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NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Defensive Backs

Amik Robertson and Brontae Harris are regarded as the best defensive backs in C-USA, but there’s plenty of talented playmakers to go around in this season.

We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the secondaries in C-USA. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.

“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.

“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You obviously want your team to be here.

Great Shape

1. Louisiana Tech: Amik Robertson is the best DB in the conference. Check out this insane stat from Bill Connelly in La Tech’s preview.

After combining 11 passes defensed with 7.5 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2017, he went for 16 and 7.5, respectively, as a sophomore. If you think that sounds like an incredibly unique combination, you’re right: between 2005 and 2017, only six FBS defenders did it, less than 0.5 per season.

Senior safeties James Jackson and Darryl Lewis combined for 12.5 TFLs and 3 interceptions. Opposite Robertson is L’Jarius Sneed, a solid starter who had 3 INTs with 8 passes defended. Potential All-American? Check. Solid depth with a player or two capable of making an all-conference team? Check.

2. FIU: The Panthers had one of the best passing defenses in the conference last season and all but one significant contributor will return. Safeties Richard Dames and Dorian Hall both had a team-high 3 INTs. Corner Stantley Thomas-Oliver III had a team-high 10 passes defensed.

3. Marshall: Similar to FIU, the Herd only lost one significant contributor here but the departure is a big one. Malik Gant made first team all-conference last season and left early for the draft. Marshall should still have one of the better secondaries in C-USA though. Chris Jackson and Kereon Merrell had 23 combined passes defensed at the corner spot. If there’s one area where this group can really improve on is getting interceptions. Marshall DBs only recorded 6 INTs.

4: Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles have consistently produced playmaking DBs and this season should be no different. Seniors Ty Williams and Ky’el Hemby are the cornerstones of this year’s unit. Hemby had 6 INTs last year. Williams was no slouch either, compiling 3 INTs with 6 passes defended.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 North Texas at Arkansas
Khairi Muhammad has five career interceptions and will play a vital role in UNT’s run for a conference title.
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. North Texas: Losing Nate Brooks and Kemon Hall is tough but UNT should be fine. Khairi Muhammad and Taylor Robinson is perhaps the best safety duo in C-USA. They combined for 6 INTs last season and were responsible for UNT being really good at big play prevention. UNT still needs two new starters at corner though. Former Texas A&M and South Carolina defensive back Nick Harvey could be the answer. My bet is one of their rotation guys from last season (Tyreke Davis or Jameel Moore) will get the call.

6. Middle Tennessee: Can a player make an all-conference team and still be considered underrated? Reed Blankenship is one of my favorite players in C-USA and the hard-hitting safety should be fantastic for MTSU yet again. Running mate Jovante Moffatt was granted an extra year as he played just four games last season before having his season cut short. In those four games he made 27.5 tackles, and defensed 6 passes. The Blue Raiders will need new corners, but with Blankenship and Moffatt keeping big plays in check, MTSU should be fine.

Good Shape

7. UAB: Depending on who you ask, the Blazers, not La Tech, have the DB in C-USA in Brontae Harris.

Kristopher Moll could be classified as a rover type with the amount of plays he makes in the backfield (7.5 TFLs) and in the secondary (4 passes defended, 1 INT). A couple of running backs were converted to DB in the offseason to sure up depth however, which is never a good thing.

8. WKU: The Tops have a nice duo in Devon Key and Ta’Corian Darden. They combined for 6 INTs and 17 passes defensed. The rest of the returning contributors is kind of lacking in major contributions. With that said, it wouldn’t surprise me if WKU ranked near the top of the conference as a passing defense thanks to Key at safety.

9. FAU: Ball-hawking DBs Jalen Young and Ocie Rose have departed, but the Owls still have a wealth of talent here. James Pierre had 9 passes defensed last year. Quran Hafiz and Korel Smith are both capable of making an all-conference team. Consistency for this group will be key as they will have to learn a new system for the third straight season with new defensive coordinator Glen Spencer.

10. Charlotte: The experience is great here, but playmaking could improve. Seniors Ben DeLuca and Nafees Lyon combined for 8 passes defensed but only had 1 INT. The 49ers had 4 INTs all season. Senior Marquavis Gibbs led the team with 2 INTs.

11. UTSA: The Roadrunners have a ton of experience in the secondary. Senior Cassius Grady is the headliner as he had 4 INTs, 3.5 TFLs and 5 passes defensed last season. A majority of the players here were former three-star recruits but aside from Grady, no one else has had a huge impact for the better.

We’ll See

12. UTEP: Perhaps one of the best position groups on UTEP last season, the Miners lose some key seniors but return safeties Justin Rogers and Michael Lewis. The duo combined for 3.5 tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed. Dana Dimel signed a few JUCO DBs and will need one of them to be a reliable contributor to bolster depth.

13. Old Dominion: The top three cornerbacks return in Joe Joe Headen, Geronda Hall and Lance Boykin. The trio combined for 16 passes defensed and 3 INTs. Of course, the players responsible for big play prevention are all gone, as ODU will have to break in new safeties.

14. Rice: Rice was really bad at pass defense last year but there’s reasons to be optimistic. Safeties George Nyakwol and Prudy Calderon, corner Tyrae Thornton, were all young in 2018 and combined for 104.5 tackles, 5 TFLs, 6 INTs, and 13 breakups. But they lost a few players to the transfer portal. Their success in 2019 hinges on the play of Calderon, Thornton and Nyakwoi.

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