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Posts Tagged ‘Safeties’

Predicting Michigan 2016: The secondary

Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-SecondaryJourdan Lewis

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers

We’ll go from one extreme to the next as Michigan’s secondary couldn’t look more different than the linebackers heading into Jim Harbaugh’s second season as head coach.

While no starters returned in the linebacking core, Michigan returns a ton of its top talent in the secondary, including one of the best cornerbacks in the country and four other starters.

Returning starters:

Michigan’s secondary – and likely the entire defense – will be led by All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis returned to Michigan for his senior season after breaking out as one of the nation’s best cover corners in 2015. Lewis defended an incredible 20 passes in 13 games and picked off two passes. He locked down each team’s top receiver and figures to do so again this year, allowing Michigan’s other corners to take lesser assignments. There’s no better cornerback in the nation.

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Beside Lewis will be senior cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark. Stribling enjoyed his best season in 2015, breaking up three passes and grabbing two interceptions in 11 games. Stribling is a solid tackler and made strides in coverage last season. He should be the team’s second best player in coverage this year.

Clark had his ups and downs in 2015. While he finished the year with three passes defended and three interceptions, he left some opportunities out to dry and got burned a few times downfield. Clark will likely start the season as the team’s No. 3 cornerback, but he puts himself in more positions to force turnovers than Stribling. His high-risk, high-reward style will reap its rewards.

At safety, Michigan returns two strong veterans who enter their final season as Wolverines. Thanks to Brady Hoke’s decision not to use redshirts, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are in their last year at Michigan.

Hill was excellent in 2015, starting eight games at safety and hitting his stride late in the Big Ten season. Hill broke out in a big way at Indiana, when he recorded 10 tackles and broke up Indiana’s attempt to tie the game at the goal line in overtime. Hill’s greatest attribute is his support in stopping the running game. He gets good reads and isn’t afraid to go up to the line to make stops.

His partner in crime, Thomas, is more of a pass defender. Thomas didn’t have any tackles for loss in his first three seasons, but he did break up seven passes in 2015. He’s a luxury for Michigan downfield, as he can provide help for Stribling and Clark over the top. The safety tandem complements each other in the run and pass game and Michigan will be in good hands in the secondary.

Career Stats – Lewis
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
38 79 29 108 1.0 5.0 1 28 4
Career Stats – Stribling
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 34 6 40 0.0 1.0 1 3 2
Career Stats – Clark
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
32 25 14 39 0.0 0.0 0 4 3
Career Stats – Thomas
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 41 17 58 0.0 0.0 1 7 0
Career Stats – Hill
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
33 47 20 67 0.0 2.5 1 2 0
Potential contributors:

Michigan has two redshirt freshmen who have a chance to contribute for the first time in 2016 after patrolling the sidelines last season. The first is Tyree Kinnel, a supremely talented safety out of Huber Heights, Ohio. Kinnel is another safety who provides great support in the running game. He’s a reliable tackler and athletic enough to make stops in space.

Keith Washington will be a player to watch at cornerback after committing to Michigan out of Prattville, Alabama. He might be the fastest player on the team, but his coverage skills will dictate whether or not he sees the field in 2016.

Career Stats – Kinnel
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Career Stats – Washington
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New faces:

Cornerback isn’t a friendly position for true freshmen on contending teams, but Michigan did welcome some very good recruits to Ann Arbor. David Long projects as an elite cover corner and could probably contribute this season in a backup role or as an injury replacement. Long has all the tools to match up man-to-man with receivers: speed, quickness and very good anticipation. If he can learn the college game quickly, he’ll be an impact corner in the future.

Lavert Hill came to Michigan with even more buzz than Long, thanks to dominance at Detroit King High School and the long recruiting battle between Michigan and MSU. Hill is another very good coverage corner who can stick with receivers and break up passes. Unlike his brother (Delano Hill), he’s much more of a pass defender than a run stopper and his tackling will need some work at the college level.

Josh Metellus committed to Michigan with his teammates Devin Bush and Devin Gil, out of Charles W. Flanagan High School in Florida. Metellus is a solid safety who can step up and help stop opposing running games, but he probably isn’t ready for a major role in 2016.

The final commit in this group is Khaleke Hudson, who is listed at safety but could probably play anywhere on the defense short of defensive tackle. Hudson is an elite athlete who might be the closest thing the defense has to Jabrill Peppers’ versatility. Hudson will see the field this season because he is physically ready to play at the college level, but it’s hard to predict what role he’ll play. Since the team is deep in the secondary, he might see spot snaps as a linebacker or on offense. Either way, he’ll be a fun guy to watch.

Michigan also got a preferred walk-on commitment from three-star safety Tru Wilson, who turned down several scholarship offers to become a Wolverine. Wilson shouldn’t see any time as a true freshman, but he could work his way into the rotation down the road.

Finally, Tyler Cochran joined Michigan as a preferred walk-on safety from West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Meet the rest:

Louis Grodman: DB, sophomore, 5-11, 183, from Commerce, Mich. (Walled Lake Northern)
No career stats
Taylor Krupp: DB, sophomore, 6-1, 186, from New Lothrop, Mich. (New Lothrop)
No career stats
Brandon Watson: CB, junior, 5-11, 203, from Wilmington, Del. (Eastern Christian Academy)
12 games played, 2 solo tackles, 6 assisted tackles, 8 total tackles
Matt Mitchell: CB, junior, 5-10, 186, from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter)
No career stats
Anthony Dalimonte: S, senior, 5-9, 176, from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice)
No career stats
Jacob West: S, sophomore, 6-0, 195, from Pinckney, Mich. (Pinckney)
No career stats
Jordan Glasgow: S, sophomore, 6-1, 210, from Aurora, Ill. (Marmion Academy)
No career stats

Predicting Michigan 2015: The secondary

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015


PredictingMichigan-Secondary

Jabrill Peppers(Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers

The unit with the most room to improve on Michigan’s defense under Jim Harbaugh is the secondary, which has been a weakness over the past few seasons. With the departure of both preseason starting cornerbacks from last season, Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, there’s room for new guys to step in and make some noise under the new regime.

Luckily, there’s plenty of depth at both cornerback and safety for the Wolverines. A few younger players stepped in and played heightened roles during the 2014 season and figure to hold the reins heading into Week 1 against Utah.

Here’s a look at how the secondary will line up.

Probable starters

Jourdan-Lewis-vs-Miami-OH

Jourdan Lewis looks to build on a breakout season in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

While the cornerback group might not have the depth of the safeties on paper, two rock solid starters should give Michigan a big lift against the pass. Jourdan Lewis was clearly the defense’s most improved player last season and burst onto the scene as the most consistent cornerback on the roster. Lewis has elite speed to go along with good hands and instincts, and by the end of the season he was matching up with opposing No. 1 wide receivers.

Lewis started seven games and picked up 39 tackles and two picks. He was Michigan’s best defense against downfield passes and broke up six passes. If he can build on his fabulous sophomore season, he’ll be the leader in the Michigan secondary.

Across from Lewis will be Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons, who played parts of four seasons for the Cardinal. Lyons injured his foot after two games as a freshman, qualifying for a medical redshirt and allowing him to transfer to Michigan as a graduate student.

Lyons enjoyed a decorated career at Stanford, playing 41 games at cornerback and appearing on the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list prior to the 2014 season. He picked up 30 tackles as a senior and broke up three passes. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles, and picked off two passes as a junior in 2013.

Lyons was recruited by Harbaugh in 2011 when he committed to Stanford and will rejoin his coach in Ann Arbor for his final college season. Lyons will likely win a starting job after Countess decided to transfer for his final season.

Harbaugh and his staff have a handful of options at secondary, though one of the starters will certainly be the dynamic Jabrill Peppers. Peppers, the best pure athlete on the team, was moved to safety this offseason after struggling to stay healthy as a true freshman. He played in only three games and recorded eight tackles, but the flashes of his ability have Michigan fans eager for his true coming out party.

Peppers joined Michigan as a five-star recruit who dominated his senior season at Paramus Catholic High School under Coach Chris Partridge. Peppers was a star on offense and defense in high school, but was recruited as a defensive back. In two years at Paramus Catholic, Peppers picked up 134 tackles, seven picks, and two sacks.

If Peppers stays healthy, he’ll likely be the best player on the Michigan defense.

At free safety, Jarrod Wilson returns from a fine junior season in which he recorded 50 tackles and two pass break-ups. At 6-foot-2, Wilson has size to go with his quickness and his ball skills have gotten better throughout his career. Wilson was huge for Michigan last season with the struggles at corner. If the Wolverines improve in front of Wilson this season, he’ll have more reign to force turnovers and break up passes.

Projected Stats – Lewis
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 2.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
25 42 14 56 0.0 1.5 0 8 2
Projected Stats – Lyons
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
45 2.0 3
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
43 81 46 127 0.0 4.5 3 7 3
Projected Stats – Peppers
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
50 3.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
3 6 2 8 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Wilson
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 1.0 2
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
36 56 52 108 0.0 3.0 1 4 2

Returning contributors

Michigan returns only one other cornerback who played a major role during 2014, Channing Stribling. Stribling played 10 games as a backup corner last season, making seven tackles. He has been a decent rotational guy in two college seasons, but will be asked to play a larger role as an upperclassman. Stribling is tall for a cornerback and is fast enough to stick with Big Ten receivers. His playmaking ability isn’t up to par with the likes of Lewis or Lyons, but he can hold his own.

Safety is a different story for Michigan in terms of depth. Delano Hill started five games for Michigan last season and made 21 tackles. He’s only six feet tall, but Hill is a great tackler and stands out as a security blanket downfield. Hill’s value lies in his versatility. He was used to cover both receivers and tight ends in 2014 and has a good nose for the ball. He’ll be on the field for a ton of snaps this season.

Right there with Hill is redshirt junior Jeremy Clark, who played in 11 games and made 18 tackles in 2014. Clark is huge for a safety – 6-foot-4 – and shares strengths with Hill. He’s a great tackler, a hard hitter and has good speed for his size. Clark is strong in the run-stopping game as a safety and can match up with any position player on the offense.

Dymonte Thomas also played a big role in 2014, playing in 10 games and making 27 tackles. He’s got the highest ceiling in this group of defensive backs after coming to Michigan as a five-star recruit. Thomas is fast and athletic, which allows him to stay with receivers downfield and play physical with ball carriers in front of him.

Hill, Clark, and Thomas give Michigan a ton of depth at safety and lift much of the weight off the cornerbacks’ shoulders. A.J. Pearson is another name to watch in the rotation, though he didn’t get much time last season. He could fill in anywhere in the secondary.

Projected Stats – Stribling
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 20 3 23 0.0 0.5 1 0 0
Projected Stats – Hill
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
22 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
20 14 7 21 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Clark
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
20 1.5 0
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
19 10 8 18 0.0 0.0 0 1 0
Projected Stats – Thomas
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 1.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 24 10 34 0.0 0.0 1 0 0

New faces

Michigan brought in two new cornerbacks this spring, led by Alabama native Keith Washington. Washington is defined by his elite speed in the secondary and will use it to make plays on the ball. If Washington can stick with receivers at the college level, he’ll be a dangerous corner when the ball is thrown to his side of the field.

Tyree Kinnel comes out of high school with just as much upside as Washington, though he doesn’t possess his elite speed. Kinnel is a sound tackler and can defend both the run and the pass.

Both true freshmen will get a chance to earn playing time in 2015, as Michigan’s cornerback group isn’t as deep as others. They’ll have to prove they can effectively cover Big Ten-caliber receivers to get a chance.

Meet the rest

Terry Richardson – senior, 5’9″, 174 from Detroit, Mich. (Cass Tech), 14 career games played
Travis Wooley – senior, 6’0″, 195 from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. (Sault Area), no career stats
Matt Mitchell – sophomore, 5’10”, 179 from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter), no career stats
Brandon Watson – sophomore, 5’11”, 189 from Wilmington, Del (Eastern Christian Academy), no career stats
Reon Dawson – junior, 6’2″, 175 from from Trotwood, Ohio (Trotwood-Madison), no career stats
Francois Montbrun – junior, 5’10”, 183 from Ishpeming, Mich. (Westwood), no career stats
Anthony Dalimonte – junior, 5’9″, 176 from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice), no career stats
Shaun Austin – senior, 6’1″, 202 from Plymouth, Mich. (Plymouth), no career stats

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Safeties (part two)

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. Part One of our safeties rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of who will be the Big Ten’s 10 best safeties. If you have not had an opportunity to read it yet, I encourage you to do so before proceeding. All set? Excellent! Let’s unveil who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part OnePart Two | Running Backs: Part OnePart Two | Wide Receivers: Part OnePart Two
Tight Ends: Part OnePart Two | Offensive Line: Part OnePart Two | Defensive Line: Part OnePart Two
Linebackers: Part OnePart Two | Cornerbacks: Part OnePart Two | Safeties: Part One

5. Corey Cooper, Nebraska | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 215 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 52 39 91 5.0 2.0 1 1
2012 8 9 17 2.0 0.5 0 0
2012 8 1 9 0 0 0 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 68 49 117 7.0 2.5 1 1
(Lincoln Star Journal)

(Lincoln Star Journal)

Nebraska’s Corey Cooper may have played some cornerback and nickelback earlier in his career, but all it takes is one glance at his stats to see that he essentially plays like a hybrid linebacker. Last season, in 13 starts at strong safety, Cooper led the Huskers in both tackles (91) and solo stops (52). Although it is not uncommon for safeties to lead their teams in tackles, what really reveals Cooper’s linebacker tendencies are his plays made behind the line of scrimmage and lack of passes defended. His five tackles-for-loss, which included two sacks, are the most by any returning defensive back in the Big Ten. On the other hand, Cooper tallied only a measly two passes defended. And it is not as if Nebraska never dropped Cooper back into one-high coverage. The Huskers did plenty. But Cooper rarely ever made a play on the ball in the air. Instead, the crux of his game was to flow down towards the line of scrimmage and make plays or clean up the linebackers’ messes.

Nonetheless, even if Cooper did not knock down many passes in the secondary, it still was his job to help solidify Nebraska’s pass defense and prevent big plays. He did not do this very well, though. To be fair, Nebraska’s pass defense was not half bad. The Huskers were 33rd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 41st in Passing Defense S&P+, and 46th in passing efficiency defense. However, a good chunk of this success can be attributed to Nebraska’s pass rush, which had the seventh-most sacks in the country. When sacks are removed from the equation, Nebraska’s pass defense was not so stout, as evidenced by the 7.2 passing yards per attempt it allowed, which was 69th nationally. This number was so high because, if Nebraska’s defensive line could not get to the quarterback, big plays through the air would ensue. The Huskers were 10th in the conference in both 15-plus-yard completions (72) and 25-plus-yard completions (31) allowed. Safeties are supposed to be the last line of defense. They are the ones that are supposed to keep the play in front of them. So, when Nebraska repeatedly conceded these momentum-shifting completions, fingers must be pointed at Cooper.

It likely will not be much better in coverage for Cooper this upcoming season, either. Cooper is the only returning starter from last year’s secondary as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans and safety Andrew Green graduated. There is some other starting experience in the back-four with cornerback Josh Mitchell still around, but it will not be easy to replace the production of Jean-Baptiste and Evans, who combined for 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 26 passes defended, and eight interceptions last year. Cooper will continue to be a terrific tackler, closing down on the line of scrimmage. It would not be a surprise if he led the Huskers in tackles for the second straight season. But, unless Cooper starts making more plays in coverage or at least does not allow as many throws to get behind him, Cooper and Nebraska’s pass defense will not enjoy the 2014 season.

4. Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 5’11”, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 33 73 2.5 1 5 4
2013 59 30 89 0.5 0 12 2
2013 54 46 100 3.5 0 4 2
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 153 109 262 6.5 1 21 8
Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Very few Big Ten safeties will have as productive of a career as Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell. Campbell is one of the lucky few to have been a starter as soon as he stepped onto the gridiron. After redshirting in 2010, he has been the Wildcats’ starting strong safety each of the past three seasons. In this span, Campbell has totaled 262 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, eight interceptions, and 21 pass breakups. Therefore, he has averaged 87.3 tackles, 2.2 tackles-for-loss, and 9.7 passes defended each season. A Big Ten safety would be pleased if he recorded these numbers in just one season. Campbell has the luxury of claiming he averaged them over three. This would make one think that he should be in consideration for the top spot on this list as he enters his fourth year as a starter.

However, Campbell sits at No. 4 for two reasons. First, his statistics have steadily dropped each of the past three years. In 2011, Campbell led the Wildcats with 100 tackles. In 2012, he was fourth on the team with 89 stops. Last year, he finished fifth on the roster with 73. Although most coaches would prefer their defensive backs not lead the team in tackles, even the number of passes Campbell defended fell from 14 in 2012 to nine in 2013. Second, Northwestern’s pass defense has not been near stellar during his tenure. In 2011, the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating was 108th nationally on passing downs—second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go—and 117th against the pass. This is understandable as it was Campbell’s first year as a starter. But what is not as clear is the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating against the pass slumping from No. 63 in 2012 to No. 73 in 2013. No, Campbell is not the only Northwestern defensive starter responsible for this, but, as the leader of the secondary, he is held more accountable.

Nonetheless, Campbell still is one of the better safeties in the Big Ten. As aforementioned, he has the ability to be a playmaker, whether it be tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or forcing turnovers. He can stuff a stat line. Further, he makes a valiant effort to limit opponents from reeling off big gains. Northwestern allowed only 20 completions that gained at least 25 yards—the second-best in the conference—and 12 runs that gained at least 20 yards—only two more than the number Michigan State and Iowa allowed. Once again, Campbell will do a fine job of keeping plays in front of him as he is supposed to do as a safety. But, given his lack of improvement as his career progressed, he just does not seem to have the talent the next three on this list possess.

3. John Lowdermilk, Iowa | Senior – 6’2”, 210 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 42 78 4.5 0 2 1
2012 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
2011 3 1 4 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 46 88 4.5 0 2 1
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

In John Lowdermilk’s first two seasons at Iowa, he played sparingly, spending the majority of his time on special teams and earning few snaps on defense as a second-stringer. During this time, Iowa’s pass defense was shoddy at best. In 2011, although the number of passing yards the Hawkeyes allowed per attempt was mediocre, ranking 56th nationally, the secondary was much worse according to advanced metrics. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ rating was 72nd-best on passing downs and even poorer against the pass at 83rd. It did not progress in 2012. Iowa slightly upped their S&P+ rating on passing downs to 64th-best in the nation, but its rating against the pass slipped to 89th. The Hawkeyes were missing something. They had talent in the secondary in cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller but needed to find the last piece to complete the puzzle.

That final puzzle piece was Lowdermilk, who became Iowa’s starting strong safety in 2013. His individual statistics were decent. His 78 tackles were the fourth-most on the team behind Iowa’s trio of starting linebackers, and his 4.5 tackles-for-loss were quite good for a defensive back, even if that defensive back was a strong safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The one drawback of this, though, was that he defended only three passes and did not intercept his first pass until the final game of the season in the Outback Bowl. Lowdermilk’s production still earned him an honorable mention on the media’s All-Big Ten team.

However, Lowdermilk’s biggest impact can be seen in the improvement of Iowa’s pass defense from 2011 and 2012 to 2013, not his individual numbers. Lowery and Miller were back from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, yet, once Lowdermilk was inserted into the lineup, Iowa transformed into one of the nation’s best overall defenses, especially against the pass. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ ratings skyrocketed. They finished 11th on passing downs and 13th against the pass. On top of that, they placed 10th-best in the country in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt. It was a tremendous turnaround by Iowa’s secondary. Thus, when one tries to discover how this happened, one needs to find only the new variable. And that new variable was Lowdermilk.

Lowdermilk returns this fall for his senior season. We know how well he performs when he has battle-tested talent around him, but will he be able to sustain it after Iowa experienced an exodus in the defensive back-seven? Not only did Lowery and Miller graduate, all three of Iowa’s starting linebackers did as well. And with them went 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions from last season. In all likelihood, Iowa’s defense should regress some, but Lowdermilk’s presence will mitigate the slide. However, next season would be the perfect time for him to make more plays in coverage and generate more interceptions now that he is the unquestioned leader in Iowa’s secondary.

2. Adrian Amos, Penn State | Senior – 6’0″, 209 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 32 18 50 4.0 2.5 6 1
2012 31 13 44 2.5 0.5 5 0
2011 9 4 13 0 0 5 1
Career Totals 72 35 107 6.5 3.0 16 2
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

There may be no defensive back as versatile as Penn State’s Adrian Amos. Need Amos to compete at cornerback? No worries. He has 19 starts under his belt at cornerback over the course of the past three seasons. Need Amos to fill in at safety? No problem. He started the first six games there last year. Not only can Amos play both positions, but he also can perform well at both spots. In 2013, he started the first half of the season at safety and the second half at cornerback, producing 50 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, and five pass breakups. Although his statistics are not necessarily overwhelming, his game film illuminates why Amos is so versatile.

Unlike former Penn State walk-on Ryan Keiser, who was ranked at No. 9 on this list yesterday, Amos has the complete package athletically. Let’s begin with his speed. Amos is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players on Penn State. According to his official bio, he reportedly ran a 4.45 40-yard time in the spring, which easily was among the best times on the roster. He then pools this with his agility and quick hips, which allow him to run stride for stride and stick with swift receivers down the field. One can see this in this highlight package here and on this pass deflection that led to Penn State’s game-sealing interception in overtime against Illinois. What one can also see in that highlight package is Amos’ size and physicality. Amos certainly does not shy away from contact. He does not hesitate when he attacks the line of scrimmage to crush ball-carriers and seems to deliver bone-crushing hits to receivers that cross paths with him in the middle of the field often. Not many defensive backs are blessed with these athletic gifts, which is why Amos is able to play either cornerback or safety.

Next season, Amos will return to his role as Penn State’s starting strong safety, which could be inferred from his placement on this list. He will team up with Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas, who was ranked the third-best cornerback in the Big Ten in this series, to form one of the best secondaries in this conference. Last season, the Nittany Lions’ pass defense was so-so, finishing 43rd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 48th in Passing Defense S&P+, and 50th in passing efficiency defense. However, players in the secondary were shuffled around frequently, as evidenced by Amos’ shift from strong safety to cornerback at the midway point. The secondary should be much more settled this fall. And, despite limited depth due to scholarship sanctions, the Nittany Lions have very talented starters in the back-four. Barring any injuries, Amos should be the leader of a secondary that is the second- or third-best in the Big Ten in 2014.

1. Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 49 42 91 3.5 0 6 4
2012 29 24 53 4.5 0 4 2
2011 9 8 17 1.0 1.0 0 2
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 87 74 161 9.0 1.0 10 8
(Robert Hendricks)

(Robert Hendricks)

There is no debate here. None whatsoever. While valid points can be made on behalf of Penn State’s Adrian Amos, Iowa’s John Lowdermilk, Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell, or Nebraska’s Corey Cooper that they are the Big Ten’s second-best safety, none can even try to whisper to the effect that they are worthy of being considered the best. Why? Because Michigan State free safety Kurtis Drummond is head and shoulders above them all.

Drummond is an elite free safety. And when I say “elite,” I mean “most likely the best in the nation.” Just look at his stats last season—his first as a full-time starter. In 14 starts, Drummond tallied 91 tackles, the second-most by any Spartan and the 12th-most in the conference, and 3.5 tackles-for-loss. At first glance, this would be worrisome because a free safety making this many tackles generally indicates that the defense in front of him is a sieve. However, Michigan State’s defense was the exact opposite, ranking second nationally in total defense, second in rushing defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, and first in passing efficiency defense. Essentially, the Spartans’ defense finished in the top three nationally of every major defensive category. So for Drummond to record that many stops from the free safety position on arguably the best defense in the country is quite an accomplishment.

Further, whereas most safeties on this list have demonstrated they are either a tackling machine or a playmaker in pass coverage, Drummond is one of the few who can do both. In addition to his 91 tackles, he defended 10 passes, four of which he intercepted. And, unlike many of the other free safeties on this list, Drummond did not defend these passes because he played only deep center field. As part of Michigan State’s Cover 4 scheme, he was forced to play lots of single coverage. Most safeties would not hold up well in such a scenario because they do not have the hips or the speed to maintain tight single coverage on an opponent’s outside receivers. However, it is clear that Drummond is not most safeties.

Just like last year, Drummond will do it all in the back for the Spartans, whether it is cutting down plays before they break for large gains or swatting passes out of the sky. He, along with Trae Waynes, who should be the Big Ten’s best cornerback, will be the stalwarts in the secondary that propel Michigan State’s defense to the top yet again this upcoming season, even after losing cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis to the NFL. For his efforts, Drummond will earn All-American and All-Big Ten honors for the second straight season before being the first free safety off the board in the first round in next year’s NFL Draft. It should be quite a senior season for what is undoubtedly the Big Ten’s best defensive back.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our rankings? Will Michigan State’s Kurtis Drummond be the Big Ten’s best safety next season? Or will someone else claim his throne? Was there another safety that should have been in the top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will rank all things special teams in the Big Ten.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Safeties (part one)

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This is the eighth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two

11. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan | Freshman – 6’1”, 202 lbs
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Okay, I am cheating. The parameters of this 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series indicate that only the Big Ten players who will be among the 10 best at their respective position shall be ranked. However, an exception must be made for Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, whom you just may have already heard a bit about here and there.

No incoming Big Ten freshman has received more hype, praise, acclaim, etc. than Peppers. For good reason, too. Peppers was the highest-rated 2014 prospect to commit to a Big Ten school. According to 247 Sports’ national composite rankings, Peppers is the third-best recruit in his class; there were no other Big Ten commits in the top 20. Further, Peppers is the highest-rated prospect to commit to the Wolverines since the creation of online recruiting services. Michigan earned commitments from No. 4 overall LaMarr Woodley and No. 5 overall Prescott Burgess in 2003 and No. 5 overall Ryan Mallett in 2007. But never before has Michigan been graced with a top-three prospect.

“But, Drew, how can you place Peppers on this list when he has not even played a single snap of college football yet? How do you know he will not be a bust?” Have you seen his highlights? Have you seen his physique? Have you seen his speed? Peppers is a physical specimen. Or, as fellow Michigan writer Bryan Mac penned perfectly at MGoBlog, Peppers “is basically a glitch in the physics engine.” Even an unnamed assistant coach at USC claimed that the only two high-school football players he had seen with a body like Peppers are Adrian Peterson and Patrick Peterson. That is some fine company. At 6’1” and 202 pounds, with his unbelievable burst, speed, and athleticism, everything about Peppers’ game should translate to the college level. He will be a playmaker the instant he steps on the field for the Wolverines.

However, the questions Michigan fans are asking are where and how often Peppers will play as a true freshman this season. Earlier this month, head coach Brady Hoke indicated Peppers would begin at nickelback, where Michigan previously has positioned its young, talented defensive backs for them to get their feet wet. Yet Peppers is listed in these rankings as a safety, not a cornerback. Michigan needs its best talent on the field as much as possible, and the Wolverines are already set at cornerback with Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, and Jourdan Lewis as the starters. On the other hand, there is a vacancy at strong safety with Thomas Gordon’s departure. While Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas currently are competing for that job, it seems like the perfect spot for the versatile Peppers to make the biggest impact. I have projected that Peppers will be Michigan’s starting strong safety by Big Ten play, where he should flourish and be considered one of the best 10 safeties in the Big Ten. Still, until Hoke makes that move official, Peppers must remain out of the top 10.

10. Michael Caputo, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 212 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 27 63 3.0 0 3 0
2012 8 2 10 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 44 29 73 3.0 0 3 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

Wisconsin strong safety Michael Caputo is a pseudo-linebacker who shortly became a linebacker before reverting back to a pseudo-linebacker. Got all of that? No? Okay, let me explain. Last season, Caputo was the Badgers’ full-time starter at strong safety. However, despite being listed as a safety, he played more of a hybrid position, where he acted as a linebacker who could cover more than anything else. Accordingly, Caputo was Wisconsin’s second-leading tackler with 63 stops, 36 of which were solo, and three tackles-for-loss. Unsurprisingly, And, unsurprisingly, his impact was most felt in Wisconsin’s rushing defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest sack-adjusted yards allowed per carry nationally.

This does not mean that Caputo did not contribute to Wisconsin’s passing defense, which was 19th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, though. In fact, he played a vital role in it, which was exemplified by his absence in the regular-season finale against Penn State. Caputo missed most of the game due to concussion-like symptoms. Without him on the field, the Badgers allowed a talented but true freshman quarterback to complete 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards, 11.3 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda admitted afterwards how much Wisconsin’s passing defense missed Caputo, acknowledging that there were certain coverages and schematic adjustments that only Caputo did. Caputo may have only had three passes defended all season, but he was a key element to Wisconsin stopping the opponent’s aerial assault.

However, this season will be an interesting test for both Caputo and the Badgers. Wisconsin must replace the entire front seven on defense. Wisconsin tried to mitigate this by shifting Caputo from strong safety to linebacker in the offseason, thinking that Caputo’s play already resembled that of a linebacker. The problem was that Wisconsin had even more inexperience behind Caputo at safety, so Wisconsin moved him back to his original spot.

Even though Caputo will be comfortable with the position he is playing, lining up alongside two returning starters at cornerback, it is unclear just how much Caputo will miss his old partners in crime in the front seven. As aforementioned, Caputo made his biggest contribution stopping the run. But how effective will he be with an entirely new front-seven in front of him? How much did he benefit from the presence of the prior defensive front-seven? Will he not be able to make the same number of stops or have the same type of impact this year? These are the questions that must be answered and the reasons why Caputo, a returning starter from a very good defense, is only No. 10 on this list.

9. Ryan Keiser, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1″, 208 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 12 38 2.0 1.0 11 3
2013 3 2 5 0 0 0 0
2013 2 4 6 0 0 0 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 31 18 49 2.5 1.0 11 3
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Safety Ryan Keiser is Penn State’s version of Jordan Kovacs. In high school, Keiser was a two-time member of the PA Football News Class AAA all-state first team but received little interest from FBS programs. In fact, Keiser was so under-recruited that he was considered a zero-star prospect by 247 Sports. With no scholarship offers in hand, Keiser chose to walk on to the football team at his in-state school, Penn State. He spent his first few seasons in State College doing whatever he could to get on the football field. He became Penn State’s holder and became a fixture on other special-teams units. But it was not until last season when Keiser proved he was much more than a special-teams star.

In 2013, Keiser began the season as a reserve defensive back for Penn State. He earned some playing time earlier in the year, which included an outstanding performance against Kent State, during which he had four tackles, a sack, an interception, and three pass breakups. Keiser continued to perform well and impress the Penn State coaching staff. Accordingly, he made his first career start against Michigan before starting the final four games of the season at free safety. Keiser finished with 38 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, and eight pass breakups. His 11 passes defended were the ninth-most in the Big Ten, which is even more impressive than usual because he started only about half of the season. Further, although Keiser had only 38 tackles all season, 23 of those were in his final four starts. If that average had been extrapolated over the course of the entire season, he would have had 69 tackles, which would have been the third-most on the team. By the end of the year, Keiser had demonstrated that he has a knack for being a ball-hawk and is not a liability in run support.

However, there is a reason why Keiser was a walk-on coming out of high school. This is a total shocker, but Keiser is not the most athletically gifted player. There are times when Keiser can be vulnerable over the top because he does not have the speed to keep pace with some of the Big Ten’s faster receivers. This can be seen even on plays where Keiser makes a positive impact. For example, Keiser made the game-clinching interception in the end zone in overtime against Illinois. However, the tape reveals that he had been beat initially. The only reason why Keiser made the pick was because fellow safety-cornerback Adrian Amos tipped the ball, allowing a recovering Keiser to snatch it out of the air. Nonetheless, Keiser, like Kovacs at Michigan before him, has proven that walk-ons can make an enormous impact at safety. Expect Keiser to have his best season in his first and only year as a full-time starter and be a member of one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten.

8. R.J. Williamson, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’0”, 205 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 17 27 44 3.0 0 2 1
2012 19 8 27 1.0 0 4 2
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 36 35 71 4.0 0 6 3
(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

The power of Pat Narduzzi will strike again. In each the past three seasons, Michigan State has had a top-10 passing defense according to the S&P+ rankings, including the best pass defense the last two years. And Narduzzi and Michigan State have been able to maintain this level of excellence despite losing key pieces to the NFL or graduation each year. This past offseason, three-year starter and All-Big ten first-team selection Isaiah Lewis graduated and moved on to the NFL. If this were any other defense, fans and media alike would be concerned about who would replace Lewis and his production at strong safety. However, because of the reputation Michigan State’s defense has earned the past few years under Narduzzi, everyone expects the next man in line to step up without a hitch.

The next man in line: R.J. Williamson. Williamson saw extensive action last season as Michigan State’s de facto starting nickelback. As the nickelback, Williamson did not produce overwhelming numbers because he played fewer snaps than Michigan State’s other four starting defensive backs. Nevertheless, Williamson was no slouch. He registered 44 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, an interception, and two pass breakups. Williamson also performed very well in the one game in which he played the majority of the snaps, recording 10 tackles in a start versus Notre Dame and seven tackles and a pass breakup after Lewis was ejected for targeting in the first quarter against Northwestern. And, of course, Williamson did all of this for a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense.

In 2014, Williamson is the front-runner to replace Lewis at strong safety. The competition for the spot is not over yet, though. Williamson reportedly left the door open after he had some sloppy moments during spring drills. Even Narduzzi has said that Williamson has all of the ability, but “we have to keep him consistent, and he’s got to do his job all the time.” Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if anyone other Williamson started at strong safety for Michigan State this season. He has the experience, prior production, and size—6’0” and 205 pounds—to complement free safety Kurtis Drummond perfectly. There are various other reasons why Williamson will mitigate much of damage resulting from Lewis’ departure, but, ultimately, all that needs to be said is that very few defensive coordinators get more out of their players than Narduzzi. Narduzzi will wield his magical powers once again and transform Williamson into one of the better safeties in the Big Ten.

7. Sean Davis, Maryland | Junior – 6’1″, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 62 40 102 1.5 0.5 5 2
2012 8 5 13 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 70 45 115 1.5 0.5 5 2
(Andrew Shurtleff)

(Andrew Shurtleff)

There are a few different terms that may be used to describe Maryland free safety Sean Davis’ game. Wrecking ball. Bullet train. Missile. Wreaker of havoc and punishment. Last season, Davis was the full-time starter at free safety for the first time in his career as only a true sophomore. And, in his first campaign as the starter, he laid wood, and he did it often. He led Maryland and was eighth in the ACC with 103 tackles, averaging 9.56 tackles per game over the final nine contests of the season. Davis produced such gaudy tackle numbers because of his full-out attacking style. Once Davis diagnosed the play in front of him, whether it was a run or a short completion, he charged downhill instantly, weaving his way through traffic to deliver a bone-crushing hit. If you look at his highlights from last season, you notice just how often he sticks the ball-carrier and drives them backwards. Davis is a very physical player that can make his presence felt with just one jarring hit.

However, Davis, as the free safety, struggled as the last line of Maryland’s defense. Maryland was 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. This indicates that the Terrapins’ pass defense was just an average outfit. Yet Maryland actually was worse on passing downs. Passing downs are defined as second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go. In these situations, the Terps were only 84th-best in the country. It did not help that Maryland allowed 71 completions that gained at least 15 yards, which would have been the third-worst in the Big Ten. Simply, Maryland’s pass defense was not that great when it could not generate a pass rush.

Much of these woes fell on Davis. Yes, he has a knack for making aggressive plays as evidenced by his two interceptions and three pass breakups. However, a look at his highlights indicates that his two interceptions were the result of two awful throws by the quarterback into no man’s land. They were not the result of an instinctual free safety who read the quarterback to undercut the intended receiver. The problem is that, when Davis did try to make plays in pass coverage, too often he was too aggressive and did not execute his assignment correctly. There is nothing wrong with being an aggressive, attacking free safety. But it can become an issue when that free safety continually allows big plays to get behind him. If Davis can rectify these mistakes and pick his spots better when to be uber-aggressive, he could be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. But it would be a surprise to see that development this season.

6. Jarrod Wilson, Michigan | Junior – 6’2″, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 28 22 50 2.0 0 2 2
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 32 26 58 2.0 0 2 2
(Matthew O, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Although there is much debate among Michigan fans about who will start for the Wolverines at strong safety, there is no such debate at free safety. After having a bit of an up-and-down campaign last year, Jarrod Wilson is Michigan’s unquestioned starter there. As a true sophomore, Wilson played well right out of the gate last season. He started the first seven games, during which he accumulated 33 tackles and four passes defended, including two interceptions. He was on pace for a very solid season statistically and was the back line of a defense that had been commendable until allowing Indiana’s up-tempo offense to explode for 47 points.

However, for reasons unknown, head coach Brady Hoke removed Wilson from the starting lineup prior to Michigan’s next game against in-state rival Michigan State, inserting converted cornerback Courtney Avery in his place. Michigan’s pass defense deteriorated thereafter, and it definitely was not a coincidence. In their first seven games with Wilson as a starter, the Wolverines allowed only 6.60 passing yards per attempt. In their final six games, they allowed 7.48 passing yards per attempt. Some of the discrepancy can be explained by Michigan facing better passing offenses later in the season than the likes of Central Michigan, Akron, and Connecticut. But there is no better example of Wilson’s importance in Michigan’s pass defense than against Ohio State, a game in which he barely played because of a broken hand. The Buckeyes completed only six of their 15 pass attempts against the Wolverines, but still managed to gain 133 passing yards for an excellent 8.9 yards per attempt. This fell on Michigan’s safeties—Thomas Gordon and Josh Furman—who were routinely beat deep. Does this happen if Wilson is healthy and starting? We will never be certain, but the answer likely is “no.”

This season, unless injured, there is no chance Wilson will be replaced by anyone behind him on the depth chart. He will have a full season to exhibit that he has great instincts in the back of Michigan’s secondary. Not only will he continue to make smart, athletic plays in coverage, he will continue to take the right angles to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Also, with some starting experience under his belt, Wilson should not be as prone to mental errors as—like his untimely pass interference penalty in the fourth overtime against Penn State. Wilson should fulfill the potential he had as a four-star recruit and become a solid, boring free safety this fall. Although “boring” has a negative connotation, given the big plays Michigan allowed at the end of 2013 while playing roulette with its safeties, boring should be refreshing for Michigan. And, if Wilson demonstrates he is more than boring and defends more passes in the secondary, he will have an argument that he is one of the five best safeties in this conference.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Part One of our 2014 Big Ten Safeties Rankings? Should Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers be in the top 10? Should Michigan’s Jarrod Wilson be in the top five? Is there a blatant omission from the top 10? And what would your top five be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season.