swearinger -- who is rehabbing a foot injury -- looks like his probable replacement and he's solid with 150 career tackles on his resume. Swearinger is listed at 6-2 and 241 pounds, so he has the size to stop the run and pass. The projected corners are Akeem Auguste and Victor Hampton. Auguste took a medical redshirt last year and has 19 career starts while Hampton looks like Gilmore's replacement. With so much starting experience in the secondary, a drop off seems unlikely.
This year Mike Stoops returns as defensive coordinator, so obviously the sky is the limit in terms of potential improvement over last year's dismal pass defense ranking of No. 79. At corner are Lamar Harris (no starts) and Demontre Hurst (third year as a starter). The safety position looks solid with two veterans returning in Javon Harris (eight starts in 2011) and Tony Jefferson (12 starts in 2011). Aaron Colvin is a question mark, but only as to which position he will play -- he led the team in tackles last year at 84. Colvin has both cornerback and strong safety experience but due to a shoulder injury, he wasn't listed on the spring depth chart. If the Sooners move Colvin to corner (over Lamar Harris) then this unit should be just superb.
The secondary returns almost intact with corner J.T. Floyd (22 starts), safety Jordan Kovacs (33 starts) and defensive back Blake Countess (six starts, named to two Big Ten All-freshman teams). Also returning is corner Courtney Avery (eight career starts) who made the game-sealing interception against Ohio State last year. With studs like Terrence Talbott and Thomas Gordon (team's third-leading tackler) patrolling the turf, the Wolverines should be even better this year.
Cowboys' safety Markelle Martin departs but his back-up, Lavocheya Cooper, should provide excellent coverage as long as he stays healthy. The Cowboys aren't known for great defense but perhaps this year they will get some more love -- one of the best corners in the country is Brodrick Brown. Last year Brown -- the second-highest ranked pass defender -- had five interceptions and 15 passes broken up. Covering the other corner is Justin Gilbert who also had five interceptions last year. True freshman Miketavius Jones should see a lot of playing time this year and free safety Daytawion Lowe, the team's leading tackler last year, returns to a solid unit.
I hate to downgrade the Ducks' stock because there is so much depth and talent everywhere, but in one big loss last year, the Ducks' secondary looked like a sieve. While the Ducks' pass defense yielded an average 247.3 yards per game, it gave up 323 yards and four touchdowns to USC. This year they are without cornerbacks Cliff Harris and Anthony Gildon as well as rover Eddie Pleasant. Cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Avery Patterson have game-day experience but have never started a game. Defensive backs Erick Dargan and Brian Jackson both played in at least nine games last year and free safety John Boyett returns as the team's leading tackler. There is experience but last year's experience couldn't stop Matt Barkley.
Last year the Crimson Tide had the No. 1 total defense in the nation -- their pass defense only gave up an average of around 28 yards per quarter. But that was last year and now seven defensive starters are gone including strong safety Mark Barron and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. This year Alabama may have to lean heavily on true freshman safeties Landon Collins or Eddie Williams while Dee Milliner (17 starts) nails down one of the corner spots. The Tide's pass defense will be fine this year thanks to excellent recruiting by Nick Saban & Co., but will their defense be on par with last year's? Nope, if only because that's a lot to ask.
The Tigers lose corner Morris Claiborne as well as safety Brandon Taylor but return another safety in Eric Reid. Yes, Tyrann Mathieu is also back but "Honey Badger" needs to live up to the massive expectations thrown upon him -- he was not a factor in the BCS Championship game. Although his stats were great -- six tackles and two deflections -- he also gave up a long pass and missed at least one tackle in that game. This unit is talented for sure, but it's also the biggest concern on LSU's defense. An early date with Washington should forecast how well the Tigers will be able to defend the pass against an SEC team like Arkansas.
The Nittany Lions lose all four starters in the secondary. The good news is that the Big Ten isn't exactly a pass-happy conference but the bad news is that if you're a quarterback with a decent arm, why not go heavy on the pass against Penn State? During spring practice wide receiver Curtis Drake was moved to cornerback so let's call this what it is -- dire straits. Last year the Nittany Lions had a Top 20 pass defense with veterans so this year we should likely see a drop. Left corner Stephon Morris started 10 games last year and has the most experience of the defensive backs. Right corner Adrian Amos is listed as a starter on the depth chart but his bio lists no stats while free safety Malcolm Willis has six starts from last year.
Malcolm Mitchell at cornerback? Yes, this may be a reality and if it happens, the Bulldogs may have more issues in the secondary than originally thought. Sanders Commings and Branden Smith may be looking at suspensions and while the safety positions are a lock, the corners are a big concern -- Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams are studs but they can't cover the entire field. Yes, the SEC doesn't have an ostentatious passing game in general but Georgia still has to play Florida and Tennessee, two teams who could have prolific passing offenses this year.