Like many positions on the football field, the safety has evolved. Once a spot for heavy hitters or coverage specialists, today's center fielders need to be far more versatile than ever before.
To be successful as a collegiate safety, a player must have coverage skills, run support, range, agility and toughness. Besides being the last line of defense against the pass or a breakout run, the safety is often asked to be an extra linebacker in the box or a man-to-man defender. Today's safeties must also be outstanding field generals who get the secondary lined up and make proper adjustments in order to be sound and not vacate a zone or let a receiver run free.
What Scouts Inc. looks for: Today's safeties have to be able to play multiple coverages. They must be efficient at covering the middle third in the three-deep, half the field in two cover, and they must display great range in man defense. They must be able to break quickly on the pass and cover the necessary ground in time to break up the reception or make an interception. Safeties should be smooth in transition and close the cushion instantly on underneath routes. Soft hands, leaping ability and timing are all important traits for an outstanding cover safety. They also need to be sound in man-to-man coverage against slot receivers when necessary.
1. Craig Loston (Houston/Eisenhower)
Loston is an absolutely amazing athlete who is tall and physically gifted. He displays excellent technical skills as a pass defender. Loston is an instinctive safety who jets out of his break and elevates himself to high-point the football when going for the interception. He has soft hands and is a running threat to the opposition once he makes the pick. Loston is the best all-around safety in the Class of 2009.
2. Gabe Lynn (Jenks, Okla.)
Lynn transitions out of his backpedal quickly when breaking on underneath routes. He demonstrates the ability to read patterns and understands route progression when in zone coverage. Lynn does a great job reading the quarterback's eyes and tracking the deep ball while showing a burst to go for the interception or to separate the receiver from the football. Lynn has the talent to make big hits over the top and play slot receivers man-to-man in the underneath zones.
3. Isaiah Bell (Youngstown, Ohio/Liberty)
It's astonishing how this big of a man -- Bell stands at 6-foot-1-inch and 210 pounds -- can play three-deep coverage as a free safety. Bell rules the secondary and is very flexible and agile for his size. Besides quickness out of his break, he displays catch-up speed in running down receivers in the open field. Although he probably will end up at strong safety or outside linebacker because of his physical dimensions, he should be an excellent hook and curl defender.
What Scouts Inc. looks for: The best run-support safeties are the ones who read run action quickly and attack the line of scrimmage from the proper angle depending upon the support scheme. They must keep leverage on the football and be reliable in bringing the ball carrier down. They must be able to have good foot agility and move well laterally. Run-support safeties do a good job of using the sideline as the 12th defender and not letting the runner make a cutback to the open field.
1. Damario Jeffery (Columbia, S.C.)
Jeffery attacks the line of scrimmage at perfect support angles whether coming up from the free safety or strong position. Jeffery uses his hands to shed blockers and will not be denied getting to the quarterback on the blitz. He loves contact and brings all 210 pounds with him when delivering on the ball carrier. Jeffery hits like a locomotive and explodes through the runner when making a tackle.
2. Gerald Demps (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes)
Demps comes up aggressively on run support but is never out of control. He keeps great leverage on the ball and doesn't overrun the football on the sweep, option, flare or sprint out. Demps is reliable in the open field in terms of tackling. He wraps of the ball carrier and drives his legs to finish the play. Demps is a smart football player with super anticipation and instincts.
3. Kevin Brent (Dallas/South Oak Cliff)
Brent is a fast, physical safety. He is a master at defeating all types of blocks. He uses his hands to prevent the low or cut block, runs through or underneath the crack back, and even wrong-arms the kickout block when coming off the edge. He is a hard-hitting safety who unloads on the ball carrier like a linebacker. Brent is rarely out of position and attacks at proper support and pursuit angles.
What Scouts Inc. looks for: The more territory a safety can cover, the more valuable he is to the defense. Excellent closing speed and even makeup speed are important in order to prevent a big play whether breaking on the pass or run. Rangy safeties often are long striders who have little wasted motion and can cover sideline to sideline with relative ease. The better instincts and anticipation the athlete has, the greater his reliability in the open field.
1. Devonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe)
Holloman is a tall and rangy safety who shows equal aptitude in both pass coverage and run support. He demonstrates outstanding balance and body control in the open field and can start and stop on a dime. Holloman covers a lot of territory quickly and is especially impressive when coming up on perimeter runs, flare passes and screens. He can close instantly from depth while maintaining an inside-out relationship on the football.
2. Darren Myles (Atlanta/Carver)
Myles can play numerous positions. He displays tremendous lateral movement and can turn his hips while changing direction without losing speed or balance. He never gets outflanked when coming up on run support and takes excellent cross-field angles when in pursuit of the football. Myles is a very solid pass defender in halves and three-deep coverage.
3. T.J. McCaskill (Miami/Northwestern)
McCaskill is a tall, lean safety who roams the secondary like he owns it. He is very impressive in reading pass patterns and having the physical tools to cover the vertical seams and the deep outside. McCaskill can cover sideline to sideline and makes reliable though not picture-perfect tackles.
What Scouts Inc. looks for: These guys are hard-hitting athletes who love the collision aspect of the game. They must be able to punish the ball carrier or receiver while still attacking under control; it doesn't do any good if you miss. The more aggressive and intimidating the better; nothing is more demoralizing to an opponent than a high-impact collision on one of its skilled athletes.
1. Chris Payne (Columbia, S.C.)
His name should really be "Major Pain" because of the aggressive nature of this natural-born hitter. Payne reacts to the ball carrier instantly and attacks the run downhill with a full head of steam. He times the blitz to perfection to either sack or flush out the quarterback. Payne loves to separate the ball carrier from the football every time he makes a tackle. He doesn't let up on special teams and is regularly the first man down in coverage. Payne is a real tone-setter by the way he hits.
2. T.J. McDonald (Fresno, Calif./Edison)
This McDonald delivers his "smack attack" like no one else. This powerful strong safety is an absolute hitting machine on the gridiron. He runs to the football like a heat-seeking missile and when given the opportunity, runs through the man with the ball. He breaks off the hash in two-deep coverage and it seems he would rather take the receiver's head off than go for the interception.
3. Jamie Wood (Pickerington, Ohio/Central)
Wood never takes a play off on either side of the football, but is most impressive when he is "delivering the wood." He is a tremendous edge blitzer who can completely disrupt all action in the offensive backfield -- run or pass. He often can run down the ball carrier or quarterback from behind. Wood also carries over his hitting prowess to special teams, where he makes pad-cracking tackles on the coverage units.
Bill Conley is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Scouts Inc. He previously worked at Ohio State for 17 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.