Defensive backs, especially safeties, are the last line of defense in preventing the big play. The best safeties are those that can read, react and physically execute the fundamentals and skills of secondary play. A complete safety has the instincts and leadership of a field general, the ball skills of a wide receiver and the tenacity of a linebacker, depending upon the situation at hand. The bottom line for a safety is reliability in terms of making the calls and adjustments as needed, along with physically not allowing the big run or long bomb that can result in a quick score by the opposing offense.
From their representation below, you will see this safety class is comprised of scheme-versatile, athletic defensive backs with immediate impact type qualities. There is also a strong southern flavor this year as the Southeast, particularly Florida, dominates this year's safety class and the superlatives below. This group of high-point defenders, which features 10 ESPNU 150 members, has coveted size and ideal measurables as a whole that help them produce in all three levels of the defense. We would not be surprised if many end up as linebacker/hybrids due to their bulk, physicality and instincts near the line of scrimmage.
Some prospects could have fallen into several categories, but with so many talented safety prospects, we've limited it to a one-category maximum, and even with that some fine players were left out. A few prospects evaluated as athletes were also included.
Best pass defenders
What we look for: To be a sound safety versus the pass, it takes a player who has both route recognition and ball skills. He must break quickly from the middle of his zone or from the hash to separate the receiver from the football on contact. The safeties who have great leaping ability and range are extremely valuable in jump-ball and deep-pass situations. Even though safeties aren't asked to play man-to-man coverage as much as corners, they must be able to go one-on-one in certain situations and consistently shut down the big play.
(Miami/Miami Southridge Senior)
He's one of the better instinctive and cover safeties in the country. Holliman has a keen sense on where the ball is headed and soundly sees routes develop. His athletic ability takes over from there. Holliman has great burst out of his breaks, closes receiver separation extremely quickly and has the leaping ability and overall range to make a lot of plays in deep zone coverage. He had double-digit interceptions this season.
Ha'Sean Clinton Dix (Orlando, Fla./Dr. Phillips)
The Alabama commit has safety size and physicality with corner coverage skills, which is rare to find. His coverage versatility makes him one of the top overall defensive backs in this class. He transitions fluidly and is explosive closing on the football. A defender who can open, turn and run in space with quicker slot receivers, press a bigger tight end or just be a physical presence over the middle driving on routes. He will learn from the best in Nick Saban.
Avery Walls (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian)
The recent California commit is not the biggest, but consistently makes big plays in coverage. Walls covers the entire field in pass defense with a great mix of deep range, underneath closing burst and savvy awareness skills. Aside from striking pursuit speed, he comes out of his breaks extremely sharp, with eye-popping burst and little wasted motion. He is great at making the tempo-changing collision and limiting yards after the catch, which is an often overlooked but very valuable trait in coverage.
Best run supporters
What we look for: These players attack the ball carrier downhill, while keeping leverage on the football and disallowing the cutback lane. The best run-support safeties are physical tacklers in limited space and sure open-field tacklers who know how to use the sideline as an extra defender when closing on the football. They need to have the strength of an outside linebacker to maintain outside force and be able to run the alley with sharp angles.
Erique Florence (Valley, Ala./Valley)
With a bit more size, Florence would be ranked as one of the top outside linebackers in this class. He is one of the best box defenders in this safety class and is a highly productive hybrid-type defender with a ton of stops made in the first level near the line of scrimmage. Florence gets downhill fast and possesses great pursuit speed with sharp angles running the alley. He will run through ball carriers as a tackler with good form.
Jabari Gorman (Miami/Monsignor Edward Pace)
Gorman would fit into a "most physical" category as well. He drives hard on the ball with an explosive first step out of his pedal that allows him to get downhill quickly. The 180-pound safety is a collision tackler who can force a turnover on any given hit, but is also reliable in the open field. He is scheduled to make his college decision at the Under Armour All-America Game.
Robenson Therezie (Miami/Miami Jackson)
He can run, close and hit as well as any safety in this class. Therezie has great range and makes countless plays sideline-to-sideline versus the run. He gets a great jump on the ball due to his sound run reads and is one of the quicker safeties to get downhill and explode onto ball carriers with great burst in the short area. His best asset may be his forceful, yet reliable tackling skills.
What we look for: Safeties with range who can roam the secondary from sideline to sideline showing athleticism and agility in the open field. They can transition without a loss of speed, balance or body control. Safeties with great range can close quickly on both the run and pass and are consistent at taking proper angles to the ball. The more territory a safety can cover, the more valuable he is to his team. Finishing short-area reach to get into position and cover more zone is important as well.
Karlos Williams (Davenport, Fla./Ridge Community)
It would be hard to sculpt a better-looking frame on a college safety prospect. Williams utilizes his long, high-cut frame to cover a ton of ground quickly in his pursuit to the football versus both the run and pass. He can get off the hash and over the top of vertical routes effortlessly or drive quickly on short to intermediate routes; both require great speed, athleticism and explosiveness -- this future Seminole has it.
Keelin Smith (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Treasure Coast)
He's another tall and smooth high-point defender headed to Tallahassee to play for Jimbo Fisher. Smith is 6-foot-3 with a tight waist and long stride that allow for great range and sharp movement skills. He utilizes his impressive length and athleticism to make a lot of pass deflections and breakups in deep coverage. Smith is an underrated defender who tracks the ball soundly and has the acceleration to get into position and make the play.
Cortez Davis (Daytona Beach, Fla./Mainland)
The Clemson commit has the ideal body length and stride to make plays in both run and pass support from great distances away. Aside from an impressive stride, Davis has a large wingspan and great leaping skills that allow him get into final position, get over the top of balls and make plays on the deep pass. He can also run the alley quickly to support the run or cover the hashes as an ideal last defender.
What we look for: Many high school safeties excel at a certain phase of the defensive secondary play, but need to improve and fine-tune other skills in order to develop into a complete player. Others need a full-time weight training program to add the necessary bulk to play in the box. Coaches evaluate and analyze the potential of all recruits to see if their talents can be maximized at the next level of play. ESPN Recruiting sees the following players as those safeties who have an excellent opportunity to be major contributors, once they make the jump to the college ranks.
Marqise Lee (Gardena, Calif./Serra)
Lee is still relatively new to the sport of football and while he's a playmaker on both sides of the ball, we feel his best football is still ahead of him. Aside from great pursuit speed, range and athleticism, Lee has natural awareness skills on the gridiron and finds the ball naturally in coverage. The quickness, balance and change-of-direction skills that made him a basketball prospect can actually still improve and become more functional between the white lines.
LeShundrick Morrison (Dallas/Bryan Adams)
We still feel like Morrison is falling under the radar and is going to be a steal for the program that lands him. The Texas native is aggressive and plays with a fast and physical style, which will only be supplemented with more size and power. A great ball hawk with a ton of production in all three levels of the defense, Morrison still has room for technical polish once he concentrates on one position and scheme.
Eilar Hardy (Pickerington, Ohio/Central)
If Notre Dame can be patient with Hardy's development we see a lot of productivity in his future. He brings intangibles to the position and a good overall level of understanding. He utilizes his good ball skills, range and athleticism to make plays around the ball in coverage, but it's his ability to get downhill quickly and be active versus the run as a first-level defender that adds so much value to him as a prospect. In order to reach his full potential, he will likely need a redshirt year to add size, strength and overall explosiveness to his frame.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Recruiting and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school levels.