SEC Bloggers: The SEC Defensive Backs
Mississippi State SS Charles Mitchell
CFN's SEC Bloggers put the conference's defensive backs under the microscope
Brian Harbach: On who are the SEC's best returning DBs?
While many consider the SEC to be defined by its defensive lines, the conference's secondaries rarely play second fiddle. Once again, a bevy of future NFL talent returns to play on southern grass this fall, starting with Alabama safety Mark Barron. The 6-2, 220 pound senior returns for a chance at another championship, following an impressive 2010 in which he claimed first team SEC and All American honors.
In an embarrassment of riches, the Tide also return 6-2, 210 pound free safety Robert Lester. An All American in his own right (2nd team), Lester had 52 tackles and 8 interceptions last season as a sophomore. Barron and Lester comprise the best safety tandem in the country, let alone the SEC.
Staying out west, LSU's Morris Claiborne must carry the leadership role without superstar Patrick Peterson. However, the talented 6-1, 180 pound senior cornerback finds himself surrounded by a score of younger players who hold all-star promise of their own, so he has plenty of support.
Carolina's 6-1, 195 junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore returns after securing 3rd team All American honors as a sophomore in 2010. Gilmore had 79 tackles, six for a loss, and 3 interceptions, and will be needed to lead a secondary that struggled at times last season.
Honorable Mention: Dre Kirkpatrick, JR, Alabama; Casey Hayward, SR, Vanderbilt; Brandon Boykin, SR, Georgia; Winston Guy, SR, Kentucky; Tyrann Mathieu, SO, LSU; Janzen Jackson, JR, Tennessee.
Billy Gomila: On who will be the next breakout defensive back?
LSU's defensive backfield has any number of possible breakout stars, including last year's freshman All-American, Tyrann Mathieu. But two of his classmates were pressed into duty late in the 2010 season and passed with fairly high marks -- cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Eric Reid.
Reid, a monster hitter, came off the bench when Brandon Taylor suffered an injury in the Alabama game and closed out the season with 23 of his 32 tackles, plus a pass break-up, tackle for loss and two interceptions in just those final five games. At 6-2, 210 pounds, the sophomore almost appeared to be a candidate to grow into linebacker, but showed the ability to hit the field and have an impact at either the free or strong safety positions.
Simon played much more sparingly down the stretch, but held his own when pressed into service. Against Alabama, he stepped in on Julio Jones and managed to hold the future first-rounder in check on a handful of plays, even batting away a pass. He later picked off his first career INT in the Cotton Bowl.
At 6-4, Simon brings some freakish size to the position, and showed that off in LSU's spring, using his long arms and height to bat down some very well-thrown passes in the Tigers spring game. Look for Simon to rotate in early and often for LSU, both to give the 5-9 Mathieu some relief against taller receivers, and to allow him to move into the slot position that he was so dominant as a true freshman.
Gabe Harris: On which team has the most riding on the DB position?
This is a loaded question and one that could go a number of ways. Several teams are going to be in dire need of help in the secondary and their seasons could depend on it. Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn are all teams that stand out as the most desperate for help.
The Gators wouldn't be considered for this had it not been for the dismissal and eventual transfer to North Alabama of Janoris Jenkins. Junior Jeremy Brown will be asked to fill in for Jenkins; he's dealt with injuries and inconsistent play throughout his career in Gainesville, but the coaches expect him to step it up this season. Cody Riggs, senior Moses Jenkins, and Matt Elam will be needed and they haven't performed up to Florida standards yet. 6 DBs were signed in this past recruiting class and they will need to help immediately.
Tennesse is another school considered especially since no one knows if Janzen Jackson will return. Prentiss Waggner has bounced around from safety and corner and should shine. Jackson's return will determine where Waggner plays in 2011. Safety Brent Brewer and corner Marsalis Teague return. Teague played receiver last season so it's a bit scary that the Vols have to rely on him. Juco transfer Byron Moore will get playing time this season at corner.
As much as the above two teams need their secondary to step up, the Auburn Tigers have the most riding on their DBs. Zach Etheridge and Aairon Savage graduating was one thing, but then senior safety Michael McNeil was dismissed this spring due to a robbery charge. Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety from corner due to McNeil's departure, while T'Sharvan Bell will play the other corner; Bell has the skills to excel. After Thorpe and Bell, you have a lot of unproven and freshmen players, one of whom will need to step up and start (or at least play extensive minutes). Players like Demetruce McNeal and Jonathan Rose. It's not going to be easy for Auburn, especially when you consider the firepower the Tigers lost from the front seven, and the bulls-eye on them as the defending conference champions.
Russ Mitchell: On which SEC school is today's DB U?
It comes down to two teams in the West: LSU and Alabama. (You'd think Florida would be in the hunt with all the talent it's had in recent years, but the Gators have only six current DBs playing on Sundays - by comparison, Georgia currently has seven).
On numbers alone, LSU has produced more DB talent in the past decade than has Capstone. There are currently nine players from Alabama playing in the NFL, to the Tigers' 12.
However, Bama's productivity has spiked sharply since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. And as Brian notes above, the quality is superb.
Those arguing Alabama's side will contend that some of LSU's success at the position in fact belongs to Saban for his time in Baton Rouge. LSU supporters will return serve by arguing it's not like the Tigers haven't recruited, developed and sent DB talent to the NFL since Les Miles took over. Indeed, LSU might have the greatest depth at secondary in the SEC, if not the nation, in 2011.
Besides, those players in the Alabama argument dressed in purple and gold. For that reason, we'll go with the Bayou Bengals.
But check back with us in another couple of years... DB U could have switched over to the Tide by then.
Barrett Sallee: On who will be the conference's next first round NFL DB?
There are many to choose from. Alabama's Barron and Kirkpatrick, LSU's Mathieu, South Carolina's Gilmore and Tennessee's Jackson are all worthy candidates. But the next first round DB out of the SEC will be LSU's Claiborne.
There have been early draft progressions that have Gilmore and/or Kirkpatrick going ahead of Claiborne in the first round, but my pick of Claiborne has more to do with the what we've seen from the other two more than the ability of Claiborne.
Gilmore is a talented CB, and certainly has first round ability. But the Gamecock defense was a train wreck last season, and communication - which is a big part of being a successful DB - was the big reason why. If I'm an NFL general manager, I'd like to see Gilmore shut down opposing WR's consistently, to the point it makes the rest of his mates in the secondary better, before I use my first round draft pick on him.
In Kirkpatrick's case, we know that he has been torched by complete receivers like South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery. Last time I checked, if an NFL team uses a first round pick on a CB, that CB will be counted on to defend No. 1 receivers - which look a lot like Jeffery. Kirkpatrick is certainly a talented DB, and probably will have a long and prosperous NFL career, but ahead of Claiborne? At this point, I wouldn't do it.
Please follow Russ Mitchell on Twitter @russmitchellsec, Brian Harbach @harbabd, Gabe Harris @gpharris and Barrett Sallee @barrettsallee.
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