1. SOUTHERN CAL
The Trojans return seven players with starting experience from last year's unit that was 15th in passing defense (189.0 yards) and second in total defense (273.2) and scoring defense (16.0 points). Free safety Taylor Mays earned First Team All-American honors as a sophomore in 2007 after being named 2006 Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Senior Kevin Ellison had 57 tackles last year and teams with Mays to comprise one of the most formidable safety tandems in the country. Senior Cary Harris had 48 tackles last year and is back for his third year starting at cornerback. The other corner position will go to either senior Josh Pinkard or junior Shareece Wright. Pinkard started at corner in 2005 and began the 2006 season as the starter at free safety before a knee injury in the first game cleared the way for Mays, but has kept Pinkard out since. Wright made 29 tackles and had four pass deflections while starting one game in 2007.
2. NOTRE DAME
Sure, one of the big reasons that the Irish ranked second in America against the pass (161.6 yards) in 2007 was because they were 96th against the run (195.4) and most teams did not need to pass. Still, the secondary limited the opposition with almost no pass rush as Notre Dame was 96th in the country with 1.5 sacks per game. The loss of cornerback Darrin Walls hurts, but his spot should be in good hands between junior Raeshon McNeil and sophomore Gary Gray, who are both talented cover guys. Fifth-year senior Terrail Lambert provides experience at the other corner spot while incoming freshman Robert Blanton could bring some youth and swagger to the rotation. Senior free safety David Bruton may be the defense's top player after making 85 tackles as a junior. Senior Kyle McCarthy, who was solid in extended duty last year, will replace strong safety Tom Zbikowski. Juniors Jashaad Gaines and Sergio Brown figure to see more time at safety with sophomore Harrison Smith getting reps at linebacker now.
The Wolverines return two full-time starters at corner and a couple of experienced safeties from a unit that ranked eighth against the pass (178.9 yards) last year. Senior Morgan Trent and sophomore Donovan Warren make up possibly the toughest cornerback tandem in the Big Ten. Both have shown the ability to cover and step up in run support. Senior Brandon Harrison is recovering from a shoulder injury, but should be ready to step in as the starter at strong safety after making 42 tackles in a reserve role last year. If Harrison is unable to go, the position will likely go to senior Charles Stewart, who can also help out at corner. Junior Stevie Brown was a standout in the spring and brings some speed to the free safety spot as he looks for a breakout season. Incoming freshman corner Boubacar Cissoko and freshman safety Brandon Smith could work their way into early roles.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Despite a 4-8 record last year, the Tar Heels' defense was solid, finishing 35th in total defense (349.8 yards) and 27th in passing defense (207.3). All four starters from last year's secondary are back, led by senior strong safety Trimane Goddard. Goddard is a three-year starter who will move close to the line of scrimmage in run support and finished 2007 with 59 tackles. Sophomore free safety Deunta Williams may have the most potential of anyone in the secondary after picking off three passes and being named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. Sophomores Kendric Burney (5-9, 180) and Charles Brown (5-10, 190) are back for their second years as starters at corner. Both are undersized, but proved to be fearless in run support. Junior college transfer Melvin Williams will make an impact in the secondary whether it is at corner or safety while junior cornerback Jordan Hemby appears to be fully recovered from a torn ACL in 2007.
The Panthers' secondary held opponents to an average of 167.3 yards through the air (3rd nationally) in 2007 as the team ranked fifth nationally in total defense (297.7 yards). Junior cornerback Aaron Berry filled in nicely for first round draft pick Darrelle Revis last year and will hold down the field corner position. Junior Jovani Chappel has moved into the starting role opposite Berry, but will be pushed by sophomore Ricky Gary, who began 2007 as a starter before being replaced by Berry. Senior Eric Thatcher returns at free safety after tying for fourth on the team with 53 tackles last year. Sophomore Dom DeCicco is battling with classmate Elijah Fields to start at the strong safety spot and both have shown enough potential that the loser could push Thatcher.
The Cardinal bring back a pair of full-time starters at safety and another pair that split starting time at corner. The safety spot features a pair of juniors in strong safety Bo McNally and free safety Austin Yancy. McNally was second in the Pac-10 with 114 stops last year while Yancy made 49 tackles and returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown against USC. Senior corner Wopamo Osaisai is the fastest player on the team and turned heads this spring after making 45 tackles in 2007 and an interception against USC. Junior cornerback Kris Evans improved as the season went along last year. Sophomore Corey Gatewood will bring some more speed to the corner position, but the depth at safety is a little thin.
7. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans will be better in their second year in a new system and with some quality experience back. Strong safety Otis Wiley lost his starting position halfway through 2007, but the staff has liked the way he has responded and believe that he has NFL-type talent. Senior Kendell Davis-Clark and junior Ross Weaver bring some experience to the cornerback position and figure to improve as starters again in 2008. Junior Ashton Henderson and sophomore Chris L. Rucker will also be experienced, solid options. Junior Roderick Jenrette, who saw plenty of time in 2007 and made 15 tackles and an interception in the win over Pitt, takes over full-time at free safety. The talent is good, but the depth behind the starters at safety is somewhat suspect.
The Boilermakers have a bunch of experience, but there is still some uncertainty in the Pudue secondary. Junior cornerback David Pender took over as a starter in the second half of 2007 and will be back this year. Junior Brandon King started at free safety last year, but could be moved to corner in 2008 to help replace Terrell Vinson, the team's top corner last year. If Purdue wants to keep King at safety, the Boilermakers could plug in junior Royce Adams at corner. If Purdue does play King at corner, look for sophomore Josh McKinley to take over at free. Senior Torri Williams' career has been marred by injuries and scrapes with the law, but he may be the most talented defensive back on the roster and will get his chance to prove it as the starter at strong safety. King's versatility will help the Boilermakers' depth if any unexpected situations arise.
New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has made some major changes in the secondary. The Huskies bring back three starters from a year ago, but only senior corner Mesphin Forrester (6-2, 205) is expected to start again this year and he was a safety in 2007. Donatell placed another big body in Quinton Richardson (6-0, 205) at the other corner position after Richardson was standout on special teams last year. Sophomores Victor Aiyewa and Nate Williams were listed as the starters at the safety spots coming out of spring and their potential has fans and coaches alike salivating. They will be pushed by more experienced seniors Jason Wells and Daris Harris, who started at free safety last year, but has been shifted to strong. Senior cornerback Byron Davenport started last year, but will be coming off the bench in 2008.
The Midshipmen ranked 106th against the pass (263.4 yards) last year after injuries forced the staff to use an inordinate amount of players. While it worked to the detriment of the 2007 squad, in 2008 it should be an advantage as Navy has plenty of guys back with experience. Navy brings back three corners with starting experience in seniors Rashawn King and Ketric Buffin and junior Blake Carter. Buffin and King figure to start with King playing plenty as a reserve. Senior rover Jeff Deliz had a solid 2006 season and returns after missing most of 2007 with a broken foot. Sophomore free safety Wyatt Middleton filled in for Deliz last year before moving over to free for the last five games of the season. Middleton was second on the team with a freshman school-record 88 tackles. Middleton will be backed up by senior Kevin Snyder, who has some starting experience, and sophomore converted slot back Emmett Merchant.
11. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs return three starters from last year's secondary and based on experience alone, they should be better than 2007 when they allowed 256.7 passing yards (94th in the nation). Senior Vonnie Holmes and junior Aaron Moore are back after tying for the team lead with four interceptions apiece last year. Moore is more solid in run support while Holmes has the better coverage skills. Sophomores Romeo Horn and Jose Perez have been in the system for a couple of years now and could be ready to contribute. Senior safety Corey Boudreaux is back for a sixth season after making 84 tackles and three interceptions last year. Sophomore Martell Fantroy will take over for Ray Bass at strong safety after a solid 2007 season that included three interceptions. Fantroy could also play free safety if necessary and will be backed up by senior T.J. McKay.
12. BOSTON COLLEGE
While the Eagles run defense was second in America last year, the passing defense ranked 88th nationally (253.9 yards) and it could be worse in 2008. BC loses All-American free safety Jamie Silva and its best cover corner DeJuan Tribble. Fifth-year senior strong safety Paul Anderson had 58 tackles last year and is the only returning full-time starter. Sophomore Chris Fox, who is probably better suited as a corner, will back up Anderson. Sophomore DeLeon Gause will try to replace Tribble after starting and playing well in the final three games of 2007. Juniors Roderick Rollins and Razzie Smith are battling for the other corner spot, with Rollins seemingly ahead. Junior Marcellus Bowman is a hard-hitter who currently has the edge over classmate Wes Davis to replace Silva. Incoming freshman Donnie Fletcher has the talent to make an impact at corner early.
The most experienced member of the Orange's secondary this year was a true freshman in 2007. Sophomore cornerback Mike Holmes made 64 tackles last year and proved to be a dependable option. The other cornerback spot seems to be up in the air after senior Nick Chestnut was dismissed because of academics in January. While there is a chance Chestnut could return for the fall, if he does not the battle will be between sophomores Nico Scott and Da'Mon Merkerson. Scott started two games last year and finished with 21 tackles, but at 5-10, 180, he needs to prove that he can hold up against more physical receivers. Meanwhile, Merkerson began his college career as a wide receiver. Freshman Kevyn Scott could also work himself into the rotation at corner. Seniors A.J. Brown and Bruce Williams will bring some maturity to the safety positions, but neither saw extensive action last year. Merkerson could also provide depth at safety along with sophomore return specialist Max Suter.