NCF Nation: Isaac Madison

The SEC lost a bevy of great defensive backs from a year ago.

In fact, 12 were taken in the NFL draft, and seven went in the first three rounds. Gone are Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Kareem Jackson, Major Wright, Javier Arenas, Chad Jones, Myron Lewis, Walt McFadden, Marquis Johnson, Kendrick Lewis, Reshad Jones and Trevard Lindley.

What’s that leave in the way of the top defensive backfields in the SEC for 2010?

Here’s a look:

[+] EnlargeJanori Jenkins
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Janoris Jenkins is one of the mainstays in the Florida defensive backfield.
1. Florida: It’s a testament to how well the Gators have recruited that they own the top secondary in the SEC even after losing Haden and Wright early to the NFL. Janoris Jenkins is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, and good luck in finding a better safety tandem than Will Hill and Ahmad Black. Talented freshmen are waiting in the wings, too, like Matt Elam and Joshua Shaw.

2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were second in the league last season in pass defense and should be even harder to throw the ball on in 2010. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore is one of the best young cornerbacks in college football, and his former high school teammate, safety DeVonte Holloman, may be one of the breakout players in the league. Senior Chris Culliver, a second-team All-SEC selection last season, also returns and is switching from safety to cornerback.

3. LSU: If you’re looking for the fastest secondary in the SEC, look no further than the unit the Tigers will put on the field this season. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the country -- period -- and his running mate on the other side, Morris Claiborne, has been turning heads since the spring. They may end up being the best cornerback tandem in the league. Jai Eugene has moved from cornerback to safety, while Brandon Taylor returns at the other safety. He, too, is a former cornerback.

4. Auburn: There’s nothing like adding three veteran leaders back to the mix, and that’s what Auburn will do with senior safeties Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil. All are returning from serious injuries. One of the priorities this season is to get junior cornerback Neiko Thorpe more help. He played too many snaps a year ago. Demond Washington is returning to his cornerback position after filling in at safety last season.

5. Vanderbilt: Don’t blink. Vanderbilt has consistently played some of the best pass defense in the SEC under Jamie Bryant, who oversees the Commodores’ secondary. Safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward are returning starters, and both have what it takes to be All-SEC players. Junior Jamie Graham has settled in at the other cornerback after playing receiver earlier in his career. Nickelback Eddie Foster also returns, and the Commodores liked what they saw this spring from freshman safeties Jay Fullam and Kenny Ladler.

6. Alabama: The only guy who won’t be new for the Crimson Tide this season in the secondary is junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions a year ago. Everybody else who was in the rotation is gone. Alabama still has plenty of young talent in its defensive backfield, but there could be some growing pains early. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has unlimited potential. There’s also a chance that junior college cornerback DeQuan Menzie could be back after tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring.

7. Georgia: The Bulldogs gave up far too many big plays in the secondary last season and allowed a league-high 25 touchdown passes. They should be better in 2010, particularly with the addition of junior college safety Jakar Hamilton, who was one of the stars of the spring. Junior cornerback Brandon Boykin has the skills to be one of the league’s top cover guys, but the Bulldogs are still thin at the cornerback position. They can’t afford any injuries.

8. Tennessee: The dismissal of starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his arrest and involvement in a bar brawl drops the Vols down a spot or two. They don’t have a lot of depth behind him. The leader of the unit is sophomore free safety Janzen Jackson, who can be one of the best defensive backs in the league if he stays out of trouble off the field. Junior cornerback Art Evans is underrated and will be the Vols’ top cover guy.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got big performances from freshmen last season in their secondary, which means their pass defense should improve considerably from their No. 11 showing in the SEC a year ago. Sophomore cornerback Corey Broomfield had six interceptions, and sophomore Johnthan Banks had four interceptions. Banks is moving to free safety this season. Also look for a big junior season from strong safety Charles Mitchell, who is Mississippi State’s enforcer back there.

10. Kentucky: With Lindley missing four full games last season with a high ankle sprain, the rest of the Wildcats’ defensive backs were forced to step up their games. Three starters return, including budding star Winston Guy at free safety. Cornerbacks Paul Warford and Randall Burden are also back, as Kentucky started five defensive backs in most games. Finding another safety will be key this preseason.

11. Ole Miss: The lone returning starter is senior safety Johnny Brown, who’s coming off his best season. The Rebels’ other safety a year ago, Kendrick Lewis, was one of their mainstays on defense, and replacing him won’t be easy. Junior college newcomer Damien Jackson will draw that job, and he was extremely impressive in the spring. Ole Miss will be both inexperienced and thin at the cornerback positions.

12. Arkansas: The Hogs gladly welcome back junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Their pass defense suffered with Madison out of the lineup, and they finished last in the league, allowing 401.2 yards per game. They also gave up 22 touchdown passes. To get more speed on the field, Arkansas moved Rudell Crim to safety during the spring. Ramon Broadway returns at the other cornerback and Elton Ford at the other safety.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The faster pace this spring is just one of the things that gives Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino reason to believe that his defense will be improved in 2010.

He’s seen his defense play with more consistency, more instinctively and react quicker on the practice field.

And let’s face it: The Arkansas defenders are playing against some pretty talented playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeDamario Ambrose
Brad Schloss/Icon SMIDamario Ambrose likes what he's seen from the defense this spring.
“We’ve definitely made improvement, particularly in playing the fundamentals of good defense -- tackling better, running full speed to the ball, getting off blocks,” Petrino said. “That’s really, to me, what spring is about on defense. We’re not doing as much where we’re scheming things. We just want to find out who can and who cannot play defense.”

There’s also been a lot of experimenting, moving some guys around and shuffling the depth chart.

One of the big changes this week was Rudell Crim going from cornerback to safety, which immediately gives the Hogs more speed in the secondary.

A year ago, Arkansas was brutal against the pass. The Hogs were last in the SEC and 99th nationally. They gave up 22 touchdown passes, and many of those were big gainers.

In fact, the Hogs went eight straight games where they gave up a touchdown play of 60 yards or longer, and six of those were passes.

“We try not to focus on listening to the bad or the negative,” said junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. “But the simple fact is that we were who we were last year. We can’t hide that, but we use that to turn it into positive energy and try to become better.”

That positive energy has been more apparent than ever this spring on the practice field.

“These spring practices have been the best spring practices I’ve been around since I’ve been here, and that’s including when we had D-Mac [Darren McFadden] and those guys,” senior defensive end Damario Ambrose said. “Everybody out here is focused. Everybody knows what our goal is, and that is to show everybody how good we really are.

“We want to make sure everybody knows, especially on defense, that we’re going to show up every single game with a purpose, and that’s to work hard and win games.”

The Hogs are still thin at linebacker and can’t afford for somebody like Jerry Franklin to get hurt.

But their numbers on the defensive line and secondary are better than they’ve been under Petrino. A pair of incoming freshmen, tackle Byran Jones of Junction City, Ark., and end Chris Smith of Mount Ulla, N.C., may also be able to help right away.

“We played good defense at times last year,” Petrino said. “We were good against Alabama for three quarters. But we need some good things to happen, because I still think there’s a confidence level there that needs to be reinforced. We need a dominant performance early in the year, or two or three, so we feel it and then build on that confidence.

“I know they know we’re better just because of the way we’ve battled out on the practice field and how physical our scrimmages have been.”

Added Ambrose: "Everybody knows about the high-ranking offense, but we want to come out and show people that we’re a force to be reckoned with, not just the offense.

"We want to score some touchdowns this year."

Kicking it with Arkansas' Bobby Petrino

February, 22, 2010
When a new coach takes over a college football program, typically the third season is when it’s fair to make the first real evaluation of where that program is headed.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireBobby Petrino is working on limiting the big plays his defense gave up too often last season.
This will be Bobby Petrino’s third season at Arkansas. It’s been a steady climb so far. The Hogs went from five wins to eight wins last season, including a win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.

Suffice it to say that Year No. 3 under Petrino brings with it some heavy-duty expectations. This will be his most talented team, his most experienced team, and the schedule turns a little bit in the Hogs’ favor.

Arkansas could start the season ranked in the top 20 of the preseason poll, something the Hogs haven’t done since 1999.

Junior quarterback Ryan Mallett returns as one of the most feared passers in the country, and the arsenal of playmakers surrounding him is as stocked as any Petrino has ever coached.

If the defense comes through, it could be a season to remember in Fayetteville.

Granted, that’s a big if when you look at the Hogs’ defensive numbers from the past two seasons, but Petrino is confident they will be improved on that side of the ball.

Petrino talked about his defense and a lot more in a recent Q&A I did with him heading into the spring. The Hogs open practice on March 30 and play their spring game on April 24:

Even though Mallett’s going to be sidelined this spring with the broken bone in his left foot, how important are these next three or four months for him if he’s going to become a truly great quarterback?

Bobby Petrino: The one thing you know he’ll do is work real hard at it. He just won’t get the 15 practices in, but should be good to go for all the summer work. He’ll certainly be in the classroom doing everything he needs to do to get ready and take that next step.

What gives you hope that your defense will be better next season and more consistent?

BP: We’ve recruited hard the last two years on defense and really tried to address issues in the secondary and the defensive front. So I think we’re going to be more talented and more physical on defense this year. We have to tackle better, and we have to stop the explosive plays. That’s what really hurt our defense a year ago. We would play good and play good and then give up a big play.

Sort of like the Alabama game last season when you were within a touchdown in the third quarter and then give up an 80-yard touchdown pass?

BP: Our defense had played great, and they hit an 80-yard touchdown. And we’re right there. We just don’t make the play on the ball. So we’ve got to do a better job of playing the ball in the air and just stopping the big plays. The deep play-actions and screens are what hurt our defense more than anything.

How important is getting Isaac Madison back at cornerback after he missed all last season with a knee injury?

BP: He’ll be back and is doing real well (with his recovery). That was a huge loss for us because he’s our fastest, most experienced, smartest secondary player. He should be back at full speed and ready to go. He’s doing everything right now. I’m not sure I’ll let him do the contact part of spring ball. He’ll do everything else.

How would you assess the rest of your defense?

BP: Our defensive front will be good, and we’ll have depth. We’ve got [Jake] Bequette coming back and Damario Ambrose and Tenarius Wright at the defensive ends and then inside a lot of guys with a lot of experience coming back with [Zach] Stadther and D.D. Jones, Pat Jones, [Lavunce] Askew and [Alfred] Davis. All those guys have played a bunch of football, which is new. We haven’t had guys who’ve played a bunch of football before. At linebacker, I’m a little concerned about depth. That’s been an area where we’ve been hurt by a lack of depth. We have to have a good spring in developing depth at linebacker, but we do have a lot of experience in Freddy Burton and Jerry Franklin. Jerry has started every game since I’ve been here, and he’s just a junior. But I am worried behind those guys.

As you look at all the intangibles it takes to compete for a championship, do you believe you guys are closer to being there?

BP: We’re definitely closer. Experience is something that really helps, the understanding of what we want to do and then our expectations. I think we took a huge step last year from the Alabama game to the Florida game. We went into the Alabama game and didn’t execute and didn’t play as well as we could. But also, I don’t think we expected to win, and I don’t think we executed because we were a little intimidated. Then when we went to Florida, our guys competed really, really hard and did everything they could to win the game. Mentally, we grew up and matured.

Your new offensive line coach, Chris Klenakis, was on staff at Nevada last season where the Wolf Pack led the country in rushing with an average of 344.9 yards per game. They were third nationally in 2008. What kind of dimension does he bring to your running game?

BP: He’s the guy who invented the Pistol [offense], he and coach Chris [Ault] together. I coached with Coach K before [at Nevada] and put together an offense before with him and were very successful. He’s a very good teacher in the offensive front, but he also understands every other aspect of the offense. I think we’ll be much more physical in the run game next year. We actually ran what everybody wants to call the Pistol last year and executed the passing game really well out of it. Now, we need to run the ball better out of it.

When you look at your running game, you appear to have all the different pieces in place in the backfield?

BP: I’m really excited about our backfield. This spring will be very, very competitive. Ronnie Wingo has sprinter speed. He won the 100 and 200 meters in the state of Missouri in high school and today weighs 230 pounds. He really excites me. The other guys are all capable. Broderick Green is 248 pounds and the big guy we need back there. Knile Davis is up in the 220s. We have a chance now where we can be much more physical running the ball and running the ball downhill. That’s so important in this league. When you get into a battle with Alabama, you have to be patient and run the ball and not give up the negative plays. That’s what they’re so good at, causing you to have negative plays.

You’ve obviously had some potent offenses during your career. Where do you think this one stacks up in terms of playmakers and the ability to score in a variety of ways.

BP: When you look at the overall picture, it’s the deepest group [of playmakers] I’ve had. We have to prove that we can do it up front. That’s where we have to make great improvement. But when you have a Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright all coming back with two years of experience, and they’ve all made a lot of plays in this conference, that’s exciting. Our young guy, Cobi Hamilton, might be better than all of them. He’s a special, special talent and made a lot of plays last year as a freshman. But we’ve got to take care of business in the offensive front so we can be consistent.

How much do you feel the fans’ expectations?

BP: I feel good about the expectations of our players, the expectations of our team. That’s the key. We’re hoping everyone expects us to win, and if the fans do, then obviously that’s great. But the best part of it is when our players expect to take the field and win, and I think we’ll be that way this year.