College News & Analysis

Ranking the top 10 returning college defensive backs

Dec 28, 2019; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; LSU Tigers defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. (24) during the second half of the 2019 Peach Bowl college football playoff semifinal game against the Oklahoma Sooners at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary can make or break a college football team. Programs that struggle on the back end have virtually no conference or national championship hopes, no matter how well things click on offense, while fielding a strong group of cornerbacks and safeties is crucial to building a contender.

PFF data studies have shown that cornerback is the most valuable position in college football outside of quarterback, so any team that harnesses more than one top-tier corner will always be in with a chance to make waves on Saturdays.

Here are PFF’s top 10 defensive backs returning to college in 2021. The list is based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers.

Find the rest of PFF's top returning college players series here:
QB | RB | WR | OL | DL

1. CB DEREK STINGLEY JR., LSU

Stingley might be the best athlete to take the field this fall. Coming out of high school in 2019, the five-star cornerback clocked a 4.3-second 40 time and a 42-inch vertical. He then proceeded to have the best true-freshman season since PFF College's inception back in 2014. Stingley recorded a 91.7 PFF grade and 0.97 wins above average (WAA) in that 2019 season, the latter being the best mark among non-quarterbacks all year.

Stingley was battle-tested with a whopping 94 targets, yet he allowed a catch rate of just 38% while racking up 21 combined interceptions and pass breakups. On top of that, no corner forced tight coverage at a higher rate in 2019. DeVonta Smith may have got the best of him in that historic LSU-Alabama showdown, but it was one of the best seasons college football has ever seen.

The true sophomore cornerback saw two fewer targets per game on average in 2020, as it quickly became apparent that opposing quarterbacks weren’t looking to test him. Stingley saw 30 over his seven outings, allowing just seven first downs while forcing five incompletions, three of which came against Mizzou when he played most of the game with an ankle injury.

If Stingley keeps this up — and I have no doubt that he will — he’ll be a shoo-in to be the first non-quarterback off the board come April 2022.

2. CB AHMAD GARDNER, CINCINNATI

Cincinnati calls man coverage at one of the heaviest rates in the entire FBS, and Gardner’s ability to effectively shut down his side of the field in this system is a key reason why the Bearcats have become one of the top defenses in college football.

Gardner arrived in the Queen City as a three-star recruit in 2019 and earned a PFF coverage grade of 90.2 right off the bat as a true freshman, defying the dreaded learning curve at almost every turn. He was seemingly always at the catch point and hardly ever lost. And nothing changed in Year 2.

Gardner has developed into one of the best press-man coverage corners in college football over the last few years. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound cornerback has seen 84 targets in press coverage since landing in Cincinnati, and he has allowed just 16 first downs while making a whopping 22 plays on the ball, the most in the FBS over that time. He has yet to allow a touchdown in his college career, with opposing quarterbacks netting a 35.3 passer rating on throws into his primary coverage. Throwing the ball in the grass every play would generate a passer rating of 39.6.

That, right there, is what we call a lockdown corner.

3. CB ELI RICKS, LSU

LSU landed the very best true freshman regardless of position in 2019 with Stingley, and they held that honor once again in 2020 thanks to the standout play from five-star corner Eli Ricks.

The Tigers deployed a healthy dose of man coverage last season, and unlike most first-year corners in the SEC, Ricks handled it like a pro. His man-coverage grade ranked first among all Power 5 cornerbacks in 2020, and he allowed just six catches on 19 targets while making seven total plays on the ball when he was tasked with single coverage.

Ricks' physicality at the line of scrimmage and poise at the catch point make him a difficult cornerback to beat outright. It’s quite clear he already has an excellent feel for the position — just take his pick-six against 2021 NFL Draft prospect Kyle Trask and the Florida Gators as an example.

 

The LSU cornerback duo of Stingley and Ricks is going to be dangerously good in 2021. Godspeed to the SEC wide receivers facing these two next year.

4. CB TRE’VIUS HODGES-TOMLINSON, TCU

After playing less than 100 snaps as a three-star true freshman in 2019, Hodges-Tomlinson struggled to a 45.4 coverage grade in TCU’s 2020 opener. But after shaking off the rust, the sophomore went on to post an FBS-high 90.6 coverage grade while allowing just 12 catches on 45 targets. He also came away with 14 pass breakups.

Armed with a mirror ability that is as good as it gets at the position, the TCU cornerback routinely found himself playing the ball well at the catch point. He forced tight coverage on over 57% of his targets in 2020, the highest rate among Power 5 cornerbacks. Don’t underestimate this 5-foot-9, 177-pound corner — he’s going to play far more physically than his size suggests.

5. S TYKEE SMITH, WEST VIRGINIA

Smith, a three-star recruit of the 2019 class, has recorded the third-best slot coverage grade in the FBS over his true freshman and sophomore seasons while serving as the “spear” in West Virginia’s defense.

Smith’s 2020 campaign was a sight to behold. He was targeted 38 times in coverage across 10 games and allowed just 110 yards for the season. He did not give up a single explosive pass play of 15 or more yards while making five plays on the ball and forcing 10 passing stops. At 5-foot-10, 198 pounds, Smith is a physical player who shed receiver blocks and blew up screens like clockwork in 2020. He has great eyes in coverage and was never caught off guard. Keep an eye on Smith next season — he’s the real deal.

6. S KYLE HAMILTON, NOTRE DAME

Hamilton stands at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, and he is one of the most explosive safeties in the game. His 42-inch vertical may have helped land him on Bruce Feldman’s 2020 Freaks List, but he also pairs his physical skill set with great eyes in coverage, making him a certified playmaker.

Hamilton has compiled 16 combined pass breakups and interceptions and 15 passing stops as a true freshman and sophomore. Better yet, he was responsible for only three explosive pass plays of 15-plus yards over that span. The Notre Dame safety has generated the third-most WAA among players at his position over the last two years, and the two above him are likely to be taken within the first 50 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft.

7. CB JOSH JOBE, ALABAMA

Jobe is a press technician. Of all the Power 5 corners who have played at least 200 coverage snaps in press coverage in the last five years, Jobe’s 2020 season ranked fourth in yards per coverage snap allowed in press at 0.4. That’s not even half of that entire group’s average.

Jobe allowed 35 yards or less in all but one of his 13 games played,  surrendering only 12 first downs while forcing 10 incompletions. Still, it wasn't without fault. There were several instances of him going overboard physically and getting flagged; he actually drew more flags than any corner in the FBS this past season and was the first Alabama corner of the PFF College era to hit double-digits in that category. Call it an area for improvement in 2021.

8. CB KAIIR ELAM, FLORIDA

Elam did give up a few big plays early on in 2020, but he rallied and emerged as the playmaker we saw as a true freshman in 2019. He now has played exactly 600 coverage snaps at the collegiate level and has earned a 90.7 coverage grade in the process. In those two years combined, Elam has been responsible for 19 first downs and touchdowns while making 21 plays on the ball.

He’s at his best at the line of scrimmage playing in press coverage when he's allowed to rely on his length and physicality. In all, 265 of his 600 coverage snaps have come in press coverage, yet he's given up only 0.47 yards per coverage snap on those reps, the best mark among Power 5 cornerbacks who have played at least 250 press-coverage snaps in that span. His press performance was an area of focus for Elam this past offseason, and it’s safe to say the hard work paid off.

9. CB TRENT MCDUFFIE, WASHINGTON

McDuffie played in just four games this past season due to COVID-19’s impact on Washington’s season, but he still looked like the same player who lit it up as a true freshman back in 2019.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback has earned an impressive 88.3 coverage grade in his collegiate career. He is just one of three outside corners in the Power 5 who has generated a coverage grade above 75.0 in both man and zone coverage since 2019.

And that's not all, as McDuffie might also be the best tackling cornerback in college football. He has missed just two of his 64 career tackle attempts and earned a run-defense grade that ranks second among Power 5 corners over the last two years.

Put simply, McDuffie is a great all-around cornerback.

10. S BRANDON JOSEPH, NORTHWESTERN

Joseph played only 13 snaps in his first season on campus in 2019 before taking a redshirt, but he exploded in 2020 and established himself as one of the game's top cover safeties. He intercepted six passes while being responsible for only one explosive pass play of 15-plus yards.

It didn’t matter if he was playing single- or two-high deep safety or if he was down in the box or manning the slot, Joseph’s coverage ability was on full display all season, and it ended in a top-three coverage grade among FBS safeties (88.5).

Expect interception regression from Joseph in 2021, but don’t let that change your opinion on the Northwestern safety.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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