We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the defensive backs in the conference. 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 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 want your team to be here.
1. UAB: The Blazers led Conference USA in fewest passing yards allowed per game last season (183.6) - without arguably the league’s top cornerback in Brontae Harris. Entering this season, they return TaDarryl Marshall and Starling Thomas, who were solid last year, plus the league’s top nickel cornerback in Dy’Jonn Turner.
Safety Will Boler is an excellent tackler who’s capable of playing in coverage as well. Factor in Harris’ return to the lineup, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blazers retain the title of C-USA stingiest pass defense.
2. WKU: Defensive coordinator Clayton White has the majority of last year’s secondary returning in 2020. The Tops gave up just under 200 yards per game through the air in 2019, with cornerbacks Trae Meadows and Dionte Ruffin leading the way. Meadows provides excellent size at 6-1, 190 pounds, while Ruffin is excellent in coverage, having led WKU in passes defended last season.
Safety Devon Key has been a standout since coming onto the scene as a freshman in 2017. He’s recorded 70+ tackles in each of his three collegiate campaigns and has improved in coverage. The other safety spot will be held by Antwon Kincade, who’s an excellent tackler playing closer to the line of scrimmage or in space.
3. FIU: In the past two seasons, the Panthers have held opponents to under 200 yards passing 14 times, which has played a large part in their reaching back-to-back bowl games. Despite losing two cornerbacks to the NFL (Stantley Thomas-Oliver, Isaiah Brown), FIU’s secondary is in excellent shape.
Twin brothers Richard and Rishard Dames are two of the best DB’s in the conference with both capable of playing corner or safety. Dorian Hall provides excellent range and ball-skills, while Josh Turner will benefit from a full season as a starter. Behind them, look for Jesson Walker and Jamal Anderson to see playing time.
4. MTSU: Putting Middle Tennessee in the great shape category is hard to justify given their last-place finish in passing yards allowed in C-USA. However, with a healthy Reed Blankenship, the Blue Raiders possess one of the top defensive backs in G5 football. In 2018, Scot Shafer’s defense finished fifth in fewest passing yards allowed with Blankenship available for every game. Greg Grate and Decorian Patterson should improve after their first season as starters, while Kylan Stribling gained valuable experience playing in place of Blankenship.
5. ODU: The Monarchs held opponents to under 250 yards passing eight times en route to a fourth-place finish in total defense in C-USA, despite the Old Dominion offense ranking dead last in total offense. A large part of the defensive success was due to the secondary, specifically cornerbacks Kaleb Ford-Dement and Geronda Hall.
Ford-Dement finished second in the league with 13 pass-breakups while Hall was one of the better nickel DB’s. Safties Harrell Blackmon and Joe Joe Haden are solid tacklers and are capable of playing in coverage. Should first-year head coach Ricky Rahne continue with last year’s 3-3-5 scheme, expect the secondary to perform well.
6. Charlotte: The Niners gave up the second-fewest passing yards per game in the league last year. What’s even more impressive about that stat - they did so without the services of star safety Ben Deluca. While he’s not quite at Reed Blakenship’s level, Deluca is just a notch below, and his stellar play over three seasons in C-USA backs that up.
He’s joined in Charlotte’s 4-2-5 defense by veteran corner Nafees Lyon and safety Jacione Fugate, who stepped up in Deluca’s absence last year. Redshirt sophomore Jonnie Pittman is solid as the nickel corner and keep an eye on redshirt freshman Trey Bly.
7. Marshall: Despite coming off of a season where the Thundering Herd were a middle of the pack team against the pass and losing Chris Jackson to graduation, expect Marshall to be improved this season. Safety Nazeeh Johnson and corner Steven Gilmore are very formidable players in the secondary, while Micah Abraham is primed for a breakout as a sophomore.
8. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles allowed the most passing touchdowns (27) in Conference USA last season. What’s most surprising about that statistic is that they do not lack playmakers in their secondary. Ky’El Hemby is one of the most versatile talents in C-USA from his rover position and Rachaun Mitchell had a solid season with eight pass breakups. Shannon Showers is a steady player at the free safety spot, but the team does have to replace Ty Williams, who was excellent during his time in Hattiesburg.
9. Rice: The Owls can be a much-improved team in the win column this season - a massive part of that potential will rely on their secondary. A positive is they’re not short on talent and return the entire starting unit from last season.
Safety George Nyakwol cemented himself as the best of the group last season, while JUCO transfer Naeem Smith earned a starting role at strong safety after the second game. Starting corners Andrew Bird and Tyrae Thornton should grow with another year in their roles and safety Prudy Calderon is an excellent reserve, who’s capable of making plays in coverage.
Also, hybrid LB/DB Treshawn Chamberlain is excellent in coverage with solid ball-skills.
10. Florida Atlantic: Zyon Gilbert will be tasked with leading an FAU secondary that loses a litany of veteran players to either graduation or transfer. Luckily for Owls’ fans, Gilbert has been a steady presence for three seasons and improved in coverage last season. Following him, Ahman Ross is the player with the most experience and should be in line to start at the hybrid DB/LB Star position. Behind them are a slew of unproven players such as former three-star recruit De’Ante Nelson, Dwight Toombs and La’Darius Henry.
11. La Tech: Yes, Tech lost two NFL defensive backs in Amik Robertson and L’Jarius Sneed. However, the Bulldogs aren’t short on players with potential. Bee Jay Williamson was an All-Freshman performer last season; A pair of three-star recruits at safety are on the roster in Khiry Morrison and Christian Archangel, plus Dallas Taylor-Cortez and Jemaurian Jones are transfers who should be eligible for the upcoming season. There’s also redshirt junior Jaiden Cole, who spent most of the past three seasons in a reserve/special teamer role.
12. North Texas: For all of UNT’s struggles last season, they performed well against the pass. Now, Seth Litrell’s club has to find a way to replace the production of Khairi Muhammad, Nick Harvey and Jameel Moore. Cornerback Cam Johnson might be the best cornerback in the league that not many have heard of. Makyle Sanders and Jaxon Gibbs are capable of playing in the hybrid nickel/safety role and look for DeShawn Gaddie and Keelan Crosby to have more of a role in the secondary.
13. UTEP: The top four leading tacklers for the Miners in 2019 were defensive backs. Meaning, opposing teams spent entirely too much time getting into the secondary - and that UTEP plays a ton of DBs. Their 3-3-5 scheme played into what was the deepest part of their team.
With Michael Lewis, Justin Rogers and Adrian Hyson gone, senior Josh Caldwell will need to step up. His 11 pass breakups were good for third in C-USA last year. JUCO transfer Duron Lowe performed admirably in his first season in El Paso. Behind them, players like Dy’vonne Inyang and Ty’reke James will need to be ready - in a hurry.
14. UTSA: There’s a good chance that this group could be ranked much higher come season’s end. Gone are stalwarts Cassius Grady and Carl Austin. But Rashad Wisdom is a budding star in Conference USA, while Corey Mayfield Jr. and Savion Harris return starting experience.
Cornerback Jahmal Sam impressed down the stretch, earning the starting nod in the final two games of his freshman campaign and safety Antonio Parks is an Arizona transfer who saw action mostly on special teams last season for UTSA.