Our position preview series rolls on as we take a look at the defensive backs in the Sun Belt. Feel free to take a look at our previews of quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive lines, defensive lines, and linebackers. Now we move on to the secondary where will take a peak at the defensive back units in the Fun Belt. There are some exciting and explosive players in the group. With a lot of defenses using five DBs in their base scheme, this position has never been more important. Let’s ride!
Top of the Food Chain
Troy: Tremendous Safety Duo
When Neal Brown was hired, it was assumed the offense would take off while the defense would not be much more than a bend-but-don’t-break unit. The offense has been solid but the defense has been ever better. Vic Koenning’s group finished 45th in defense last year per S&P+ while ranking 21st in scoring defense. This year the Trojans have some nice pieces returning, but none more impressive than safeties Cedarius Rookard and Kris Weatherspoon. This duo combined for 104 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss (TFL), four interceptions, 12 pass break-ups (PBU), and two fumble recoveries (FR). This safety group has solid range and they again have a nice opportunity to lead Troy in tackles. Meanwhile, the Trojans are strong at corner with Blace Brown and Kamryn Melton. Brown was a playmaker last fall as he recorded six INTs while Melton chipped in with eight PBUs. At Troy’s Spear position, senior Tyquae Russell will get most of the snaps after a solid junior campaign. Troy will have to develop some depth at corner, but they should be fine at safety with sophomore Melvin Tyus able to play both positions. I really like this group.
Arkansas State: Best DB in the Sun Belt
For my money, nickel back Justin Clifton is the pick as the Sun Belt’s best defensive back. The junior from Tupelo, Mississippi was outstanding as a sophomore as he posted 87 tackles, eight TFL, two INTs, and five PBUs. Clifton does it all for the Red Wolves and he may be this group’s most valuable player over stud Edge Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthern depends on his DB’s to cover a lot of holes and Clifton does much of that by himself. At corner, Blaise Taylor is a solid option after a 35 tackle and three INT season as a junior. Safety is a fairly big concern for Blake Anderson’s club this fall and they’re depending on JUCOs Darreon Jackson and Michael Johnson. I feel fine about Arkansas State’s depth at corner as seniors Brandon Byner and Nehemiah Wagner have played plenty of football.
Appalachian State: Lockdown Corner
Clifton Duck was one of the pleasant surprises in the Sun Belt last year as the true freshman from Matthews, North Carolina exceeded everyone’s expectations by starting every contest. Duck would go on to be a Freshman All-American while recording 57 tackles, five INTs, and eight PBUs. As a sophomore he should be even better and could be the best corner in the G5. However, the Mountaineers will have some questions to answer beyond Duck. Expected cornerback starter Tae Hayes has been suspended indefinitely due to a stabbing and that has now created a void. While safety A.J. Howard should be very solid, there are questions at the other safety position as reserve Josh Thomas steps into a starting role. A positive for Nate Woody’s defense is that they have some experienced guys available and senior Brandon Pinckney should get a shot at the other corner spot.
Georgia Southern: Strength of the Defense
In year two under Tyson Summers, he’ll have nice options in the defensive backfield. Joshua Moon, a junior from Fairburn, Georgia, is the best of bunch after a breakout sophomore campaign. Moon will be top returning tackler in Statesboro after recording 72 stops to go along with 2.5 TFL, and two INTs in only 11 games. Moon will be joined by sophomore Jay Bowdry at safety after an impressive freshman season. Corners Monquavion Brinson, Jesse Liptrot, and Kindle Vildor all played as freshmen last fall and should form a solid platoon. I can envision this unit being the strength of the Georgia Southern defense this fall, especially as they rebuild at linebacker. Three-star prospects Jaden Garrett and Grant Walker could crack the rotation.
Room For Improvement
South Alabama: Strong At Safety
On paper, the South Alabama defense has a chance to make a run at the top spot in the Sun Belt. Jeremy Reaves and Neiko Robinson, both seniors, return at safety as the two Florida natives are solid football players. Reaves is the best of the bunch as he recorded 85 tackles, 5.5 TFL, three picks, two forced fumbles while Robinson had 64 stops. Meanwhile, Nigel Lawrence could play either corner or safety and he was productive in 2016. Jalen Thompson should be solid at corner as he collected four INTs and six PBUs last fall. Expect coordinator Kane Wommack and head coach Joey Jones to use Reaves all over the field as he has played every defensive back position during his time in Mobile. This should be a solid unit.
UL-Lafayette: Plenty Of Experience
The Cajuns get all of their starters back from 2016 and should take a big step forward in the secondary. Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker will team up at safety after combining for 132 tackles, 3.5 TFL, four INTs, five PBUs, and two fumble recoveries. Crawford and Walker, both seniors, should be among the leaders of this defense. Meanwhile, sophomore corner Damar’ren Mitchell had a nice debut season at corner posting over 50 tackles, but is still looking for his first career pick. Troy McCallum and Simeon Thomas, both seniors, should field a nice battle in fall camp for the other starting corner spot. Coordinators Charles Harrison and Mike Lucas run a mostly five DB defense, so look for senior Denarius Howard to receive a lot of snaps whether it’s at safety or splitting time at nickel with fellow senior Levarious Varnado. This group has a lot of vets and youngsters with potential.
Georgia State: Best Corner Tandem in the Sun Belt
Corners Jerome Smith and Chandon Sullivan return to Atlanta and together they are one of the most impressive corner duos in the G5. Sullivan is the program’s interception leader and the 5’11”, 195 lbs. senior recorded 43 tackles last fall. Sullivan, a junior from Atlanta, started last season as well as the Panthers are coming off a season where they only gave up 173.9 passing yards per game last fall. Safety is where the big concerns are as Georgia State has very little experience. JUCO transfer Deandre Applin will compete for playing time while seniors Antreal Allen and Bryan Williams both return. With two solid cover corners, coordinator Nate Fuqua will be able to get very aggressive with his front seven.
New Mexico State: Two Seniors Will Lead the Way
It was ugly last year for the NMSU secondary, but with the return of seniors Jacob Nwangwa and Jaden Wright we should see some improved play. While not great in coverage, Nwangwa and Wright both recorded over 80 tackles and were a dependable force. Wright did a lot of damage as he had five INTs, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. These two should anchor the back half of the defense. Corner is where the real questions are as head coach Doug Martin and coordinator Frank Spaziani must find answers. Jordan Lomax looked promising as a freshman while junior DeMarcus Owens flashed as well. If the corners can make a big step, this unit will be in the top half of the conference.
It’s Still Ugly
ULM: Trouble At Corner
In Matt Viator’s first season, the secondary wasn’t close to good and the Warhawks must get better in the back. At corner, senior Juwan Offray is the only player that returns so the ULM staff dipped into the JUCO ranks. J.J. Dallas arrives in Monroe as an opening day starter and a three-start prospect. At safety, the Warhawks are in much better shape. Nick Ingram was impressive as a freshman while starter Wesley Thompson returns. This group struggled at getting interceptions last season as they only return two from the secondary in all of 2016. This will be a point of emphasis for their defense this fall. The Warhawks will be getting JUCO help at safety as well in their 4-2-5 scheme.
Idaho: A Converted Running Back At Safety
The Vandals lost a lot off of last year’s secondary and to help soften the blow, head coach Paul Petrino has moved RB Denzal Brantley to safety. Brantley should bring some good athleticism to the position, but he will have some adjustments to make. Brantley will be joined at safety with senior Armond Hawkins and this group should be fine by the end of the season. Corner is a bigger question for the Vandals as the positions are wide open. Coordinator Mike Breske will have some major questions to answer with this year’s secondary.
Coastal Carolina: Rebuilding In Conway
Joe Moglia’s squad played a lot of seniors in 2016, so they’ve found themselves rebuilding at a lot of positions as the enter the FBS in 2017. Defensive back is no difference as the only player of impact back is cornerback Anthony Chesley. Chesley, a junior from Temple Hills, MD, had a solid year with 44 stops, 2 INTs, and 8 PBUs. After that there’s not much there for the Chants and coordinator Mickey Matthews could have some headaches trying to stop passing games this fall. However, Coastal will be playing some upperclassmen as expected starters are senior Nicholas Clark, junior Allen Hall, and senior Dontay Hears. There is worry at safety as Clark is only 150 lbs. while Hall is 190 lbs. Three-star DB Cantorian Weems will have a chance to play right away.
Texas State: Not Much Production
The Bobcats return a lot of players that posted tackles in 2017, but none were all that productive. Leading secondary tackler safety Javante O’Roy graduated while starting corner Brandon McDowell decided to transfer. Therefore, Everett Withers and coordinator Randall McCray have their hands full with the secondary. Cornerback Anthony J. Taylor and safety Quinn Tiggs look to be the best players and Texas State will really need them to step their game up. Wide receiver A.J. Krawczyk switched to safety in the spring and it seems that Texas State may be desperate for answers. I expect them to lean on the conference’s top recruiting class and for three-star corner Kieston Roach to start on opening day against Houston Baptist.