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August 10, 2008

SEC position rankings: Defensive backs

BamaOnLine.com's annual Southeastern Conference position rankings return this summer with a special emphasis on the SEC West, and rankings now divided by division. True freshmen are not listed. The series closes with a look at the league's defensive backfields.

Defensive backs

SEC West

1.] Mississippi State
Projected starters: Marcus Washington, Jasper O'Quinn, Derek Pegues, Keith Fitzhugh.
Next up: De'mon Glanton wasn't listed as a starter by MSU after spring drills, but made 10 starts, 47 stops and 2 INTs a year ago, so he should figure heavily for playing time.
Best of the bunch: Pegues' five INTs last year led the Bulldogs in his first year at free safety. He had been a cornerback previously.
Key loss: CB Anthony Johnson.
Round Table Ranking: 2.
2007 By the numbers: 174.9 (MSU opponents averaged 174.9 yards through the air).
Spring postcard: Pegues was named to the watchlists for both the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top defensive back) and the Bronko Nagurski Award (nation's top defensive player).
Biggest concern: The secondary could be exposed if the pass rush is weak, and with Titus Brown no longer coming off the edge for the Bulldogs, opposing quarterbacks may have plenty of time.
Biggest reason for optimism: Despite the loss of Johnson, who withdrew from school in the spring amid disciplinary action, MSU returns a lot of experience in this unit. Pegues is one of the nation's top defensive backs, but he isn't a one-man show in Starkville.

2.] Alabama
Projected starters: Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, Rashad Johnson, Justin Woodall.
Next up: CB Marquis Johnson should provide help in the nickel package.
Best of the bunch: Johnson was All-SEC last year with team-highs of 94 tackles and six interceptions.
Key loss: CB Simeon Castille.
Round Table Ranking: 3.
2007 By the numbers: 54.2 (Opposing quarterbacks completed 54.2 percent of their passes against UA last year).
Spring postcard: Arenas and Woodall moved into starting roles and worked with the first unit from wire to wire in the spring.
Biggest concern: Woodall's adjustment to a safety spot will be crucial as opponents look for ways to exploit the secondary. He has virtually no experience and will be tested in coverage early and often.
Biggest reason for optimism: Johnson and Jackson give UA as good a tandem of defensive backs as there is in the league. As the only senior and a third-year starter, Johnson will have the leadership role while Jackson is primed for a strong encore to an outstanding freshman year.

3.] Auburn
Projected starters: Zac Etheridge, Jerraud Powers, Mike McNeil, Walter McFadden.
Next up: Thanks to a season-ending injury to Aairon Savage, the Tigers top backups in the secondary are all freshmen.
Best of the bunch: Powers' four interceptions tied for the team high last year, and he is the best AU has in man-to-man coverage.
Key loss: Safety Eric Brock and cornerback Patrick Lee.
Round Table Ranking: 4.
2007 By the numbers: 11 (Of Auburn's 14 interceptions last season, 11 came from the secondary).
Spring postcard: The development of McNeil, once a top-notch recruit with high expectations, progressed nicely.
Biggest concern: The loss of Savage takes away an experienced player who could play either safety or cornerback. That will place added pressure on McFadden and McNeil.
Biggest reason for optimism: Etheridge and Powers give AU a fine safety/corner combo, and looking at the schedule, who is going to pick on this secondary early in the season? AU won't face a truly dangerous quarterback until it gets to West Virginia's Pat White in game eight, and even White is more of a ground threat than an air threat.

4.] LSU
Projected starters: Jai Eugene, Curtis Taylor, Chris Hawkins, Harry Coleman.
Next up: After a big freshman season Chad Jones figures to be the nickelback at least, if he doesn't take a starting job in fall camp.
Best of the bunch: Taylor is the most experienced of the group after making 54 tackles last season, and figures to take on a leadership role within the unit.
Key loss: Corners Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon, safety Craig Steltz.
Round Table Ranking: 1.
2007 By the numbers: 3 (Taylor picked off three passes at safety last season).
Spring postcard: Experienced safety Danny McCray led the Tigers with six tackles in the spring game.
Biggest concern: LSU will be untested on both corners with two new starters.
Biggest reason for optimism: With Taylor, McCray and Coleman returning, plus a real up-and-comer in Jones, LSU should be in good shape at safety.

5.] Arkansas
Projected starters: Jamar Love, Dallas Washington, Matt Harris, Jerell Norton.
Next up: Darrell Glasper showed impressively among reserves in the spring and Rashaad Johnson has plenty of experience.
Best of the bunch: Norton wasn't listed on the post-spring depth chart after missing spring drills with a hamstring injury, but he should be primed to re-take a job in the secondary after picking off five passes a year ago.
Key loss: As the team's leading tackler, Matt Hewitt's loss will be felt as much as any in a secondary featuring almost all new faces.
Round Table Ranking: 5.
2007 By the numbers: 174 (Norton's five interceptions went for an impressive 174 return yards).
Spring postcard: Sophomore Ramon Broadway turned in a monster performance in the spring game with 14 stops, 11 solos, and three PBUs.
Biggest concern: Other than Norton, this is a largely untested group, and even Norton only made six starts last year. If the Arkansas pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback quickly, it could be a long season in the Hogs' secondary.
Biggest reason for optimism: Norton's man-to-man skills are good enough to lock down some of the league's better receivers, and that will create an easier situation for the rest of the group. Johnson wasn't among the starters at spring's end, but he made four starts and 53 tackles last year, so Norton isn't the only experienced defensive back on the squad.

6.] Ole Miss
Projected starters: Marshay Green, Cassius Vaughn, Jamarca Sanford, Johnny Brown.
Next up: Experienced corner Dustin Mouzon may overtake Vaughn for a starting role.
Best of the bunch: Though he didn't record an interception, Sanford was Ole Miss' most active defensive back last year with 83 tackles from a safety spot.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 6.
2007 By the numbers: 99 (Mouzon had a 99-yard interception return for a score against Memphis last season).
Spring postcard: The new Rebels coaching staff moved Green from receiver to defensive back, and he earned a starting position as of the end of spring drills.
Biggest concern: Can Green handle a starting corner role in his first year at the position? He isn't especially big, and obviously lacks experience.
Biggest reason for optimism: Sanford is a true leader and gives the secondary a physical presence in run support. With question marks at the corner spots, he will be a settling presence in the middle of the field.

SEC East

1.] Tennessee
Projected starters: Demetrice Morley, Eric Berry, Brent Vinson, DeAngelo Willingham.
The bottom line: One of the SEC's most picked-on secondaries of 2007 has the makings of being one of its very best in 2008. How the quick transition? Start with the return of Morley, an All-SEC caliber free safety who missed all of last year with academic issues. At strong safety, Berry led all SEC freshmen with 86 tackles and his play (5 INTs) had nothing to do with the unit's overall struggles. Vinson took his lumps as a freshman starter, but is a top-notch athlete primed for much better things as a sophomore.

2.] South Carolina
Projected starters: Captain Munnerlyn, Emanuel Cook, Darian Stewart, Carlos Thomas.
The bottom line: Potentially the league's best secondary, USC's Munnerlyn returns from a foot injury as one of the league's best cover men. Thomas is a gifted corner on the other side, but has lacked consistency at times and comes off suspension. Meanwhile, Cook made a name for himself last season with a team-high 92 tackles, three interceptions (tied for team lead) and four sacks (second on team) from a safety spot. Stewart is an experienced returning starter at the other safety. Early-enrolling freshman Akeem Auguste impressed in the spring and could see heavy action, especially if Thomas falls out of favor again.

3.] Vanderbilt
Projected starters: D.J. Moore, Myron Lewis, Reshard Langford, Ryan Hamilton.
The bottom line: Unquestionably the strongest unit of any on the Commodores team, VU returns a great deal of experience and talent in the secondary. Led by Moore at a corner spot and Langford, a captain, at one of the safeties, Vandy will be difficult to throw on. Nickelback Darlron Spead provides experienced support when the Commodores use five defensive backs, which is frequently.

4.] Georgia
Projected starters: Asher Allen, Prince Miller, Reshad Jones, C.J. Byrd.
The bottom line: Three starters return in the UGA secondary, including corners Allen and Miller, and the one newcomer (Jones) reportedly has the Georgia staff excited about his ability at safety. Jones saw plenty of action last year and finished third on the team in tackles despite making just two starts. Allen, also a kick returner, was as active as any member of the Bulldogs' defensive backfield last year with 64 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and five PBUs. Cornerback Bryan Evans leads the reserves.

5.] Florida
Projected starters: Joe Haden, Major Wright, Wondy Pierre-Louis, Will Hill.
The bottom line: Haden turned in 63 tackles last year as a true freshman cornerback, while Pierre's two interceptions at the opposite corner tied for the team lead. Wright is an outstanding tackler, and his 47 solo stops last year were more than any UF defender other than Spikes. With safety Dorian Munroe going down with a knee injury, and Jamar Hornsby being dismissed, Hill will be among a group of candidates looking to fill the safety role alongside Wright.

6.] Kentucky
Projected starters: Trevard Lindley, David Jones, Marcus McClinton, Ashton Cobb.
The bottom line: Lindley led the UK secondary last year in tackles (66), interceptions (3) and PBUs (11). He can handle receivers one on one from his cornerback position, which helps shorten the field for the rest of the secondary. That will be crucial, as Cobb and Jones step into more prominent roles. McClinton gives UK both a hitter and a solid cover guy at safety.

BOL's top five overall

1. Captain Munnerlyn (South Carolina)

2. Derek Pegues (Mississippi State)

3. Rashad Johnson (Alabama)

4. D.J. Moore (Vanderbilt)

5. Eric Berry (Tennessee)



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