College News & Analysis

College Football: The top 10 secondaries in the country

2NHX841 STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 12: Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) during the college football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Mississippi State Bulldogs on November 12, 2022 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, MS. (Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• Georgia leads the way: The back-to-back champs still have the best secondary in college football despite losing Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith.

• Michigan comes in second: The Wolverines return four starters to their unit, led by a top-three cornerback in Will Johnson.

• Clemson rounds out the top three: The Tigers return all five starters from a year ago, with four of them making PFF’s preseason All-ACC list.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

In today’s pass-heavy game, defensive backs have only grown in importance. A defense can’t afford to have any weak links in its secondary, whether it be at outside cornerback, slot cornerback or safety.

We finish our positional unit rankings here at PFF with our top 10 secondaries in college football heading into the 2023 season.

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1. Georgia Bulldogs

Despite losing two starters from a year ago in cornerback Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith, the back-to-back champs still have the best secondary in college football.

Malaki Starks dominated as a true freshman in 2022 and is a top-three safety in the country. The former top-10 recruit registered a combined eight interceptions and forced incompletions, tied for fifth among SEC safeties. The other safety spot will likely be occupied by Javon Bullard, who was an honorable mention All-American for PFF last year at slot cornerback. Tykee Smith will fill in for him in the slot and made PFF’s preseason All-SEC third team. He earned a 71.4 grade on 256 snaps last year and was a first-team All-American in 2020 while at West Virginia.

Kamari Lassiter is a returning starter and will be the Bulldogs’ top outside cornerback in 2023. He surrendered only 13 catches on 34 targets while in single coverage this past season. The biggest question mark in this secondary is the other outside cornerback spot, which will probably be filled by sophomore Daylen Everette. He possesses a lot of potential as a former top-35 recruit in the 2022 class.

2. Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines return four starters to what was already one of the best secondaries in college football.

The star of the unit is Will Johnson, who is already a top-25 player in college football after his true freshman season. The former five-star recruit’s 91.1 grade in man coverage led all Power Five cornerbacks last season. Rod Moore is a top-five safety and was one of only two Power Five safeties in 2022 who earned 80.0-plus grades both in coverage and as a run defender. Mike Sainristil thrives from the slot, earning an 82.3 grade in that role last season, second best in the Power Five.

Makari Paige is a returning starter at strong safety and posted a 45.5% forced incompletion rate last year, third among all safeties in college football. Like Georgia, the biggest question mark for the Wolverines is at the other outside cornerback spot. Massachusetts transfer Josh Wallace is the favorite to take over there, and he surrendered an open target on only 20% of his plays in 2022, second among all cornerbacks in the country.

3. Clemson Tigers

Clemson returns all five starters from 2022 and is one of only two schools on this list to have four defensive backs named to PFF’s preseason all-conference teams.

Nate Wiggins was the only Tiger named a first-team All-ACC honoree after placing sixth among the conference’s cornerbacks last season with a 77.9 grade. R.J. Mickens is one of the 10 best safeties in the country and has earned an 87.2 grade over the past two seasons, second among returning Power Five safeties. The other safety spot will be manned by Jalyn Phillips, who started there last season and was named to PFF’s preseason All-ACC third team. He’s joined on that list by Andrew Mukuba, who will once again be the Tigers’ slot cornerback. As a sophomore, Mukuba struggled to a 50.2 grade but battled injuries throughout the season. In his true freshman season, he earned a 77.0 mark, meaning a bounceback should be expected.

The only starter who wasn’t named to PFF’s preseason All-ACC team was Sheridan Jones, who still allowed the third-fewest yards per coverage snap among ACC cornerbacks last year (0.64).

4. Texas Longhorns

Texas also landed four defensive backs on PFF’s preseason all-conference teams.

Jerrin Thompson was a preseason first-team All-Big 12 member and tied for the most forced incompletions among the conference’s safeties last year, with six. Jahdae Barron was also named to the first-team list as a slot cornerback and ranked third among all Big 12 cornerbacks last season with a 76.9 grade. Outside cornerback Ryan Watts was named to the second team after tying for third in the Big 12 last year with four tackles for loss or no gain. Arkansas transfer Jalen Catalon made the third team despite battling shoulder injuries the past two seasons. In 2020, his 79.4 grade was a top-10 mark among Power Five safeties.

The other outside cornerback spot will likely come down to either Wake Forest transfer Gavin Holmes or sophomore Terrance Brooks. Holmes started the past two years for the Demon Deacons, allowing the third-lowest completion rate among ACC cornerbacks in that span (44.6%). Meanwhile, Brooks was a top-60 recruit in the 2022 cycle and played 186 snaps as a true freshman last season.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Cooper DeJean is the most versatile defensive back in college football and is a top-25 player overall in the country. He lines up at outside cornerback, slot corner, safety and even linebacker at times for the Hawkeyes. DeJean earned 85.0-plus grades both in coverage and as a run defender in 2022, the only cornerback in the country to do so.

Outside of him, Iowa returns Quinn Schulte, a PFF preseason first-team All-Big Ten safety. His 79.2 run-defense grade last year placed him third among the conference’s safeties. Sebastian Castro is back at slot cornerback and made PFF’s preseason All-Big Ten third team.

Jermari Harris will start on the outside opposite of DeJean after missing the entire 2022 season due to an injury. The year before, his four interceptions tied for the most among Big Ten cornerbacks and his 49.4 passer rating allowed stood fourth. The other safety spot will be filled by Xavier Nwankpa, who earned a 77.2 grade on 90 snaps last year as a true freshman.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State’s secondary boasts the best outside cornerback duo in the country in Kalen King and Johnny Dixon. King is a top-15 player overall and led all FBS cornerbacks in single coverage PFF grade (93.3) last season. Dixon was named to PFF’s preseason All-Big Ten third team and paced the Power Five in 2022 with a 20.6% open-target rate allowed.

After those two, there are some question marks. Daequan Hardy is the starting nickel and earned just a 57.7 grade last season on 236 snaps. There is some reason for optimism, though, as he posted the second-lowest passer rating allowed among Big Ten cornerbacks when he was a starter in 2021 (41.8).

The bigger concern is at safety after Penn State loses Ji’Ayir Brown, a 2023 third-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers. Jaylen Reed is a returning starter but earned just a 58.8 grade last season. The other spot will likely be occupied by fifth-year senior Keaton Ellis, who’s earned a 64.4 grade since moving to safety in 2021.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide

Kool-Aid McKinstry isn’t just the best defensive back in college football, he’s the best defender in college football. He was a PFF first-team All-American this past season and is a top-10 returning player in the country. The then-sophomore forced 18 incompletions last season, tied for second among all cornerbacks.

Starting opposite of him is Terrion Arnold, a preseason third-team All-SEC member. He ranked fourth among SEC cornerbacks a year ago with a 26.9% open-target rate allowed. Starting in the slot is once again Malachi Moore, who was named a PFF preseason second-team All-SEC selection. He’ll look to regain his true freshman form as a junior. After earning an 82.1 coverage grade in 2020, Moore has struggled over the past two seasons to a 63.8 mark.

After losing Brian Branch and Jordan Battle to the NFL, the Crimson Tide will break in two new safeties. One of them will likely be UAB transfer Jaylen Key, who was made the All-Conference USA third team a year ago. The other is true freshman Caleb Downs, the highest-rated safety recruit since Derwin James in 2015.

They’re not the only transfers and five-star recruits Alabama is bringing into the fold. Trey Amos comes in from Louisiana, where he led all Sun Belt cornerbacks over the past two years in completion rate allowed (37.0%). Dezz Ricks also begins his career in Tuscaloosa and was the No. 2 cornerback recruit in the 2023 cycle.

8. Missouri Tigers

Missouri boasts one of the better outside cornerback duos in Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw Jr., who both were named to PFF’s preseason All-SEC team. Abrams-Draine’s 22 forced incompletions since 2021 lead all SEC cornerbacks, while Rakestraw tied for fifth this past season with 11 forced incompletions.

Despite not starting this past season, Daylan Carnell still ranked fourth among SEC defensive backs with an 85.1 coverage grade. He’ll man the slot for the Tigers. Missouri also returns both of its starting safeties from a year ago in Jaylon Carlies and Joseph Charleston, the former earning an 80.0 coverage grade since 2021.

9. Florida State Seminoles

One of the biggest prizes in the transfer portal this offseason was Virginia cornerback Fentrell Cypress II, who decided to remain in the ACC and play for Florida State. Last season, he placed fifth among Power Five cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.53). He’s a top-10 cornerback in the country heading into 2023.

Elsewhere, Greedy Vance Jr. was named to PFF’s preseason All-ACC second team at slot cornerback. Renardo Green will resume his role as a starting outside cornerback for the Seminoles and ranked fourth among all cornerbacks in the country last season with a 90.3 run-defense grade. Florida State also brings back two starters at safety in Akeem Dent and Shyheim Brown, who each earned 65.0-plus grades in 2022.

10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

While the best true freshman cornerback in 2022 was Michigan’s Will Johnson, Benjamin Morrison wasn’t far behind. His six interceptions tied for the most among Power Five defenders and his 29.2 passer rating allowed ranked third among Power Five cornerbacks. He’s a top-five cornerback in the country already.

Cam Hart will start at the other outside cornerback spot for the third straight season, earning a respectable 72.0 grade since 2021. DJ Brown is also a returning starter at free safety and earned just a 55.8 coverage there in 2022. The year before, though, he posted an 82.2 mark on 432 snaps, meaning a bounceback is in order. Xavier Watts will likely assume the strong safety role and earned an 83.8 run-defense grade last season, ninth among Power Five safeties.

The starting nickel role will come down to either Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper or senior Clarence Lewis. Harper had been a backup throughout his four years with the Cowboys, most recently posting a 65.0 grade on 397 snaps in 2022. Lewis started on the outside for the Fighting Irish both in 2020 and 2021 but looked most comfortable this past season. He essentially split time between outside cornerback and in the slot as a backup, earning a career-high 76.3 coverage grade.

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