A review of the best secondaries over the last 15 years reveals how crucial these four/five-member units can be in elevating a team to a championship. The advances in the modern passing game have made it so that secondaries need to excel in two areas in order to handle the better offenses on the schedule.
First, they need to be able to support the run without getting roasted on the back end by explosive plays in the passing game. Second, they need to be able to cover teams that flood the field with multiple receiver sets and spread the ball around.
In accomplishing these aims, the best secondaries are typically marked by five main attributes. Check marks next to every box indicate a potentially dominant secondary.
Attribute 1, adherence to the rule of three: Against the better passing attacks in the college game today, a defense needs to be able to put at least three strong coverage players on the field, as offenses are flooding their formations with multiple weapons and moving their top targets around to different positions.
Attribute 2, good overall run support/force play: Many modern offensive attacks are geared around finding the force players and attacking them with run/pass conflicts.
Attribute 3, a DB who can play in the box: The rise of nickel and dime packages have allowed the classic box safety to maintain a role in the modern game when it once appeared that the position was in danger of becoming extinct. Teams still crave a Roy Williams who can sneak into the box to help outnumber the run game, intimidate receivers in the middle of the field, and serve as another potential blitzer.
Attribute 4, a lockdown corner: It's better to have no glaring weaknesses than a single great corner, but a defense can build its entire strategy around a true lockdown corner. Additionally, most college offenses can't survive seeing their best WR completely removed from a game.
Attribute 5, an eraser on the back end: Cover 2 teams would prefer to have two erasers, but every secondary thrives when there's someone to make touchdown-saving tackles and plays on the ball while playing deep zone. A great example from 2014 would be Louisville's Gerod Holliman, who took advantage of playing on top of routes in Todd Grantham's two deep schemes to nab 14 interceptions.
With those qualifications in mind, these secondaries stand out as the most likely to dominate the 2015 season.
Just missing the cut
Notre Dame has a chance to field a dominant secondary in 2015, but it has just enough question marks to be left out, including whether Kei'Varae Russell will be back on form and how much improvement comes from its talented but spotty safety tandem of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.
The Houston Cougars were also a tough omission as they return their top-five DBs from a very strong 2014 unit, but the loss of their trademark, turnover-inducing style on defense raises a few question marks, as does their level of competition. Ohio State misses the mark due to questions at cornerback, where they lack a standout star to pair with their excellent safeties, and the fact that linebacker Darron Lee's brilliance reduces the workload for their secondary.
Penn State and Wisconsin both have very strong secondaries heading into 2015, but lack the same firepower in coverage as the top teams, and Alabama may prove worthy of a spot, but its talent has a lot to prove on the field first.
5. West Virginia
|Cornerback||Daryl Worley||Lockdown corner||3-star|
|Nickel||KJ Dillon||Strong box player, reliable in man coverage||3-star|
|Free safety||Dravon Henry||Talented back-end eraser||4-star|
|Strong safety||Karl Joseph||Another good run support player and big hitter||3-star|
|Cornerback||Terrell Chestnut||Capable man coverage defender||4-star|
The Mountaineers very quietly finished in the top 25 in defensive S&P, and they did it through a fairly unique anti-spread strategy that could be described as "all or nothing." DC Tony Gibson would alternate between bringing man pressures with as many as eight blitzers and playing much safer coverages that would drop eight defenders into zones.
All five of the defensive backs this scheme relied upon are back for more in 2015 and they check off the boxes quite well, thanks to the coverage abilities of everyone on the field combined with the physical and versatile play of Joseph and Dillon. With a leap from talented true sophomore Dravon Henry the unit could make another jump forward.
4. Ole Miss
|Cornerback||Tee Shepard||Lockdown corner||4-star|
|Nickel||Tony Conner||Massively talented, brings playmaking off the edge||5-star|
|Free safety||Trae Elston||Solid on the back-end||3-star|
|Strong safety||Mike Hilton||A good corner and run defender now upgrading coverage in the back||3-star|
|Cornerback||Tony Bridges||Between Bridges and Shepard emerging, Hilton had to move to safety||
It's hard to believe that Ole Miss could rank high again a year after losing All-American Senquez Golson, but Hugh Freeze's careful mining of the JUCO ranks has actually brought in enough corner talent to move Hilton to safety and survive the losses of both Golson and Cody Prewitt.
The "landsharks" are still one of the fastest and most physical units in the country and they'll have the all-important combination down of talent on the outside and experience in the middle.
|Cornerback||Tre'Davious White||Lockdown corner||4-star|
|Nickel||Jalen Mills||Versatile DB who can play man coverage||3-star|
|Free safety||Rickey Jefferson||Growing into a ball-hawk on the back end||4-star|
|Strong safety||Jamal Adams||One of the better box safeties in the country||5-star|
|Cornerback||Ed Paris||Emerging quality corner but battling a 5-star freshman||4-star
White, Adams and Mills combine to check a lot of boxes for the Tigers as they struggle to once again field a dominant secondary on par with the 2010 or 2011 units. Adams is one of the better extra run-support players in the nation while Mills is a useful weapon at nickel where he can blitz the edge or erase a slot receiver. Jefferson and Paris need to grow as a back-end eraser and man corner, respectively, but each have already shown great promise in those roles.
2. Virginia Tech
|Cornerback||Kendall Fuller||Lockdown corner||5-star|
|Nickel||Chuck Clark||Versatile DB who can play man coverage||3-star|
|Free safety||Desmond Frye||Long-time contributor with experience in the system||3-star|
|Rover||CJ Reavis||Beat out the solid Frye for the role of box safety||3-star|
|Cornerback||Brandon Facyson||A second lockdown corner||
A lot depends on Facyson coming back from a broken leg and allowing emerging star Chuck Clark to play as needed in the middle of the field as a third lockdown cover man in the nickel. If that happens, the Hokies will have arguably the best top-three man coverage players of any secondary in the nation with Fuller, Facyson and Clark, allowing them to leave Reavis in the box and pressure opponents into oblivion from his rover position.
The Hokies love to play press-man coverage across the board while using their rover to attack the run or protection schemes. Desmond Frye brings a lot of experience, but may also struggle to hold off more athletic options from taking his spot.
|Cornerback||Vernon Hargreaves III||Lockdown corner||5-star|
|Nickel||Brian Poole||Brilliant nickel corner with physicality to play the edge||4-star|
|Free safety||Marcus Maye||Physical box player/back end support player||4-star|
|Strong safety||Keanu Neal||Physical box player/back end support player||4-star|
|Cornerback||Jalen Tabor||Big athlete at 6'1", possible future lockdown corner||5-star
While Jim McElwain seems to have his work cut out for him rebuilding Florida into a powerhouse on offense, there can be no doubt that Will Muschamp left him a full cupboard on defense. Neal and Maye are interchangeable, rangy support players who allow the Gators to disguise whether one or both are dropping deep or joining the fun in the box.
Poole is a fantastic coverage player who had four interceptions and 10 pass break-ups a year ago, but his physicality will keep him inside at nickel while Tabor or possibly Quincy Wilson play opposite the star of the show, Hargreaves. The Gators' number one corner is arguably the best in the entire nation and rarely draws any attention from opposing quarterbacks, even when guarding top receivers.
It should be relatively simple for new DC Geoff Collins to draw up sound schemes to erase the best features of opposing offenses in the SEC with such a talented and well-rounded group taking the field in Gainesville.