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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Defensive Backs

The series continues with a look at what each team returns in the secondary.

Louisiana Tech v South Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the cornerback and safety position. 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-conference 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

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky
Last season FAU recorded 20 interceptions, the second most in the country.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

1. FAU: The Owls led the conference with 20 interceptions and return all but one player (Raekwon Williams). Corners Shelton Lewis and Chris Tooley combined for 8 INTs, 13 breakups and 2 forced fumbles. Jalen Young, who led the team with 7 INTs, holds the safety spot. Andrew Soroh and Herb Miller combined for 15 run stuffs, 2 INTs and 6 breakups. This is easily the deepest secondary in C-USA.

2. Louisiana Tech: After a superb season that resulted in Freshman All-America Honors, Amik Robertson enters 2018 as a bonafide star. Tech finished near the top of the country with 19 interceptions last season, Robertson led the team with 5. It’ll be on L’Jarius Sneed or Aaron Roberson (combined 2 INTs and 10 breakups) to hold down the opposite field. Veteran safeties Secdrick Cooper and DaMarion King depart but Darryl Lewis (4 INTs) and Jordan Baldwin (4 run stuffs) received ample playing time due to injuries.

3. Marshall: New defensive coordinator Adam Fuller inherits an experienced secondary. Chris Jackson recorded 3 INTs and 10 breakups. Jaylon McClain-Sapp returns from injury after recording 3 breakups. Malik Gant and Brandon Drayton hold the safety spots and combined for 19 run stuffs and 10 breakups. This group finished near the bottom in the conference in interceptions though. We’ll see if they become a more aggressive group under Fuller.

4. WKU: The Tops ranked a conference-best 17th in DB Havoc Rate (breakups, TFLs, INTs,) and return a majority of their disruptors. Devon Key was a revelation as a freshman, finishing with 5 TFLs, 8 run stuffs and an interception. Ta’Corian Darden and Drell Greene were also active in run support with a combined 10 TFLs and 12 run stuffs, with 8 breakups. Their best cover corner is DeAndre Farris, who returns with a team-high 13 breakups.

Good Shape

5. Old Dominion: All-conference DB Brandon Addison is gone, leaving a pretty big void at corner but the emergence of Joe Joe Headen should alleviate some concerns. Headen earned All-Freshman honors in C-USA with 36 tackles and 2 INTs. Sean Carter returns at safety, as well as Justice Davila who missed 2017 with an injury. Given how good ODU’s defensive line is, the passing defense should be one of the best in the conference if the injury bug is more kind to the Monarchs in 2018.

6. North Texas: This is easily UNT’s strongest position group on defense. The Mean Green held opponents to 55.1 percent completion rate (27th in FBS) and return a bunch of contributors. Kemon Hall, Ashton Preston and Nate Brooks combined for 13 breakups. Without Kishawn McClain and Eric Jenkins, big play prevention is something to watch for because when opponents did complete a pass it was usually for a big gain. UNT ranked 115th in Passing IsoPPP.

7. Middle Tennessee: Mike Minter Jr. and Charvarius Ward played a vital role in MTSU’s turnaround on defense last season and they are now gone. But there’s still experience here. Senior corners Darryl Randolph and O.J. Johnson return as they combined for 48 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 5 breakups. Seniors also reside at safety in Wesley Bush and Jovante Moffatt, who led the team with 82.5 tackles. Former Syracuse corner Cordell Hudson will reunite with Scott Schafer as a grad transfer. Hudson has 3 INTs in his career.

8. UAB: The Blazers will miss Darious Williams and his team-high 15 breakups, but everyone else returns. UAB’s safeties played aggressive (29th DB Havoc Rate) as Mar’Sean Diggs, Will Dawkins, Garrison Mitchell combined for 11 run stuffs and 6.5 TFLs.

9. Charlotte: The 49ers struggled with injuries last season. The lone bright spot was safety Ben DeLuca, who earned an Honorable Mention nod after leading the team with 79.5 tackles, 6 breakups and 5 forced fumbles. A lot of young players will hope last season’s growing pains will pay off in 2018. I’m going out on a limb in placing the 49ers here as I think LuDuca is capable of making an all-conference team, plus the addition of former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer should be an upgrade.

We’ll See

10. UTEP: Nik Needham, Justin Rogers, and Kalon Beverly combined for 10 tackles for loss, and 21 pass breakups. They return this season, but with a ranking of 124th in Passing Success Rate, this group needs to show just how talented they are.

11. UTSA: While the Roadrunners have recruited quite well at the defensive back position, UTSA has very little concrete experience to point to. Sophomore cornerback Ted McGhee and senior safety CJ Levine are two dependable options for the Roadrunners but beyond that a bevy of unproven three-star talents wait in the wings for their chance to prove their worth.

12. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles will rely on a ton of sophomores as Tarvarius Moore, Jomez Applewhite, Curtis Mikell, Cornell Armstrong and Kevin Williams Jr. (combined 18 TFLs and 9 INTs) are all gone. USM has recruited well as former three-star recruits will step into leadership roles but there’s a lot of uncertainty here.

13. FIU: FIU’s secondary was pretty bad last year, ranking 124th in Passing S&P+ and 118th in Passing Success Rate. All four starters are gone. A few true freshmen in the secondary played last season, but Butch Davis’ recent star recruits have not been defensive backs.

14. Rice: The Owls allowed a staggering 70 percent completion rate last season. Seniors Brandon Douglas-Dotson and Jorian Clark return in the secondary but we’ll see if new DC Brian Smith can engineer some improvement.