Now that practice is officially over, it’s time to begin our post-spring position rankings.
We wrap our weeklong series Friday with the defensive backs.
1. LSU: Les Miles has always had a loaded secondary, but this might be one of his best. Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White are surefire first-round picks last year. Kevin Toliver II was one of the top freshmen in the SEC last year, starting seven games at cornerback. And among Rickey Jefferson, Ed Paris, Donte Jackson and incoming freshman Saivion Smith, there are plenty of playmakers to go around.
2. Alabama: Losing Cyrus Jones hurt, but the Crimson Tide have two All-SEC freshmen – Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick – expected to start at the two cornerback spots. Fitzpatrick is moving over from nickel where he had 45 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a team-high 11 passes broken up. Eddie Jackson, the SEC co-leader with six interceptions, returns at safety where he’ll likely be joined by rising sophomore Ronnie Harrison.
3. Florida: Jalen Tabor is a star. He might have been overshadowed by Vernon Hargreaves III his freshman year, but last year – while playing with Hargreaves – the former ESPN 300 recruit pulled down four interceptions and led the SEC with 18 passes defended. The Gators also get back safety Marcus Maye, who flirted with leaving early for the NFL. Plus, cornerback Quincy Wilson has experience and probably will start opposite Tabor.
4. Georgia: There might not be a lot of household names in Georgia’s secondary, but the Bulldogs return all four starters from a unit that led the SEC in passing defense last year. Safety Dominick Sanders is probably the name you heard the most. He was tied for the league lead in interceptions (6), and he ran one back for a touchdown. Georgia also has a rising star in Rico McGraw, a kid Kirby Smart recruited when he was still at Alabama.
5. Tennessee: Both starting safeties from a year ago, LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph, are gone. But those losses are made easier when the Vols have Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry waiting to replace them. The star of this unit isn’t Kelly Jr. or Berry, though. It’s cornerback Cameron Sutton, who had a chance to leave early but returned to school instead. Opposite him will either be Justin Martin or Emmanuel Moseley, with Malik Foreman at nickel.
6. Texas A&M: This Aggies defense is slowly improving under John Chavis, and the secondary is the perfect example. The unit has maybe the SEC’s best group of safeties with Armani Watts, Justin Evans and Donovan Wilson. And though they have to replace both starting cornerbacks, it was a good sign that both Nick Harvey, a standout freshman from last year, and Priest Willis, a transfer from UCLA, each looked good in the spring.
7. Ole Miss: Gone are Trae Elston and Mike Hilton. The two combined for six interceptions and 12.5 tackles for loss. But the Rebels get back both starting cornerbacks, Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster, and the return of Tony Conner from injury should provide a much-needed boost. When healthy, Conner is one of the better defensive backs in the SEC.
8. Kentucky: If you ask Mark Stoops, there’s not a better cornerback duo in the SEC than his two sophomores, Chris Westry and Derrick Baity. There certainly isn’t a taller tandem. The 6-foot-4 Westry was named to the All-SEC freshman team last year, while Baity, listed at 6-foot-3, played in all 12 games for the Wildcats. Safety Mike Edwards, another rising sophomore, came on strong late last season and will be counted on even more this fall.
9. Vanderbilt: The linebackers typically get most of the credit on the Commodore defense, but don’t sleep on this secondary. Safety Oren Burks led the team last year in interceptions (3) and was third in tackles (59). Cornerback Torren McGaster finished with a team-high 13 passes broken up. And fellow cornerback Tre Herndon enjoyed a breakout sophomore season.
10. Auburn: Led by rising star Carlton Davis, the Tigers have a chance to surprise some people on the back end this year. As a true freshman last year, Davis finished with 56 tackles, three interceptions and eight passes broken up. Opposite Davis, former Ohio State signee Jamel Dean has emerged as a potential starter. And Auburn is hoping that starting safeties Johnathan Ford and Tray Matthews can improve on last year and stay healthy.
11. Mississippi State: Starting cornerbacks Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun are gone; though an injury to Redmond last year created an opportunity for Tolando Cleveland, who now returns as a full-time starter. Also starting safeties Kivon Coman and Brandon Bryant, both among the top five on the team in tackles last year, are back in the fold. And it’s only a matter of time before former ESPN 300 recruit Jamal Peters sees more playing time.
12. Missouri: With a little help from the defensive line, Missouri finished third in the SEC last year in passing defense. Top cornerback Kenya Dennis is gone, but his counterpart Aarion Penton – the team leader in passes broken up (8) – is back. As is safety Anthony Sherrils, a jack-of-all-trades for the Tigers.
13. Arkansas: The good news is that the Razorbacks return three starters in the secondary. The bad news is that they finished dead last in the SEC, allowing 275 passing yards per game. Bret Bielema brought in former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads as the new DBs coach, but he’ll need improved play from returning cornerbacks Jared Collins and D.J. Dean.
14. South Carolina: This isn’t necessarily a bad secondary. It’s just unknown for the most part, especially with the new coaching staff coming in. The two staples are cornerbacks Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams, who both have starting experience. McWilliams started 10 of 12 games last year and finished with 32 tackles and four passes broken up.