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The Big 12 always seems to have high-level defensive back groups, and 2010 is no exception.
The Longhorns again return arguably the country's top units, one that includes one of the country's top cover cornerbacks in Aaron Williams, a plethora of 6-foot defensive backs who can run around him and heady safety Blake Gideon. But Nebraska isn't far behind, thanks to Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg, a pair of unique talents at their respective positions.
In a league that airs it out as much as the Big 12 does, the conference races to scoop up players who can lock up opposing passing attacks. Only the strongest survive, with pure cover cornerbacks and rangy safeties becoming the prizes of many teams' recruiting classes.
Here are the Big 12's top defensive back groups:
The Longhorns boasted one of the country's top defensive back units a year ago, and return three starters from that group. That combination of experience and high-level talent -- especially at cornerback -- should be enough for Texas to offset the loss of first-round pick Earl Thomas. Aaron Williams should contend for both conference and national honors, while cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown give the Longhorns two more 6-footers who can run at the cornerback spot. Blake Gideon intercepted six passes a year ago and has outstanding instincts at free safety. Strong safety should also feature plenty of talent, with Christian Scott and Kenny Vaccaro fighting for time.
Nebraska's group starts with Prince Amukamara, arguably the top cornerback prospect for the 2011 NFL Draft. The senior combines great size (6-1 205) with excellent speed. He picked off five passes in 2009. Opposite Amukamara will be Alfonzo Dennard, a rising junior who found his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Senior Eric Hagg is probably the unit's most versatile player. He plays a nickel back spot that takes advantage of Hagg's size (6-2 210) and linebacker-like tackling ability. The Cornhuskers must replace both safeties from a year ago, with senior DeJon Gomes and sophomore P.J. Smith likely to start at those spots.
The Sooners have a situation in direct contrast to Nebraska's, as Oklahoma returns both safeties but must replace a pair of salty cornerbacks. The safety starters are good ones, as both Sam Proctor and Quinton Carter bring athleticism and hitting ability. Carter tied for the team lead with four interceptions a year ago. Proctor will be pushed by sophomore Joseph Ibiloye, a physical presence. Oklahoma should still be tough on the perimeter, as the Sooners have recruited well at the cornerback position. Senior Jonathan Nelson has waited for his turn to shine, and now it's here. Talented young players like sophomore Demontre Hurst and redshirt freshman Gabe Lynn will battle over the other spot.
The Buffaloes boast one of the top cornerback tandems in the league in seniors Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown. Smith (6-2 210) has the chance to be a big-time NFL prospect. He's the smooth cover corner, while Brown (6-1 205), who broke up 15 passes a year ago, is a playmaker. Sophomore Ray Polk is one to watch at free safety, while junior Anthony Perkins is a returning starter at the strong safety spot. Redshirt freshman Parker Orms will man the nickel back spot in Colorado's 3-3-5 defense. Redshirt freshman Deji Olatoye has a chance to be a strong cornerback with added development. Depth, along with pure speed, are concerns.
Missouri's secondary would make an interesting case study. Individually, the players are a great collection of smooth athletes. But as a team, the Tigers have struggled, ranking 104th in the country in passing defense a year ago. Three starters return from that unit, including senior cornerbacks Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis. They must make more big plays. Rutland led the team with two interceptions last year, while Gettis has just two career interceptions in 37 starts. Senior Jasper Simmons (6-1 205) was strong in the run game, racking up 73 tackles in his first year out of JUCO. The open spot will likely go to former JUCO transfer and fellow senior Jarrell Harrison. Players like cornerbacks Trey Hobson and Kip Edwards, along with safeties Tavon Bolden and Kenji Jackson, give the Tigers some options.
Best of the Rest
6) Texas Tech -- The Red Raiders will miss active cornerback Jamar Wall, but return the other three starters from a secondary that was 73rd in pass defense a year ago. Senior LaRon Moore returns at cornerback, where he'll assume leadership duties from Wall. Sophomore Cody Davis was second on the team a year ago in tackles with 81, and he appears to have a bright future. Fellow safety mate Franklin Mitchem is solid. Will Ford and D.J. Johnson, a pair of sophomores, will fight for the other cornerback position.
7) Kansas State -- The Wildcats find themselves in a similar position to the Red Raiders. Gone is top cover man Joshua Moore, though Kansas State returns three other starters, including a very good pair of safeties in Emmanuel Lamur and Tysyn Hartman. Hartman, a converted quarterback, led the Wildcats with five interceptions a year ago. Lamur, a super athlete, had three interceptions and led the team in tackles with 68. Senior safety Troy Butler also saw a ton of time last year. Senior Stephen Harrison is a returning starter at one cornerback spot, while junior David Garrett is expected to fill in for Moore.
8) Kansas -- The Jayhawks return a number of players who started games over the past few years, but have yet to find the right combination of talent. Chris Harris is the veteran, a three-year starter at cornerback. Opposite Harris, for now, is Calvin Rubles, a 6-3 cornerback with speed who had a nice spring. Anthony Davis and Isiah Barfield could also factor in. Safety could also be a strength, especially if sophomore Lubbock Smith achieves his potential. Phillip Strozier, an experienced senior, is penciled as the starter at the other safety spot, but watch for a challenge from talented redshirt freshman Prinz Kande.
9) Texas A&M -- The Aggies return three starters from a year ago. That's the good news. The bad news is that those three starters were responsible for the 106th worst pass defense a year ago, the worst in the Big 12. Junior safety Trent Hunter is one of the top young safeties in the league. He had 95 tackles a year ago, leading the Aggies. Cornerbacks Dustin Harris and Terrence Frederick return a year older, and hopefully a year wiser. Lionel Smith, who had an excellent spring, is also in the mix. Athletic sophomore Steven Terrell will likely win the job at free safety.
10) Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys bring back just one starter from 2009, junior safety Markelle Martin. Martin (6-1 190) has a chance to be one of the conference's top defensive backs. The safety position overall, should be a strong one, and deep, with palyers like junior Johnny Thomas, sophomore Daytawion Lowe and junior Victor Johnson. Sophomores Brodrick Brown and Andrae May supply the new blood at cornerback, with Brown serving as the Cowboys' top cover man.
11) Baylor -- Gone is safety Jordan Lake, a player who earned some form of All-Big 12 mention three times. It didn't help, then, that Lake's likely replacement, Byron Landor, missed most of the spring with an injury. Antareis Bryan, who is in the mix at one cornerback spot, also missed time with injuries in the spring. Chance Casey led the Bears with two interceptions last year, and teams with free safety Tim Atchison to give the Bears two returning starters. Senior Clifton Odom will battle with Bryan for the spot opposite Casey. True freshmen Ahmad Dixon, Tyler Stephenson and Prince Kent present an athletic upgrade.
12) Iowa State -- Cornerback Leonard Johnson stood out in the spring, while safety David Sims is arguably the secondary's top unit. Sims, who intercepted five passes a year ago, was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Junior college transfer Anthony Young, junior nickel back Ter'ran Benton and sophomore Jeremy Reeves each have a chance to play opposite Johnson. Michael O'Connell, a 207-pound senior from Iowa City, will man the free safety spot next to Sims.