While many of us are consumed with who will be the receiver opposite Taylor Jacobs or even the several battles across the offensive line, one position may have the most spirited and competitive battle - the corner opposite Keiwan Ratliff. In the Ron Zook/John Thompson's defense, the cornerback carries a lot of responsibility (see New Orleans and Arkansas). With "illusion" being a key word on defense, you still must be able to make plays and cause turnovers. Mike Woodford (photo below) will handle the secondary after working with the Saints a year ago and he really likes the talent and work ethic in which he has to work with.
Everyone knows Ratliff (photo below) is the heir apparent to Lito Shephard and during spring drills he did nothing to dispel that claim. But who will start opposite him?
Robert Cromartie is a senior who is coming back from a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him last year. Marquis Westbrook is a senior who has shown flashes of brilliance. Vernell Brown had the best spring but he lacks experience and size, not heart.
So who wins the job?
It's anyone's guess right now and will be a fun race to watch at Camp Zook.
Let's look at the candidates and several factors that will determine who
is lining up opposite number one at the end of August against UAB.
Since there is no clear-cut leader, the battle will be about who improves on their weakness the most during the preseason and which guy is available to compete for the starting job. All of the guys displayed ability and effort with the new staff in the spring and that makes for good competition. Strengths for the candidates are as follows:
Cromartie - Solid corner, good tackler.
Westbrook - Experience.
Brown - Playmaker and speed.
The young guys - hunger and opportunity.
Brown could move over opposite Ratliff, or even to offense. He could play both, but not as the starter. He is a playmaker and I believe should be on the offensive side of the ball. As good as he played in the spring, I do not think he can match up for an entire game on Kelley Washington (Tennessee), Andre Johnson (Miami) or Fred Gibson (Georgia).
Cromartie (photo above)will enter fall as the starter, but must shave off some of his weight from the spring. He has always been a solid dependable corner, who is very smart and may get the first nod on opening day. The problem though is that he does not make enough big plays and this defense requires making the big play.
Westbrook has made some big plays and has given up some as well. He needs to be more consistent. His one drawback is that he has always been a backup. Can he all of sudden transition into a starter in his final year?
Others who could move over or get a shot are Tre Orr, Johnny Lamar, Deshawn Carter. Even the incoming freshmen will get a look during Camp Zook. For the record, Brown is listed behind Ratliff on the depth chart but did work some at the spot in the spring.
Personally, I think Cromartie will get the nod. But if injury or sporadic play takes part, don't be surprised to see Carter, Orr or even a true freshmen get a look. Remember big time recruit Larry Kennedy? Zook landed him and played him as a freshmen. In 1991, he returned an interception in the Swamp against Tennessee to seal the Vols fate 35-18.
One thing is for sure, Zook will put the best players on the field. The corner position is very important in this defense, so keep an eye on that battle during fall camp.