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July 4, 2014

First rate: Defensive backs

This is the best position among Notre Dame and the teams on its slate this fall - by far. All but Arizona State has at least two starters returning, and 11 of the 13 defenses ranked 65th or better in pass efficiency coverage, including No. 2 Florida State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 14 USC.

An incredible amount of productivity returns in the secondaries of these teams, which means Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and/or Malik Zaire better be prepared to protect the football against these ball-hawking defensive backs.

Here is the seventh installment of our First-Rate series with secondaries ranked in descending order. Other than Navy and Purdue a year ago, every one of these units should at least be pretty good, and that includes the Midshipmen and Boilermakers, both of whom return three starters on the back end.

13) Navy (S-Parrish Gaines, CB-Brendon Clements, CB-Kwazel Bertrand)

Even the last-place team on our defensive backs list has three starters returning, led by the veteran Gaines (65 tackles, 3 interceptions) at safety. At cornerback, Clements was impressive as a freshman with 49 tackles and three interceptions. Bertrand emerged as a sophomore with 43 tackles, and senior Lonnie Richardson (25 tackles) is expected to crack the starting lineup. The Midshipmen were one of five teams (including the Irish) on the slate to record just 13 interceptions in 2013. Navy also ranked the lowest on the list in pass efficiency defense at No. 101.

12) Arizona State (S-Damarious Randall)

Based upon last year's numbers - the Sun Devils finished third in the country in '13 with 21 interceptions - this is a unit that deserves respect. But a ton, no, a couple tons of talent walked out the door, including the team's leading tackler, Chris Young (112 stops, 17.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), Alden Darby (72 tackles, 4 interceptions), Robert Nelson (57 tackles, 6 interceptions) and Osahon Irabor (54 tackles, 3 interceptions, including a pick six vs. Notre Dame). That leaves Randall (71 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) as the only real experienced player on the back end of the defense, although red-shirt freshman safety James Johnson offers promise.

11) Purdue (S-Taylor Richards, CB-Frankie Williams, CB-Anthony Brown)

You've heard the good news/bad news scenario before. All four starters return - the Boilers played more than half of the '13 season without CB Ricardo Allen (53 tackles, 6 interceptions in just 5 games) - for a defense that ranked 101st in pass efficiency defense with just 13 interceptions. But this is a group that's been around the block and will benefit from it. Brown (69 tackles, 2nd on the team) and Williams (61 tackles, 4th on the team, 2 interceptions) will handle the cornerback positions while Richards (64 tackles, 3rd on the team, 1 interception) will pair up with talented yet frequently-banged-up safety Landon Feichter (24 tackles, 1 interception). On a team that was 0-8 in the Big Ten, this unit constitutes a strength.

10) Syracuse (S-Durell Eskridge, CB-Brandon Reddish)

Syracuse ranked in the middle of the pack nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago to go with a middle-of-the-road interception total (15). But a bunch of promising talent returns, led by free safety Eskridge (78 tackles, 4 interceptions). Reddish (36 tackles) returns at cornerback with Julian Whigham (3 interceptions) stepping into the starting lineup at cornerback. Joining Eskridge at safety are Ritchy Desir (47 tackles, 1 interception) and Darius Kelly (45 tackles). This unit could really blossom in '14.

9) Rice (CB-Bryce Callahan, CB-Malcolm, S-Julius White)

The Owls rarely produce NFL-caliber talent, so when cornerback Phillip Gaines (36 tackles, 4 interceptions) and his 4.38 Indianapolis Combine speed was tabbed in the third round by the Chiefs, Rice lost a good one. And yet the Owls' defense allowed a spectacular 51.7 completion percentage a year ago, and three starters return, led by veteran free safety White (67 tackles, 2 interceptions). Rice also returns a pair of seniors at cornerback in Hill (49 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Callahan (34 tackles, 3 interceptions). This remains an incredibly productive back end of the defense, despite the loss of Gaines.

8) Louisville (CB-Terell Floyd, CB-Charles Gaines)

Gone is big-play safety Calvin Pryor (75 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions), a first-round draft choice, from a unit that ranked fourth in the country in pass efficiency defense. The safety position was decimated when you factor in the departure of three-year starter Hakeem Smith (45 tackles, 3 interceptions) and the knee injury that prompted Jermaine Reve to miss the spring. The cornerback position, however, is strong with the return of Gaines (22 tackles, 5 interceptions) and Floyd (40 tackles, 4 interceptions).

7) North Carolina (S-Tim Scott, S-Dominique Green)

A unit on the rise after the Tar Heels finished 32nd in the country in pass efficiency defense. The loss of fourth-round draft choice Tre Boston (team-high 94 tackles, 5 interceptions) is significant. But the safety position is a strength with Green (59 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Scott (49 tackles, 2 interceptions). The move of Norkeithus Otis (50 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 1 interception) closer to the point of attack helps the front seven, but diminishes the back end. Cornerback Brian Walker (21 tackles, 1 interception as a freshman) has the Tar Heels' coaching staff excited.

6) Northwestern (S-Ibraheim Campbell, CB-Nick VanHoose, S-Traveon Henry)

One of the most underrated secondaries in the Big Ten. After tying for sixth nationally in interceptions with 19 - the linebackers were particularly good in this area - three starters return, led by four-year starter Campbell (74 tackles, 4 interceptions) and VanHoose (60 tackles, 5 tackles for loss). Henry (77 tackles, 1 interception) leads the safety corps while the Wildcats are high on sophomore safety Matthew Harris (36 tackles). With what should be a solid pass rush, this will remain a productive secondary.

5) Notre Dame (CB-KeiVarae Russell, S-Austin Collinsworth)

Look for this unit to be considerably more aggressive in its approach with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder replacing Bob Diaco. Interceptions - just 13 in '13 - should rise, although the pass efficiency defense (39th in '13) could take a bit of a hit. Expectations are sky-high for Russell (51 tackles, 1 interception), who doesn't have the mostly-dependable Bennett Jackson opposite him. That will now be some combination of Cody Riggs (51 tackles, but 0 interceptions since 2010), who bounced between cornerback and safety at Florida, and Cole Luke (15 tackles). Collinsworth (43 tackles, 3 interceptions) led the '13 Irish in picks. The Irish need Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy to maximize their potential, which is vast.

4) Michigan (CB-Blake Countess, CB-Raymon Taylor, S-Jarrod Wilson)

The Wolverines lost a long-time productive football player in Thomas Gordon (229 career tackles, 6 interceptions), but like several teams on Notre Dame's '14 slate, there's plenty more where that came from. Countess bounced back from a season-ending injury in '12 to finish with 46 tackles and six interceptions last year, including two against the Irish. Taylor led the team in tackles (86 with 4 interceptions), which says something about Michigan's pass defense in '13. Wilson (50 tackles, 2 interceptions) provides stability on the back end. The wildcard is true freshman Jabrill Peppers, who will figure into the talented cornerback corps. Look for the Wolverines' No. 51 pass efficiency defense to improve in '14.

3) Stanford (S-Jordan Richards, CB-Alex Carter, CB-Wayne Lyons)

You always had to account for Ed Reynolds on the back end of the Cardinal defense, particularly after his 2012 season (6 interceptions, 3 for TDs). Now he's gone, but three starters return, including both cornerbacks. Lyons (69 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions) and Carter (58 tackles, 1 interception) are ball hawks and solid against the run. It remains uncertain as to which of the safeties from a year ago required more attention - Reynolds or the gifted Richards (68 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions). This is a dynamic group. It's surprising that last year's Stanford defense had just 13 interceptions.

2) USC (S-Su'a Cravens, CB-Josh Shaw, CB-Kevon Seymour)

The Trojans are loaded with talent on the back end of the defense with Cravens (53 tackles, 4 interceptions) living up to his billing as a rookie in '13. Make no mistake, the loss of Dion Bailey (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss 5 interceptions) is substantial. But Shaw (67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions) and Seymour (48 tackles, 1 interception) represent one of the best tandems in the country. Now it's Leon McQuay III's turn at safety, and if true freshman Adoree Jackson makes an immediate impact, it would allow the Trojans to move Shaw back to his best position - safety.

1) Florida State (CB-P.J. Williams, S-Jalen Ramsey, CB-Ronald Darby)
After leading the nation in interceptions (26) and finishing second in the country in pass efficiency defense, the Seminoles return three starters, led by Ramsey (49 tackles, 1 interception), who is expected to slide from cornerback to safety to replace Lamarcus Joyner (69 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions), who is a huge loss, even for a team as talented as Florida State. Manning the corners will be Williams (35 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Darby (2 interceptions). In a year with so many good secondaries, this is the best one in the country.
Here is the running tally through seven positions/categories:
1) Florida State (11 - QB 1st, RB 1st, WR/TE 1st, OL 1st, DL 2nd, LB 4th, DB 1st)
2) USC (24 - QB 6th, RB 3rd, WR/TE 4th, OL 5th, DL 1st, LB 3rd, DB 2nd)
3) Stanford (30 - QB 5th, RB 8th, WR/TE 6th, OL 3rd, DL 3rd, LB 2nd, DB 3rd)
4) Notre Dame (33 - QB 3rd, RB 4th, WR/TE 5th, OL 2nd, DL 8th, LB 6th, DB 5th)
5t) Arizona State (48 - QB 2nd, RB 2nd, WR/TE 8th, OL 4th, DL 10th, LB 10th, DB 12th)
5t) Northwestern (48 - QB 8th, RB 5th, WR/TE 7th, OL 8th, DL 9th, LB 5th, DB 6th)
7) Louisville (51 - QB 12th, RB 6th, WR/TE 2nd, OL 7th, DL 5th, LB 11th, DB 8th)
8) Michigan (52 - QB 7th, RB 12th, WR/TE 10th, OL 12th, DL 6th, LB 1st, DB 4th)
9) North Carolina (54 - QB 10th, RB 10th, WR/TE 3rd, OL 9th, DL 7th, LB 8th, DB 7th)
10) Syracuse (57 - QB 9th, RB 9th, WR/TE 12th, OL 6th, DL 4th, LB 7th, DB 10th)
11) Navy (73 - QB 4th, RB 7th, WR/TE 13th, OL 11th, DL 12th, LB 13th, DB 13th)
12) Rice (75 - QB 13th, RB 11th, WR/TE 9th, OL 10th, DL 11th, LB 12th, DB 9th)
13) Purdue (81 - QB 11th, RB 13th, WR/TE 11th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 9th, DB 11th)
First Rate: QB | RB | WR | OL | DL | LB | DB | ST | Coaching

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