Signing day is in the books, and spring football is just weeks away. This week, we'll take a position-by-position look at where SEC teams are heading into the spring. Last up in our series, we’re ranking the league’s defensive backfields.
1. Alabama: Good luck finding a better defensive back in the SEC than Minkah Fitzpatrick. He led the conference last season with six interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett all return as starters, and it’s not as though the Crimson Tide don’t have plenty of young talent in line to replace Marlon Humphrey.
2. Georgia: Four starters return from a Georgia secondary that finished second in the SEC last season against the pass. The headliner of the group is safety Dominick Sanders, but Malkom Parrish has been a solid starter at cornerback for two years now. The Bulldogs also added five-stars DeAngelo Gibbs and Richard LeCounte III in this year’s recruiting class.
3. Florida: How do the Gators still have one of the SEC's top three secondaries after losing three of their best defensive backs? It starts with Duke Dawson, the nickelback who is expected to move to cornerback. Safety Marcell Harris, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, is also back, along with Chauncey Gardner, the MVP of the bowl game.
4. LSU: The Tigers are always going to have a solid secondary, even in a year when they’re losing two first-round draft picks. Among Donte Jackson, Kevin Toliver II, Kristian Fulton and Saivion Smith, there’s more than enough talent at cornerback. The bigger question mark is at safety, where LSU might have turn to one of its newcomers to start next to John Battle.
5. South Carolina: Credit Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks improved drastically on defense in 2016, particularly in the secondary. And it’s a group that will only improve in 2017 with the return of starters Jamarcus King, Chris Lammons and D.J. Smith, as well as the addition of ESPN 300 cornerback Jamyest Williams, a player Muschamp thinks can help right away.
6. Kentucky: Led by cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry, the Wildcats have been surprisingly good against the pass in recent seasons. The pair has started in each of the last two, and they will be back in 2017 along with Mike Edwards, the team’s best safety, who finished with 100 tackles and three interceptions last fall.
7. Auburn: Carlton Davis might not have been as consistent in 2016, but he’s still one of the true lockdown cornerbacks in the SEC. Opposite him should be Javaris Davis, the fastest player on the team. And at safety, Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts form a solid trio.
8. Tennessee: Losing Cameron Sutton won’t be easy, but the star cornerback only played in seven games last season. The Volunteers do get back Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden, the top three tacklers from 2016, as well as Emmanuel Moseley, the team’s No. 1 corner when Sutton was out.
9. Texas A&M: The numbers weren’t good for the Aggies on defense last season, but that doesn’t change the fact that Armani Watts is still an All-SEC caliber player. He and Donovan Wilson form a solid tandem at safety. The area that needs improving is at cornerback, where starters Priest Willis and Nick Harvey will both look to improve on a disappointing campaign.
10. Arkansas: The Razorbacks got better against the pass in 2016, but that’s not saying much considering they finished dead last in that category the season before. The hope is for even more improvement in 2017 with starters Ryan Pulley, Josh Liddell and Santos Ramirez all returning.
11. Vanderbilt: Interceptions aren’t everything when it comes to secondary play, but it’s probably not great that the Commodores only had two against Power 5 opponents last season. They’re also losing top cornerback Torren McGaster. Every other starter is back, though, including top tacklers LaDarius Wiley (76) and Ryan White (75).
12. Ole Miss: When Ken Webster got hurt in the 2016 opener, it was downhill from there. If Webster can return this season, it will give this unit a huge lift. If not, it will be up to a bunch of freshmen and sophomores to turn things around. Rising junior Zedrick Woods, the “old man” of the group, was a pleasant surprise for the Rebels at safety last season.
13. Mississippi State: Nobody allowed more passing yards per game in the SEC last season than the Bulldogs. And it wasn’t close. The good news is that Jamal Peters, Lashard Durr and Brandon Bryant are all back, and junior college transfer Johnathan Abram, a former Georgia Bulldog, should have a chance to come in and play early at one of the safety spots.
14. Missouri: Gone are starting cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson. They combined for eight interceptions and 17 pass breakups last season, and they won’t be easy to replace. Safety looks a little better, with starters Anthony Sherrills and Cam Hilton both back.