First Rate: Defensive Backs

Ten of ND’s 12 opponents have at least three starters returning in the secondary, led by USC. The sleeper unit belongs to Virginia Tech after ranking No. 19 vs. the pass.

No area among the defenses on Notre Dame’s slate is more loaded with experience and talent than the secondaries.

It should come as no surprise that USC, Michigan State and Stanford will have noteworthy defensive backfields this fall. Virginia Tech’s corps hasn’t gotten much pre-season fanfare, but it should.

Texas is young on the back end, but rapidly developing. Notre Dame has much to prove, but the talent to move up this list.

Most of the defensive backfields ranked in the second half of our list have plenty of experience returning. Notre Dame’s young receiving corps will face a stiff challenge on a weekly basis.

13) Army (S-Xavier Moss, S-Rhyan England, CB-Brandon Jackson) – Jackson, just a sophomore, is an up-and-coming star for the Black Knights with three picks as a true freshman. He joins a secondary that’s strong and experienced at safety with senior Moss (67 tackles) and junior England (64 tackles). Senior CB Steven Johnson is the newest addition to the starting lineup.

12) Navy (S-Daiquan Thomasson, CB-Brendon Clements) – Considering the Midshipmen finished in the upper one-quarter of the nation against the run, there wasn’t a ton of bend against the pass with a No. 62 national ranking. Thomasson was the only major contributor from the ’15 secondary participating in spring drills. But he’ll be joined by the reinstated Clements following his removal from the roster in January. With 35 starts and seven career interceptions, Clements is an essential ingredient in the Navy secondary. Clements had a team-leading four interceptions in ’15 and is the leading returning tackler in the secondary (52).

11) Nevada (S-Asauni Rufus, S-Dameon Baber, CB-Kendall Johnson, CB-Elijah Mitchell) – Baber headlines a secondary with a ton of experience after finishing in the middle of the pack nationally in passing yards allowed. Baber, on the strength of his six interceptions, was a 2nd-team all-Mountain West selection as a freshman. Rufus, himself just a sophomore, led the team in stops with 105 in his first year of eligibility. Mitchell is the lone senior starter returning while Johnson had 48 tackles. Johnson’s playing time will be threatened by red-shirt freshman E.J. Muhammad.

10) Duke (CB-DeVon Edwards, CB-Breon Borders, S-Deondre Singleton, S-Corbin McCarthy) – Despite the loss of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash (101 tackles, 18 TFLs), this is a talented, deep unit, starting at CB with the Edwards-Borders tandem. Edwards had 101 tackles and Borders had 58. (Some would argue the CBs made all those tackles because of the 241 yards passing allowed per game.) Singleton (79 tackles) also had plenty of downfield opportunities. McCarthy takes over for Cash while red-shirt junior Phillip Carter is the fifth DB in the 4-2-5 scheme.

9) Syracuse (S-Antwan Cordy, S-Chauncey Scissum, CB-Cordell Hudson, CB-Corey Winfield) – This is a veteran unit, but still one that allowed 256.7 yards passing per game with five opponents throwing for more than 350 yards, including Central Michigan’s 430. A lack of QB pressure (just 23 sacks) contributed to the demise. It’s still a young unit with no seniors making a significant contribution. Cordy was active in the run game with 68 tackles and 10 TFLs. Cordy and CBs Hudson/Winfield each had two interceptions in ’15. Scissum started seven games and had 43 stops. Sophomore Rodney Williams offers depth at safety.

8) N.C. State (CB-Mike Stevens, S-Josh Jones, NB-Dravious Wright) – Mississippi State and Dak Prescott riddled the Wolfpack in the Belk Bowl with the secondary taking the brunt of the 380-yard aerial assault. Now without fourth-round CB Juston Burris, the N.C. State defensive backfield has experience with Stevens and Jones, who was third on the team in tackles with 63. Veteran nickel Wright, a senior, has 25 starts the last two seasons.
 
7) Miami (S-Rashawn Jenkins, CB-Corn Elder) – The talent drain from the Hurricane secondary is significant with the loss of first-round cornerback Artie Burns (six interceptions in ’15) and fourth-round safety Deon Bush. Jenkins, the team’s fourth-leading tackler last year, returns at safety after a 52-tackle, three-interception season. Elder (a team-leading 11 PBUs, two picks) headlines an inexperienced, sophomore-dominated cornerback crew. Another sophomore, safety Jaquan Johnson, had 26 tackles and an interception as a true freshman in ’15.

6) Notre Dame (CB-Cole Luke, S-Max Redfield) – While CB KeiVarae Russell and SS Elijah Shumate received more scrutiny than plaudits in ’15, their absence will be felt this fall with Luke the only certainty in the secondary. Luke’s numbers/productivity were more impressive as a sophomore than last year. It’s now or never for Redfield, who yielded a majority of the first-team reps in the spring to talented early-entry freshman Devin Studstill. Drue Tranquill returns from a second ACL injury to replace Shumate. What Tranquill lacks in quickness, he makes up with savvy. Diminutive corner/nickel back Shaun Crawford has playmaking ability and star quality, but zero experience following a knee injury last August. Nick Watkins, coming off a broken arm suffered in the spring, has the best chance to crack the lineup among the CBs unless sophomore Nick Coleman or one of three freshmen emerge.

5) Texas (CB-Holton Hill, S-Dylan Haines, S-Jason Hall) – Teams didn’t have to pass much against the Longhorns last year because it was so easy to run against them. Yet 12 opponents still managed to average 233 yards passing per game. Outside of Haines (47 tackles and a team-leading five interceptions), it’s a sophomore-driven corps, but as freshmen, they gained a ton of experience. Hall had 51 stops and a pair of picks. Hill had 49 tackles and one interception. Sophomore CB Davante Davis was a 3rd-team all-Big 12 selection as a true freshman. Sophomore DeShon Elliott enters the starting lineup at safety.

4) Stanford (S-Dallas Lloyd, CB-Alijah Holder, CB-Quenton Meeks) – Meeks slides into a nickel back role to accommodate Alameen Murphy, an active run defender who is the fourth-leading returning tackler on the team. Meeks had three of the Cardinal’s paltry eight interceptions in ’15. The wildcard is the return of FS Zach Hoffpauir, who’s back from a dalliance with professional baseball. Terrence Alexander could start ahead of Murphy at CB or add quality depth.

3) Virginia Tech (S-Chuck Clark, S-Terrell Edmunds, CB-Brandon Facyson, CB-Adonis Alexander) – The Hokies had the No. 19-rated pass defense in the country and allowed less than a 50-percent completion rate for the third year in a row and fifth time in the last seven years. Other than the loss of fourth-rounder CB Kendall Fuller, who missed all but three games due to injury, the unit returns intact. Interceptions were hard to come by, but Alexander had four. Clark is the team’s leading returning tackler (by far) with 107 and eight PBUs. Facyson led the team in PBUs with 10 while his safety running mate, Edmunds, had seven. Part-time starting CB Greg Stroman had two picks. There’s a ton to work with in the Hokies’ defensive backfield.

2) Michigan State (S-Demetrious Cox, CB-Vayante Copeland, S-Montae Nicholson, CB-Darian Hicks) – A less stingy run defense than normal also led to the most passing yards allowed by the Spartans since 2009. But there’s an abundance of talent back, led by seniors Cox and Hicks. Cox is the team’s third-leading returning tackler with a co-team-leading three picks and seven PBUs. Hicks had two interceptions in ’14 but none in ’15 with just three PBUs. Nicholson is a ball hawk at the other safety position with 83 tackles and three interceptions. Copeland, a sophomore coming off a season-ending neck injury, is expected to take his game to another level.

1) USC (CB-Adoree Jackson, S-Chris Hawkins, CB-Iman Marshall, S-Marvell Tell, S-John Plattenburg) – An abundance of starting experience returns among the projected frontrunners at defensive back for the Trojans, none of which are out of eligibility following the 2016 season. Hawkins is the leading returning tackler in the secondary (70) with a pair of picks. None are more talented than the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Marshall, who had 65 tackles, three interceptions and nine PBUs as a true freshman. Tell, a sophomore, may have the edge on eight-game starter Plattenburg. Jackson would be more consistent if he wasn’t such an integral part of the offense’s plans, but he’s still effective. There’s healthy competition for playing time with freshmen CB Jack Jones and freshman S Jamel Cook as well as veteran Leon McQuay III.

1. USC (18 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st,  OL 1st, DL 7th, LB 3rd, DB 1st)
2. Notre Dame (26 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th,  OL 2nd, DL 4th, LB 4th, DB 6th)
3. Michigan St. (27 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd, LB 1st, DB 2nd)
4. Stanford (30 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd, LB 2nd, DB 4th)
5t. N.C. State (44 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st, LB 5th, DB 8th)
5t. Texas (44 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th, LB 6th, DB 5th)
7. Virginia Tech (45 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th, LB 11th, DB 3rd)
8. Miami (48 – QB 2nd, RB 10th,  WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th, LB 7th, DB 7th)
9. Syracuse (59 – QB 6th, RB 11th,  WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th, LB 8th, DB 9th)
10. Nevada (63 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th, LB 13th, DB 11th)
11. Duke (64 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th, LB 12th, DB 10th)
12. Army (84 – QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th, LB 9th, DB 13th)
13. Navy (85 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 10th, DB 12th)


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