Sports on Earth is counting down the best returning players at every position in college football heading into the 2016 season. Last week, we broke down the top 30 returning wide receivers and top 15 tight ends. This week, it's the top 20 cornerbacks and top 20 safeties.
While many impact players at defensive back did leave early for the draft -- headlined by Jalen Ramsey and Vernon Hargreaves -- the group does have several returning stars who easily could have turned pro but decided to come back for their senior seasons. That includes the top three cornerbacks in our rankings of the best returning players in college football, plus an All-American safety.
The following rankings are based on what players have accomplished and what kind of impact they are capable of making at the college level, not necessarily NFL draft projections. The top 20 cornerbacks are below, followed by the top 20 safeties. (Michigan fans: Note that rising star do-everything defender Jabrill Peppers is included in the linebacker rankings.)
20. William Likely, Maryland. While only 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, Likely has been Maryland's top playmaker the last couple years as an ace cornerback and return man. He didn't have an interception last season, but he had six as a sophomore in 2014, returning two for TDs. Last year, he had 44 tackles, 11 pass breakups and three forced fumbles, and he returned two punts for a TD and one kick for a TD. Whether it's on defense or special teams, he's a big play waiting to happen.
19. Gareon Conley, Ohio State. One of only three starters returning to the Ohio State defense -- and the only DB, after Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell left early -- Conley will play a huge role in providing some sort of continuity for the secondary, especially with coordinator Chris Ash gone too. A four-star recruit who was a one-time Michigan verbal commit, Conley broke into the lineup as a sophomore last season and performed admirably for a stellar Ohio State pass defense, finishing with 49 tackles, five pass breakups and two picks.
18. Jamar Summers, Connecticut. After breaking into UConn's starting lineup in the second half of his freshman season in 2014, Summers emerged as the Huskies' defensive star last year, finishing second in the nation with eight interceptions. All of those picks came in the last nine games, with a pick-six to beat Tulane 7-3, plus a game-sealing interception in the upset win over Houston.
17. Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart, North Carolina. The Tar Heels' run defense kept struggling, but few units were more improved in 2015 than the North Carolina pass defense under new coordinator Gene Chizik. In 2014, UNC allowed 8.5 yards per pass attempt. Last season, UNC allowed 6.1 yards per pass attempt, jumping from 121st to 15th nationally. Nobody played a bigger role than Lawrence and Stewart, an excellent cornerback duo. Lawrence, now a senior, had 59 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Stewart, a junior, had 62 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups.
16. Davante Davis, Texas. A rising star for the Longhorns, Davis started five games as a true freshman and showed a ton of potential. His numbers were modest -- an interception, 35 tackles, seven pass breakups -- but he's already becoming the type of cornerback that opposing offenses will avoid. The 6-foot-2 Davis forms one of the nation's most promising cornerback duos with fellow sophomore Holton Hill.
15. Carlton Davis, Auburn. The Tigers' defense did take some steps forward over the course of last season, partly because of the rise of players like Davis, a budding star. The four-star recruit won a starting job as a true freshman and shined, finishing the season with 56 tackles, three interceptions and eight pass breakups. The 6-foot-1 sophomore has quickly become of the SEC's best defensive backs, and the combination of a disruptive line and a potential shutdown corner like Davis gives the Tigers some reasons to be optimistic.
14. Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma. The Sooners finished ninth nationally in defensive passer rating last season, boasting an excellent, underrated secondary playing a big role in making Oklahoma the Big 12's best all-around defense. While talented playmaker Zack Sanchez is gone at one cornerback spot, the Sooners remain in good hands with Thomas, a 6-foot, 187-pound junior who started the final four games as a true freshman in 2014, then became a second-team All-Big 12 selection as the starter opposite Sanchez last year. Thomas finished with 46 tackles and five interceptions and will step up into the lead corner role with Sanchez gone.
13. Iman Marshall, USC. No freshman plays mistake-free football, but Marshall showed flashes of his high potential. A five-star recruit, he started USC's final 12 games last season and had 67 tackles, nine pass breakups and three interceptions -- two of which came in the Pac-12 South clinching win over rival UCLA. He's likely to get targeted fairly often with Adoree' Jackson lined up at the opposite cornerback spot, but the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Marshall is up to the task, bringing physicality to the USC secondary.
12. Marquez White, Florida State. Overshadowed by top-five pick Jalen Ramsey and emerging star Derwin James in the Seminoles' secondary, White quietly had an excellent junior season. Previously a member of the FSU basketball team as well, White broke into the starting lineup opposite Ramsey at cornerback last year, and he had only 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups and an interception. Low numbers? Sure. But according to Florida State and STATS LLC., White was targeted on only seven percent of opposing passes.
11. Shawun Lurry, Northern Illinois. After a quiet freshman season as a reserve, Lurry broke out as a sophomore, leading the nation with nine interceptions while also tallying 43 tackles and 15 pass breakups. Only 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Lurry emerged as an ace playmaker for the Huskies, returning those nine picks for 273 yards, including a 79-yard return vs. Boston College and a 64-yard TD vs. Bowling Green.
10. Damontae Kazee, San Diego State. After nearly deciding to turn pro, Kazee opted for a senior season with the Aztecs instead. They won the Mountain West last year with a defense that finished ninth in yards per play allowed, and he played the biggest role. Kazee was named Mountain West defensive player of the year after an exceptional junior season in which he had 75 tackles, eight interceptions, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a punt return TD.
9. Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama. A five-star recruit out of high school, Humphrey was overshadowed as a redshirt freshman, in part by Fitzpatrick's big plays as a true freshman, but he turned in a stellar redshirt freshman season that showed just how high his potential is. Humphrey started all 15 games for Alabama , finishing the season with 45 tackles, three interceptions and eight pass breakups. While still a bit raw, Humphrey possesses elite speed for the position, and when combined with his size, he's an intriguing player set for a fast rise as he becomes the Crimson Tide's top corner. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, shined in the nickel corner role, putting up 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, 11 pass breakups and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the win over Texas A&M. He'll see his role expanded as a sophomore.
8. Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson. For the second year in a row, the Clemson defense will be ravaged by departures. This season, it's the secondary that's hit hardest, with All-American cornerback Mackensie Alexander gone, plus safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green. Fortunately there is one proven veteran back, as Tankersley chose to return for his senior year after a breakout junior campaign in which he moved into the starting lineup and finished with 48 tackles, five interceptions and nine pass breakups. The 6-foot-1 Tankersley can play with physicality and speed, and with Alexander moving on to the NFL, it's likely that offenses will start avoiding Tankersley's side of the field.
7. Cameron Sutton, Tennessee. A 5-foot-11 senior, Sutton has started all 38 games in his college career, starring for the Volunteers both as a cornerback and return man. On defense, his numbers didn't stand out much last season -- 28 tackles, one interception, six pass breakups, two forced fumbles -- but he continues to shine in coverage, and he also led the nation with an average of 18.7 yards per punt return, including two touchdowns.
6. Adoree' Jackson, USC. One of the best all-around athletes in college football, Jackson has been used as a cornerback, receiver and return man. He also is a track-and-field star, winning back-to-back Pac-12 long jump championships. In two seasons of football, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Jackson has 84 career tackles, one interception, 17 pass breakups, two kick return TDs, two punt return TDs and 37 catches for 552 yards and five TDs. Last season, he finished second on the team in receiving yards. He can do whatever USC asks of him, and do it well, but Jackson's primary focus remains cornerback, where his athleticism makes him a likely first-round pick.
5. Sidney Jones, Washington. While rated a three-star recruit, it didn't take long for Jones to surpass expectations, starting 12 games as a true freshman in 2014. He took a big step toward stardom as a sophomore, developing into a first-team All-Pac-12 cornerback with 46 tackles, four interceptions, four forced fumbles, 10 pass breakups and 3 ½ tackles for loss for the Pac-12's best defense. The 6-foot junior is fast and intelligent in coverage, thriving with his instincts and ability to react and close quickly. Jones and safety Budda Baker lead the way for what is one of the nation's top defensive backfields.
4. Jalen Tabor, Florida. As good as or even better than All-American and No. 11 overall draft pick Vernon Hargreaves, Tabor will step out of the shadows of his former teammate to become a star himself. Now a junior, the 6-foot Tabor was a five-star recruit in 2014 and has been an impact player since joining the Gators' secondary, which has been one of the nation's best. Last year, Tabor had 40 tackles, four picks and 14 pass breakups, allowing him to join Hargreaves as a first-team All-SEC pick. With solid size and explosive speed, Tabor will be the leader of what should be another terrific Gators defense.
3. Tre'Davious White, LSU. LSU regularly assembles some of the nation's best defensive backfields, and White's return for his senior season ensures that the Tigers will have a strong argument for nation's best this year. A three-year starter, the 5-foot-11 White is a terrific athlete who had 44 tackles and seven pass breakups as a junior, with an average of 11.5 yards per punt return. White is a natural at the position, a smooth runner with quickness and instincts and strong tackling ability.
2. Desmond King, Iowa. The Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back in 2015, King finished second in the nation with eight interceptions and had 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups. He also averaged 14.2 yards per punt return and 24.4 yards per kick return, making him one of the most valuable players in all of college football. A 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior, King opted to return for one more year with the Hawkeyes to continue building on a decorating college career in which he has started 39 games, intercepted 11 passes and been a consensus All-American. He's a skilled ball hawk with the athleticism and physicality to impact the game both in coverage and against the run.
1. Jourdan Lewis, Michigan. New defensive coordinator Don Brown struck gold when Lewis announced that he would return for his senior season. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Lewis may not be the biggest cornerback, but he's a lockdown defender who finished with 20 pass breakups, two interceptions and 52 tackles last season, in addition to averaging 25.2 yards per kick return. Quick, relentless and aggressive, Lewis makes up for his smaller frame. He doesn't make mistakes, blanketing receivers thanks in part to his intelligence and his quick-twitch athleticism that make it rare for opposing to receivers to get sufficient separation. Lewis is a big reason Michigan allowed a national-best 5.4 yards per pass attempt.
Honorable mention: Adonis Alexander, Virginia Tech; Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado; Jeremy Cutrer, Middle Tennessee; DeVon Edwards, Duke; Corn Elder, Miami; Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech; Rashard Fant, Indiana; Bryon Fields, Duke; Latrell Gibbs, Appalachian State; Matthew Harris, Northwestern; Holton Hill, Texas; Kevin King, Washington; Cole Luke, Notre Dame; Avonte Maddox, Pittsburgh; Fabian Moreau, UCLA; Deatrick Nichols, South Florida; Parry Nickerson, Tulane; Brian Peavy, Iowa State; Marcus Rios, UCLA; Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin; Ranthony Texada, TCU; Kevin Toliver, LSU; Trumaine Washington, Louisville; Shaq Wiggins, Louisville; Brandon Wilson, Houston
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20. Nate Gerry, Nebraska. Gerry's 2015 season did not end as hoped, as he was ejected each of the last two games for targeting -- both calls were, not surprisingly, controversial. When on the field, Gerry -- who began his career as a linebacker -- has been a key player for the Cornhuskers at safety the last two years. Last year, he led the team with 79 tackles, and he's had four interceptions each of the past two seasons. He's the senior leader of a defense that otherwise experienced a lot of growing pains in 2015.
19. Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville. After being dismissed from the Georgia team, Harvey-Clemons -- a five-star recruit in 2013 -- joined his old defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, at Louisville. After sitting out a season, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Harvey-Clemons broke into the starting lineup in 2015 and recorded 88 tackles, three interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble, acting as almost an extra linebacker on the field.
18. Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech. A two-time first-team All-Conference USA pick, Woods is an underrated star for what has been a rock-solid defense the last couple years. The 5-foot-11 senior is a three-year starter with nine interceptions over the last two years, although his numbers dipped a bit as a junior, when he had 56 tackles, 7 ½ tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He's a terrific athlete who makes plays in a variety of ways and could be the league's best defensive player.
17. Weston Steelhammer, Air Force. The best named safety in college football is the top player on the Falcons, a two-time first-team All-Mountain West pick who has a knack for making big plays. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior shined last season, posting 80 tackles, 10 ½ tackles for loss, five interceptions and seven pass breakups, proving to be a playmaker in coverage and a force in run support
16. Fish Smithson, Kansas. Easily the biggest bright spot on a team that went 0-12 last season, Smithson -- real name Anthony, known as Fish -- was the only player voted to a Big 12 all-conference team. A 5-foot-11 senior, the juco transfer finished last season with 111 tackles in 11 games, plus two interceptions and a forced fumble. Forced to play cleanup for a struggling defense, Smithson had 87 solo tackles out of the 111 total.
15. Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Two years ago, Barnett earned first-team All-Big 12 honors, racking up 77 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions. But the 6-foot-1 senior was knocked out for the season in Week 1 last year, and now he'll come back after using a redshirt. A team captain, Barnett is a savvy player and hard-hitter who will provide a big boost to a defense that experienced a significant drop-off last fall.
14. Jordan Sterns, Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' leading tackler each of the past two seasons, Sterns had 106 tackles as a sophomore and 108 tackles and two interceptions last year as a junior. A 6-foot, 200-pound senior Sterns has been a dependable playmaker for the Cowboys, and he will be leaned on heavily on the back end this season with the defense needing to rebuild its pass rush up front.
13. Marcus Williams, Utah. After a stellar freshman season, Williams started all 13 games for the Utes at free safety last season, emerging as a first-team All-Pac 12 ball hawk. The 6-foot-1 Williams had 66 tackles, five interceptions and five pass breakups, boosting a defense that forced a lot of turnovers. He's fantastic in coverage and has developed into the top player in a talented Utah secondary.
12. Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth, UCLA. Both Wadood and Goforth were named second-team All-Pac-12 last season as the starting safeties for the conference's top pass defense. Wadood, a 5-foot-10 junior, finished 2015 with 72 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions. Goforth, a 5-foot-10 senior, finished 2015 with 70 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions. Similar in stature and similar in production, Wadood and Goforth give the Bruins a pair of dependable safeties at the center of one of the nation's top defensive backfields, especially with cornerback Fabian Moreau returning from an injury.
11. Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts, Texas A&M. For all the problems facing the Aggies defense in recent years, they've amassed an impressive group of safeties -- which should feel familiar for a defense led by John Chavis, the former LSU defensive coordinator. We should also note senior Justin Evans, who had 78 tackles last season, but the stars are Wilson and Watts. Wilson, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior, plays a hybrid nickel role and was all over the field last year, finishing with 63 tackles, five interceptions, 8 ½ tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Chavis has compared him to former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu. Watts, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior, has been an impact player since he arrived, winning the starting free safety job as a true freshman. Last season, he had 126 tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception.
10. Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas, Oklahoma. The Sooners are loaded in the secondary, even with All-Big 12 cornerback Zack Sanchez gone. They still have Jordan Thomas at one corner spot, and they boast a terrific safety tandem in Parker, who earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the media, and Thomas, who earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches. Parker, a junior, had 60 tackles, four tackles for loss and four pass breakups last season, while Thomas, a senior, had 75 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups.
9. Dominick Sanders, Georgia. The Bulldogs led the nation in pass defense last season, with the secondary maturing significantly over the last two seasons. They have excellent safety tandem in senior Quincy Mauger and Sanders, a junior. The 6-foot, 189-pound Sanders has been a starter each of his first two seasons, and last year he broke out with All-SEC honors, racking up 48 tackles, six interceptions (one returned for a TD), six pass breakups and five tackles for loss. Kirby Smart inherits a retooling front seven on defense, but the return of the secondary, led by Sanders, provides some excellent stability with talented but young players being counted on up front.
8. Quin Blanding, Virginia. One of the nation's top overall recruits in the class of 2014, Blanding didn't waste any time making an impact as a freshman, and he hasn't let up. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior has started all 24 games in his career, racking up 238 career tackles and four interceptions. He's a free safety with a nose for the ball, a consistent, sure tackler who puts himself in favorable positions. He had double-digit tackles in six of Virginia's last seven games last season, and he's a terrific player for new coach Bronco Mendenhall to build a defense around.
7. Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was known for the exceptional defensive backfields he helped put together at Michigan State. Now, he has his next secondary star as head coach at Pittsburgh. A four-star recruit, Whitehead was an instant star for the Panthers last season, starting 12 games at strong safety and leading the team with 108 tackles. He had six tackles for loss, six pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble, and he even had 122 rushing yards and two TDs in an occasional role on offense. Whitehead recently underwent knee surgery, but he's expected to be healthy for the season.
6. Tony Conner, Ole Miss. The Rebels famously signed four five-star recruits in the class of 2013. Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all in the NFL now as first-round picks. Conner may have joined them, but knee problems limited Conner to just five games last season, and he decided to return for his senior year. A versatile defender, the 6-foot, 215-pound Conner doesn't necessarily have a traditional position. He's a hybrid safety/nickel back/linebacker who finished second on the team in 2014 with 69 tackles and had nine tackles for loss and an interception. His return is a huge lift for a Rebels defense that has some rebuilding to do up front.
5. Marcus Maye, Florida. Aggressive and versatile, Maye has been a starter in an excellent Gators secondary the last two years, and he'll return for his senior season after a fantastic junior campaign in which he had 82 tackles, six pass breakups, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. He makes occasional mistakes, but he can line up in different spots for the Gators and excel both in coverage and in run support. He closes fast, hits hard and has tremendous range, bringing physicality and toughness to the Gators secondary.
4. Budda Baker, Washington. There are few better athletes in college football today, as Baker is a lightning-quick safety with excellent range. He may be only 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, but he can cover the field sideline-to-sideline and run with anybody stride-for-stride downfield in pass coverage. A touted recruit, Baker has started both of his two seasons for terrific Washington defenses, and last year he finished with 49 tackles, seven pass breakups and two picks. The Huskies have experimented with him on offense during practice, and on defense he is the quarterback, the highly valuable free safety who brings instincts, intelligence and speed to his position.
3. Eddie Jackson, Alabama. Jackson's transition from cornerback to safety couldn't have gone much better. After starting 10 games at corner in 2014, Jackson made the move to strong safety and emerged as an All-American as a junior. He tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns, and he had 46 tackles, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He was one of several Crimson Tide underclassmen who could have turned pro after winning a national championship, but instead he returns to anchor what will be an excellent secondary. Jackson is a smart and versatile defensive back who can play a variety of roles and showed he can excel at making plays on the ball.
2. Jamal Adams, LSU. The five-star recruit continues to live up the hype, emerging as a talented all-around weapon in another excellent LSU secondary. As a true freshman, Adams 66 tackles despite starting only two games. Last season, he became a full-time starter and had 67 tackles, five tackles four loss, four interceptions, six pass breakups and a forced fumble. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Adams is a playmaker all over the field, adept at both dropping back in coverage and playing in run support as an instinctive, aggressive and fast tackler. He should become a superstar under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
1. Derwin James, Florida State. Had it not been for the presence of Jalen Ramsey, James would have been the best defensive player on the Florida State team by the end of his freshman season. Ramsey is gone now, though, so James steps up as a likely All-American as a sophomore. A versatile safety who has range in coverage and the ability to make plays when lined up close to the line of scrimmage, James is a freakish force, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound former five-star recruit who started the final eight games of his freshman season. He finished second on the team with 91 tackles and had 9 ½ tackles for loss, 4 ½ sacks and two pass breakups. Given his phenomenal production as a freshman, James is on track to become one of the nation's top all-around defenders over the next two years.
Honorable mention: Marcus Allen, Penn State; Nate Andrews, Florida State; Travon Blanchard, Baylor; Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech; Kamari Cotton-Moya, Iowa State; Demetrious Cox, Michigan State; Reggie Daniels, Oregon; Jonathan Ford, Auburn; Dylan Haines, Texas; Nate Holley, Kent State; Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern; Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami; Denzel Johnson, TCU; John Johnson, Boston College; Shalom Luani, Washington State; Quincy Mauger, Georgia; Kai Nacua, BYU; Donnie Miles, North Carolina; Montae Nicholson, Michigan State; Tyree Robinson, Oregon; DeJuan Rogers, Toledo; Anthony Sherrils, Missouri; Orion Stewart, Baylor; Miles Taylor, Iowa; Andrew Wingard, Wyoming