Each week, Sports on Earth is counting down the best returning college football players at every position entering the 2017 season. These rankings are based on a combination of talent, proven production and potential at the college level. They are not NFL Draft rankings. This week, it's the top 25 safeties and top 25 cornerbacks.
Conference media days are only a few weeks away, and our preseason college football position rankings are nearing their end, with only quarterbacks remaining. In Part 6, it's time to take a look at the defensive backs, a group that is particularly strong and deep at safety, led by the return of all-world Florida State star Derwin James from an injury.
25. Nick Orr, TCU. The versatile Orr has started at both cornerback and safety in his career, and last year, his second as a starter, he was voted second-team All-Big 12 at safety with 86 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions. He's only 5-foot-10, but he's excellent in coverage in the Horned Frogs' 4-2-5 scheme, stellar in space with closing speed.
24. Andrew Wingard, Wyoming. While a broken hand limited Wingard in the spring, it's not as if what he brings to the table is a mystery. He has spent two years all over the box score for the Cowboys. He followed his 122-tackle freshman season with 131 tackles, 7 ½ tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a sophomore, going from second-team All-Mountain West to the first team in 2016.
23. Van Smith, Clemson. The Tigers have made a habit of reloading on defense under coordinator Brent Venables, and Smith is a prime example: They lost starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green from a team that went to the national title game, but they made it back -- and won -- with the help of new starters like Smith and Jadar Johnson, who stepped up for a defense that ranked fourth in defensive passer rating. Smith was a third-team All-ACC pick as a sophomore, finishing with 95 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
22. D'Cota Dixon, Wisconsin. Dixon's first season as a starter couldn't have started any better, as he finished the win over LSU with the game-sealing interception (although he also subsequently took a regrettable late hit). While only 5-foot-10, he went on to have four picks, 60 tackles and four pass breakups as a junior, playing well for a stingy defense that gave up next to nothing against the pass outside of the Big Ten title game. Dixon was voted third-team All-Big Ten by the league's media, and he'll be an anchor of this defense under new coordinator Jim Leonhard -- who used to be, like Dixon, an undersized Wisconsin safety.
21. Damon Webb, Ohio State. With two big holes to fill at safety last season, Webb moved over from cornerback and became a starter as a junior. The three other starters in the secondary -- Malik Hooker, Geron Conley, Marshon Lattimore -- left for the NFL. Webb, an honorable mention All-Big Ten choice, is the one who decided to return, and that makes him the veteran of this unit. He had 57 tackles, three pass breakups and a pick-six last year, and Ohio State is hoping he's ready to take a step toward stardom with three stars gone.
20. JoJo McIntosh, Washington. McIntosh is the Huskies' most experienced defensive back with three gone to the draft. He started at strong safety last year, developing a hard-hitting reputation. Known mostly for his work in run support, McIntosh stepped up with 67 tackles, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
19. Kamari Cotton-Moya, Iowa State. The Big 12's defensive freshman of the year in 2014, Cotton-Moya saw his 2015 season cut short by an injury, but he bounced back with a second-team All-Big 12 campaign as a junior. He returns as the best player on the Cyclones' defense, coming off a year in which he had 73 tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions, including a pick-six in Iowa State's rout of Texas Tech.
18. Steven Parker, Oklahoma. The 6-foot-1 Parker has started 30 games in his Oklahoma career, including all 26 the past two seasons. The Sooners' pass defense took a step back last year, but there is a lot of talent in this secondary to lead a reversal. Parker has had All-Big 12 honors to his credit in the past, and last year he had 63 tackles and two interceptions.
17. Dravon Askew-Henry, West Virginia. Coordinator Tony Gibson has a done a phenomenal job with the West Virginia defense -- and the secondary in the team's 3-3-5 scheme in particular. There's a lot to replace this year, again, but fortunately the Mountaineers get back Askew-Henry, who missed all of last season after injuring his knee in the preseason. Askew-Henry started all 26 games his first two years and played more snaps than anyone else on the team as a sophomore. After a year away, his experience is a huge boost to a new-look defense, and he teams with Kyzir White to give WVU a couple of strong building blocks on the back end.
16. Justin Reid, Stanford. A rising star who is poised for a breakout, Reid recorded 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and seven pass breakups in his debut as a starter. He's poised for bigger things as a junior for what will turn into an excellent Stanford secondary, as he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Eric Reid, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft out of LSU.
15. Tre Flowers, Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had a pair of All-Big 12 safeties last season. With the first-teamer Jordan Sterns gone, the spotlight now shines on the second-teamer Flowers, a 6-foot-3 senior who has 31 career starts and is coming off a season in which he had 61 tackles, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles, showcasing speed and range to go along with his size.
14. Jessie Bates, Wake Forest. Rated the 1,698th best player overall in 247Sports' composite rankings in 2015, Bates redshirted his first year at Wake Forest, as is to be expected for someone with that type of recruiting profile. And then he quickly emerged as a star on a stingy Wake Forest defense. As a redshirt freshman, Bates proved to be a revelation, finishing with 100 tackles, five interceptions (two returned for TDs, including the game-winner against Virginia), four pass breakups and 3 ½ tackles for loss. The 6-foot-2 Bates was a second-team All-ACC pick and returns as one of the two stars of this Demon Deacons defense, along with end Duke Ejiofor.
13. Donovan Wilson, Texas A&M. Wilson has thrived in a hybrid nickel role, a position he seems likely to stick in despite the departure of Justin Evans at one of the safety spots. It's a job that has fit Wilson well, as the 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior has been a valuable playmaker the past two seasons. While his interceptions dropped from five as a sophomore to just one last year, he's a versatile weapon who can cover but also make plays in the backfield.
12. Dominick Sanders, Georgia. Sanders has been a key part of the past three Bulldogs defenses, earning a starting spot as a true freshman and starting 38 games in his career. The 6-foot senior has 12 career interceptions -- including six as a sophomore -- and he also had seven pass breakups last year, when he played through injury issues. A second-team All-SEC pick in 2015, Sanders is a valuable, veteran presence on a defense that should be on the upswing in 2017.
11. Taylor Rapp, Washington. The Huskies lose three stars from their secondary, but there is no concern at safety despite the absence of Budda Baker. Rapp found his way into the lineup early, starting 10 games in the Huskies' playoff season as a true freshman. The 6-foot Rapp was named Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year after finishing with 52 tackles and four interceptions, and he's back as the new face of a unit that has produced outstanding talent recently.
10. Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh. While Pitt had massive problems in pass coverage last year, Pat Narduzzi does have a proven star to build around in Whitehead, the junior safety who earned second-team All-ACC honors with 65 tackles and a pick-six as a sophomore, although his numbers were better as a freshman. Whitehead has actually even seen some snaps on offense, too -- he has 21 career rushes with two TDs. The hope is that this year he'll be healthier after missing four games and that he'll lead a bounce back for the unit that was Narduzzi's specialty at Michigan State.
9. Armani Watts, Texas A&M. Watts has been a standout for the Aggies since his freshman season, winning the starting free safety job as a true freshman and piling up 241 career tackles with 14 tackles for loss and six interceptions over three seasons. Last year didn't go quite as planned, as Watts, after leading the team in tackles as a sophomore, missed four games with a torn hamstring ending his season early. When healthy, though, he's been an outstanding playmaker, and his season last year was most remembered for the game-clinching double-OT interception against Tennessee:
8. Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern. The Wildcats' leading tackler and a second-team All-Big Ten pick, Igwebuike is a fifth-year senior with 31 career starts for stellar Northwestern defenses. With linebacker Anthony Walker gone, Igwebuike is the clear top player returning to this unit, after he had 108 tackles, six tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and two interceptions as a junior. He's a complete player, a reliable hard-hitter capable of making plays in pass coverage.
7. Chase Hansen, Utah. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound ex-quarterback actually signed as a recruit back in 2012 before leaving for a mission trip. He has the size of a linebacker but has thrived at safety for the Utes, although he frequently plays in the box. He led the team with 90 tackles as a sophomore, also recording nine pass breakups, 7 ½ tackles for loss, three interceptions and three forced fumbles to fill the stat sheet for another solid Utah defense.
6. Mike Edwards, Kentucky. After breaking into the starting lineup late in the 2015 season as a redshirt freshman, Edwards became a star for the Wildcats last year, starting all 13 games and earning second-team All-SEC honors. The 6-foot junior had 100 tackles, 5 ½ tackles for loss, eight pass breakups and three interceptions -- two of which came off of Lamar Jackson in the Wildcats' upset of Louisville. He's an underrated standout who, along with linebacker Jordan Jones, gives Kentucky a chance to be significantly improved on defense.
5. Marcus Allen, Penn State. Allen teamed up with cornerback Grant Haley on Penn State's two most important plays of the year: Allen blocked the field goal that Haley returned for a touchdown to beat Ohio State, and the two combined for the Big Ten title-clinching tackle on fourth down against Wisconsin. The 6-foot-2 Allen has developed into the star of this secondary, a high-energy player who is particularly reliable against the run, after finishing with 110 tackles -- including 22 against Minnesota -- six tackles for loss and three pass breakups.
4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama. If you're the sixth- or seventh- or eighth-best player on the Alabama defense, you might be the best player on the majority of defenses in college football. Such was Harrison's status last year, but he's about to generate a lot more attention for himself as a junior leader of what will inevitably be one of the nation's top defenses yet again. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Harrison brings near-linebacker size to the Alabama secondary. Upon becoming a starter as a sophomore, he finished second on team with 85 tackles and had seven pass breakups and two defensive touchdowns. It was a sterling starting debut, and the accolades are sure to follow soon.
3. Quin Blanding, Virginia. One of the biggest recruits in Virginia history, Blanding was ranked No. 6 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings in 2014, right in the middle of names like Leonard Fournette, Myles Garrett, Adoree' Jackson and Dalvin Cook. Unlike many of those other top recruits that season, he'll be back for his senior season, but it's not because of a lack of production: While he could use a few more big plays -- he has only 5 ½ career tackles for loss -- Blanding is one of the nation's most experienced players, starting all 36 games in his career with 358 tackles. He's a two-time first-team All-ACC pick.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama. Place him as either the No. 2 safety or No. 1 cornerback, it doesn't really matter. Fitzpatrick is an All-America player regardless of where Alabama chooses to play him. One of the nation's top recruits in 2015, Fitzpatrick has proven himself to be a dynamic playmaker in the Alabama defensive backfield, with eight career interceptions -- four of which have been returned for touchdowns -- and a sophomore season in which he also had 66 tackles, five tackles for loss and seven pass breakups. Fitzpatrick has spent most of his time at cornerback, but last year he slid over to safety to make up for the absence of the injured Eddie Jackson. With Jackson gone, Fitzpatrick will likely stick primarily as a safety, and he's already proven that he has the athleticism and versatility to handle whatever the coaches throw at him.
1. Derwin James, Florida State. We have not seen James play a full game since last Labor Day against Ole Miss, and yet there is a strong argument to place him atop not just the safety rankings, but the rankings of all college football players at every position. He's that talented. A five-star recruit, James shined as a freshman in 2015, racking up 91 tackles, 9 ½ tackles for loss, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He had eight tackles and an interception in the opener last year, only to miss the rest of the season after injuring his knee against Charleston Southern. Now, a healthy James is back, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound multi-dimensional star who can make plays as a center fielder, against the run, as a pass rusher, as a cornerback or in any other role Florida State needs him to fill.
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25. Xavier Crawford, Oregon State. It may have been inconsistent, but ultimately Oregon State's pass defense was solid last season, and it helped to get big contributions from Crawford as a freshman. Crawford had 10 pass breakups and an interception with 70 tackles, garnering him freshman All-America honors to set the stage for high expectations going forward for what should be an improved Beavers team.
24. Clifton Duck, Appalachian State. It's not often you see a sophomore from the Sun Belt on a list like this, but Duck is easily deserving. He earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors as a true freshman, with 57 tackles, five interceptions and eight pass breakups for a Mountaineers defense that allowed only six yards per pass attempt with 12 touchdowns and 20 picks.
23. Parry Nickerson, Tulane. Nickerson set a high standard as a redshirt freshman in 2014, finishing that season with six interceptions to gain freshman All-America recognition. Things slowed down with zero picks as a sophomore, but he was a second-team All-AAC player last year, with four interceptions (returned for 171 yards), nine pass breakups and 29 tackles for a solid Green Wave pass defense. With impressive speed and ball skills, Nickerson is the best player on the roster for second-year coach Willie Fritz.
22. Heath Harding, Miami (Ohio). After missing most of the 2015 season with a back injury, Harding returned to play a significant role in the RedHawks' impressive turnaround last season. They started 0-6 but miraculously went to a bowl thanks to a six-game winning streak, aided by a pass defense that allowed just 6.7 yards per attempt. Harding was the team's lone first-team All-MAC pick, as he finished with four interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 6 ½ tackles for loss.
21. Derrick Tindal, Wisconsin. Tindal contributed significantly as a rotational player for a couple years before emerging as a full-time starter as a junior, a performance that bodes well for what he'll deliver as the team's senior top cornerback. The 5-foot-11 Tindal broke up 11 passes and intercepted three more for one of the nation's best pass defenses.
20. Deatrick Nichols, South Florida. Charlie Strong inherits and excellent team but does have work to do on defense. The good news is it's a unit with experience and upside led by players like Nichols, a second-team All-AAC honoree in 2016 and a first-team pick in 2015. Nichols had four interceptions, seven pass breakups and 49 tackles as a junior, and few AAC defenders can match his resume of experience and production.
19. Andre Chachere, San Jose State. The final year of the Rod Caragher era -- a 4-8 season -- featured only one player who received first- or second-team All-Mountain West honors. That was Chachere, a first-team cornerback who shined as a junior. He intercepted four passes, broke up 14 passes and forced two fumbles, and he also offers versatility, capable of filling a variety of roles beyond simply covering on the outside.
18. Chris Jones, Nebraska. The only All-Big Ten player the Cornhuskers return is third-team media pick Nick Gates at offensive tackle. Needless to say, the team needs new standouts to emerge as it continues to try to break out of its rut. Jones is the surest best, a 6-foot senior with 20 career starts. He had 10 pass breakups and three interceptions last season and returns as a valuable player from a decent pass defense in 2016.
17. Kevin Toliver, LSU. A five-star recruit who had a stellar freshman campaign, Toliver endured a rough sophomore season in 2016, starting only five games as he dealt with injury troubles -- both to his shoulder and knee. The injury problems cost him the final four games, and now he'll try to bounce back and re-win a starting job with All-American Tre'Davious White gone. Toliver has shown signs of stardom, and if he's healthy, there's a good chance he enjoys a breakthrough.
16. M.J. Stewart, North Carolina. The Tar Heels as a team managed only one interception all of last season, but they continue to be better against the pass than against the run. While they lose a stellar cornerback in Des Lawrence, Stewart is back as an All-ACC caliber standout. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior had 11 pass breakups last year and 15 in 2015, and with Lawrence gone, it's hard to imagine opposing QBs will be throwing toward Stewart often.
15. Adonis Alexander, Virginia Tech; 14. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech; and 13. Greg Stroman, Virginia Tech. It's hard to cut any of them over another so we're going to include all of them in one entry. Coordinator Bud Foster has a wealth of talent at his disposal at cornerback, which is nothing new for the defensive back factory in Blacksburg. The latest star cornerback is Stroman, a 6-foot senior who was a second-team All-ACC pick last year, with only 13 tackles but three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Facyson, a senior, and Alexander, a junior, were both stars as freshmen and are trying to recapture that high level of play. Facyson had 11 pass breakups last year, and Alexander had two interceptions. They'll all play a lot, and along with junior safeties Terrell Edmunds add Mook Reynolds, they give the Hokies plenty of talent and experience in the secondary despite the loss off Chuck Clark.
12. Donte Jackson, LSU. A star sprinter on LSU's track team -- he was a state 100- and 200-meter champion in high school in Louisiana -- Jackson is a rising star on the football field, too. In his first season as a starter as a sophomore, Jackson finished with 39 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions for another terrific LSU pass defense that allowed only nine TD passes as a team all year. LSU is always loaded in the secondary, and now it has one of the fastest players in college football there, with teammate Kevin Toliver having a high ceiling at the position, too.
11. Carlton Davis, Auburn. The Tigers defense was frequently excellent last season, and Davis has been a big part of that transformation. The 6-foot-1 junior shined as a true freshman with three interceptions, and while he didn't pick off any passes last year, he had 46 tackles and 10 pass breakups in another stellar season.
10. Rashard Fant, Indiana. A key part of Indiana's defensive renaissance under Tom Allen, Fant topped the Big Ten with 17 pass breakups and also intercepted three passes in his junior season. While only 5-foot-10, 177 pounds, Fant has been a playmaking machine, as he actually had 22 pass breakups in 2015 to lead the Big Ten again. The Hoosiers improved from 90th to 23rd in defensive passer rating last season, and Fant has emerged as one of the two cornerstones of this defense along with linebacker Tegray Scales.
9. Denzel Ward, Ohio State. The Ohio State secondary is on a ridiculous hot streak, with five players picked in the past two drafts -- all in the first two rounds. In April, Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker all went off the board in the top 24 picks, leaving the Buckeyes with another rebuilding project in the secondary. It helps to have players like Ward returning. The 5-foot-10 junior has never started a game, but he still had nine pass breakups last season in a significant third cornerback role. Now, he becomes the top cover man for what will end up being another excellent Ohio State defense.
8. Anthony Averett, Alabama. After barely playing his first three years at Alabama, Averett became a key part of the Crimson Tide defense as a redshirt junior, breaking into the starting lineup at cornerback and finishing with 48 tackles, eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles. A bit of a late-bloomer, Averett proved he belonged last year, winning the starting job and developing into a reliable cornerback who should earn more plaudits as a senior.
7. Quenton Meeks, Stanford. The 6-foot-2 Meeks has five interceptions in two seasons, and he's emerged as a star corner for the Cardinal, one who was sorely missed when injured in losses to Washington and Washington. Big and technically sound, Meeks is a reliable corner when healthy, and he should be a lock for his first All-Pac-12 season this fall.
6. Duke Dawson, Florida. The Gators have sent Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Vernon Hargreaves to the NFL at cornerback the past two drafts, but they've found the next big thing at the position in Gainesville. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Dawson started seven games as a junior as Florida's nickel corner, finishing with seven pass breakups plus a pick-six against Arkansas. It's Dawson's turn to step up and become an All-SEC corner, and he's likely to do so.
5. Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma. A two-time All-Big 12 selection, Thomas decided to return for his senior season after starring last year with 17 pass breakups, 49 tackles and two interceptions. The Sooners had holes on pass defense, but they still held opponents to a Big 12-low 54.7 percent completion rate. Thomas, a 6-foot senior, has 28 career starts and has first-round NFL Draft potential.
4. D.J. Reed, Kansas State. After beginning his career at Fresno State, Reed is following a path that has become familiar: from junior college to Kansas State star. After a year at Cerritos College in California, Reed started 12 games in his Wildcats debut as a sophomore and was named Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year and first-team all-conference. The pass-happy conference provides numerous playmaking opportunities, and the 5-foot-9 Reed, who as excellent closing burst, ended up with 75 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 16 pass breakups -- more than all but three players nationally. He also emerged as an impact kick returner later in the year.
3. Iman Marshall, USC. Overshadowed by Adoree' Jackson his first two years on campus, Marshall is ready for his moment in the spotlight as the top player in the Trojans' secondary. A five-star recruit, Marshall has started 25 games in two seasons, intercepting six passes with 118 career tackles and 17 pass breakups. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Marshall has desirable size and a physical style of play that will allow him to grow into a star this season, and subsequently be coveted by the NFL.
2. Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State. McFadden played through a torn labrum in shoulder last year -- he had surgery in January and sat out spring practice -- and yet he still tied for the national lead with eight interceptions. After playing sparingly as a true freshman, the 6-foot-2 five-star recruit had a breakthrough season as a sophomore, also breaking up six passes and earning first-team All-ACC recognition. Florida State's pass defense improved over the course of last season, and McFadden's rise to stardom played a big role in that, and it will play a big role in increased expectations on that side of the ball in 2017.
1. Jaire Alexander, Louisville. The speedy Alexander broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore and shined for what was mostly a terrific Louisville defense. He's only 5-foot-11, but he's a dynamic playmaker in the secondary, finishing last season with five interceptions and nine pass breakups. He also shows off that athleticism on special teams, particularly on his punt return for a TD against Florida State. A second-team All-ACC pick last year, Alexander has All-America talent that he should reach in his junior year.