NCF Nation: Buddy Jackson

We round out the defensive team position rankings with the cornerbacks. There are some teams with plenty of experience. Others are in desperate need of improvement. Where do they stack up?

[+] EnlargeBlidi Wreh-Wilson
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn's Blidi Wreh-Wilson is one of the Big East's top returning cornerbacks.
1. Connecticut. Both starters return in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, and the Huskies should continue to make the improvements they made in the second half of the season. The two combined for six of the team's 20 interceptions. Wreh-Wilson should be a preseason All-Big East selection and is one of the best in the league.

2. West Virginia. Keith Tandy returns after making first-team All Big East last season, though the Mountaineers have to replace Brandon Hogan, a second-team selection. They do have an experienced player in Pat Miller set to take over, with Brodrick Jenkins and Brantwon Bowser providing depth as well.

3. USF. The Bulls have to make up for the loss of Mistral Raymond, but have plenty of experienced players back in Kayvon Webster, Ricardo Dixon, George Baker and returning starter Quenton Washington. West Virginia gets the nod ahead of USF because of Tandy.

4. Syracuse. Both starters are gone in Mike Holmes and Da'Mond Merkerson. Kevyn Scott and Keon Lyn are penciled in to start. Scott has experience, while Lyn has plenty of potential. The problem is depth. Walk-on Joe Nassib is listed as a backup. Early enrollee Jaston George needs to show big improvement in the fall.

5. Pittsburgh. Coach Todd Graham has talked up K'Waun Williams and fifth-year senior Buddy Jackson after both had good springs. Antwuan Reed missed spring with injury but should be fine for the season, giving the Panthers three players with the potential to have a good year. The problem is that Williams is inexperienced and Jackson has failed to live up to expectations. Reed was inconsistent last season, too.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lose their best cover cornerback in Brandon Bing, and David Rowe moved to safety. Both starting jobs are up for grabs. On the post-spring depth chart, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cooper were battling for one spot and Brandon Jones and Mason Robinson for another. Robinson moved over from receiver. Jordan Thomas also is in the mix after moving from running back.

7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were pretty dismal in the secondary last season. They return everybody, and Dominique Battle should be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. Still, they need to tackle better and become more aggressive to help this unit improve.

8. Louisville. The Cardinals have major problems at cornerback. They lose starters Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and Darius Ashley is suspended indefinitely following his second DUI arrest. Jordan Paschal, Anthony Conner and Preston Pace are in the mix. Freshman receiver Charles Gaines was moved here in the spring to provide some relief. But this is a major area of concern.

Previous rankings

Hope and concern: Pittsburgh

May, 23, 2011
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Time to get back at it in the hope and concern series, where we look at the top reasons for optimism and pessimism for each Big East team's 2011 season. What things should new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham be hopeful and concerned about? Let's take a look.

Biggest reason for hope: Increased scoring

Pitt wasn't exactly a plodder last year, averaging more than 26 points per game and reaching 40 points three times. Yet there was usually a feeling that the offense could have done more with weapons like Dion Lewis, Ray Graham and Jon Baldwin. One thing Todd Graham promises to do is ratchet up the pace and the points. Tulsa led the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008 and finished fifth in 2010. It might take a couple of years for Graham to assemble the kind of players he wants to run his spread at peak efficiency, but expect the Panthers to put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses this year.

Biggest reason for concern: The back end

While the offense should produce and Graham loves the depth and talent along the defensive line, there are questions elsewhere. The linebacking corps did not play well at times this year, especially in pass coverage. Are guys like Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder quick enough? Will Greg Williams be more fundamentally sound? Or can younger players like Shane Gordon and Todd Thomas step up? At cornerback, the Panthers exited the spring with a pair of new starters in K'Waun Williams and Buddy Jackson. Williams is talented but largely unproven, while Jackson has been an enigma his entire career. Safety is in good hands at one spot with Jared Holley, but the Panthers have to replace all-league performer Dom DeCicco. Pittsburgh could be vulnerable to good passing teams.

Notes from weekend scrimmages

April, 4, 2011
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Spring practice was in full bloom over the weekend, and you know what that means: scrimmages! Here are some notes on the teams that faced off against themselves on Saturday.

Connecticut

The Huskies didn't hold anything back, and that sometimes was problematic. Linebacker Sio Moore delivered a big hit on quarterback Michael Nebrich and had to be reminded by Paul Pasqualoni that they are, in fact, still teammates.

The defense dominated for most of the scrimmage, and it's no surprise that side of the ball would be ahead of the offense, given the number of returning defensive starters. Quarterback Scott McCummings, who has reportedly had a good spring, fumbled and threw an interception on Saturday. Mike Box got the first reps of the scrimmage under center.

"I thought there was some good give and take,” Pasqualoni said. “I thought there was real, real good competition on both sides of the ball.”

Louisville

Held back a little by injuries this spring, the Cardinals held their first scrimmage on Saturday, a 150-minute, 95-play, hard-hitting affair.

According to the official recap, Will Stein threw two touchdown passes to Josh Chichester, for 16 and 59 yards. Receiver Josh Bellamy also had a big day. Shenard Holton and Marcus Smith each had interceptions, while Randy Salmon and Dexter Heyman were very active on defense.

"It's hard to really see what we have going on out there because we have so many guys injured," coach Charlie Strong said. "We have a lot of guys playing who haven't played much, but it's good that we are starting to build some depth. I was pleased with the effort and I thought there was a lot of good hitting.

Pittsburgh

Only a portion of the scrimmage was open to the media, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Buddy Jackson took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. The cornerback was only recently given a shot to return kicks.

Former guard Chris Jacobson is working at center and had some trouble with shotgun snaps. That will be key for the Panthers, who will be in the shotgun almost exclusively in their new offense. The newspaper also singled out defensive end Bryan Murphy as a spring standout so far.

Syracuse

The offense unleashed some big-play potential in the Orange's 84-play scrimmage. Big plays included a 75-yard pass from Ryan Nassib to Alec Lemon, a 64-yard carry by Antwon Bailey, a 70-yard dash by Prince-Tyson Gulley and a 54-yard pass from Nassib to Marcus Sales. Nassib was 7-of-12 for 192 yards.

But the offense couldn't keep the momentum after three straight scores, turning the ball over and failing to reach the end zone the rest of the day. Coach Doug Marrone said he didn't like the way the defense came out to start the scrimmage, but at least it responded. He singled out linebackers Dan Vaughan and Marquis Spruill and safety Phillip Thomas for praise on that side of the ball.
It's time to get back to our post-spring rankings of each Big East position group. A lot of teams have question marks in their secondaries heading into this summer; let's look at how they stand in comparison to one another:

[+] EnlargeSands
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerRobert Sands snagged five interceptions last season.
1. West Virginia: The Mountaineers play five defensive backs in their 3-3-5 alignment and should be well stocked for 2010. Safety Robert Sands should compete for league defensive player of the year honors if he continues his rapid development, while senior Sidney Glover is an experienced playmaker at one of the other safety spots. West Virginia needs Brandon Hogan to rediscover his form and for Keith Tandy to keep improving, and this could be one of the team's strongest units.

2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost the best cornerback in the Big East when Devin McCourty took his skills to the NFL, but I still like the group that's returning. Joe Lefeged should step up and assume McCourty's leadership role as a senior safety, while Khaseem Greene looks ready to become a front-line safety. David Rowe is a solid corner, and either Brandon Bing or Logan Ryan should fill the other spot. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of talented young players here to provide quality depth, as well.

3. Syracuse: The Orange officially have five returning starters in the secondary because of injuries last year, and several players gained valuable experience during 2009. There's a good mixture of veteran leadership with guys like seniors Mike Holmes, Da'Mon Merkerson and Max Suter as well as rising stars like Shamarko Thomas and Phillip Thomas.

4. Pittsburgh: Antwuan Reed helped answer a big question with a strong spring at cornerback. The other corner spot will likely be filled by either junior college transfer Saheed Imoru or Buddy Jackson, with Ricky Gary around to add depth. The safety position should be in good shape when Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti return from their injuries, while Jarred Holley established himself as a dependable safety last year.

5. South Florida: The Bulls lost a pair of draft picks in Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy and have some young players moving into key roles this season. The good news is those youngsters have talent. The key will be whether Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster can hold down the cornerback spots.

6. Cincinnati: There's healthy competition in the secondary for the Bearcats, who increasingly gave up big plays in the passing game as the 2009 season wore on. Dominique Battle, Camerron Cheatham, Chris Williams and Reuben Johnson all vied for playing time at corner this spring. Drew Frey is a steady safety. The group needs to make more plays than it did a year ago but should embrace a more aggressive scheme this year.

7. Connecticut: The Huskies ranked last in pass defense last season and lost two senior stalwarts from the secondary. The defensive backfield was in disarray at times this spring. The return of Blidi Wreh-Wilson from his shoulder injury this summer should help out the cornerback spot with Dwayne Gratz. Jerome Junior should be solid at one safety spot, while Kijuan Dabney is trying to win the other job after moving from linebacker. The Huskies are counting on a lot of young players to improve quickly before the season begins.

8. Louisville: The Cardinals had so much trouble finding playmakers in the secondary this spring that running back Darius Ashley moved to corner to help out. Johnny Patrick is one of the league's better cornerbacks but needs help in the defensive backfield. The healthy return of safety Terence Simien would provide a boost, but this remains a trouble spot heading into the fall.

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