College News & Analysis

Top 10 returning safeties in college football for the 2022 season

College Station, Texas, USA; Kent State Golden Flashes quarterback Collin Schlee (19) is sacked by Texas A&M Aggies defensive back Antonio Johnson (27) during the fourth quarter at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially reset time in college football.

We are on to the 2022 season, where teams across the country will compete for a chance to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. There’s still a lot to be figured out between now and then with team rosters and depth charts — the transfer portal deadline is months away. But the 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, so we now know which of college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.

As such, there's no better time to dive into early position rankings of the top returning players in college football. Below are the top 10 safeties returning to college football this fall. Please note this has nothing to do with NFL potential.

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1. ANTONIO JOHNSON, TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Covering the slot is difficult — a defensive back has to be smart and quick while also profiling as a physical tackler ready to defend extra space. No one in college football was better at doing that this past year than Johnson. 

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defensive back ranked in the top three in the Power Five in both slot passing stops (14) and yards per slot coverage snap (0.58). He blew up plays underneath, rarely let anything by him and used his length to his advantage. Overall, Johnson earned an 87.4 PFF grade for the season — not too shabby for a true sophomore.

 

2. TYKEE SMITH, GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Smith, a three-star recruit from the 2019 class, 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. He then transferred to Georgia last offseason, but injury prevented him from helping out the Dawgs in their national title run. With a clean bill of health in 2022, he’ll be one of the best players on the field for Georgia.

Back in 2020, Smith was targeted 38 times in coverage across 10 games and allowed just 110 yards in total. He did not give up a single pass play of 15 or more yards, made five plays on the ball and forced 10 passing stops. At 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, Smith is a physical player who routinely shed receiver blocks and blew up screens in 2020. He has great eyes in coverage and was rarely caught off guard.

3. JORDAN BATTLE, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Battle is fresh off a 90.0 grade in 2021 that ranked second in the FBS and sixth among all SEC safety seasons in the PFF College era (since 2014). And the year before that, Battle was the highest-graded safety in the conference (80.9). Needless to say, his decision to forgo the NFL in favor of another season at Alabama was quite a surprise — but a very good thing for the Crimson Tide. He’s physical, versatile, instinctive and one of the best safeties in the country.

4. BRANDON JOSEPH, NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

Notre Dame got a former All-American to replace another All-American, Kyle Hamilton. Joseph, who transferred from Northwestern, played only 13 snaps in his first season in 2019, but he exploded in 2020 and established himself as one of the game's top cover safeties. He intercepted six passes and was responsible for only one pass play of 15-plus yards.

It didn’t matter if he was playing single- or two-high deep safety, if he was down in the box or if he was 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).

He took a minor step back in 2021 — particularly in run defense — but his coverage play remained strong. He picked up a 77.2 coverage grade while intercepting three passes and breaking up two others.

5. ANDREW MUKUBA, CLEMSON TIGERS

Mukuba looked far from a true freshman in 2021. He is an all-around athlete who isn't afraid of physicality, already one of the top tackling safeties in college football. He missed only three tackles on 48 attempts and finished with 75.0-plus grades both against the run and in coverage. Mukuba tallied a 77.5 PFF grade for the season.

A mid-year lull led to him getting moved down to a reserve role, but he regained the starting job by the season’s end and his strong play returned.

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6. CHRISTOPHER SMITH, GEORGIA BULLDOGS

The only SEC safeties who earned higher grades than Smith over the past two years are Alabama's Jordan Battle and former teammate Lewis Cine, who is off to the NFL.

Smith really took a step forward in coverage in 2021. He earned an 81.6 grade in the facet, nearly 10 points higher than the year before. Smith also made nine passing stops, intercepted three passes and forced two incompletions in 2021. For reference, he didn’t pick off a pass and posted just one forced incompletion and passing stop apiece in 2020.

7. JALEN CATALON, ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

Catalon is back for one more year after a sluggish start and a season-ending injury midway through 2021. Back in 2020, he was one of the biggest breakouts at the position. The 2019 four-star recruit displayed excellent vision and always made sure his tackles were felt. He finished with a 79.4 PFF grade for the season, ranking second in the SEC and 10th in the Power Five.

8. MALACHI MOORE/BRIAN BRANCH, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

These two come as a package deal since they play the same position (STAR or slot corner) for the same team. Moore held down the primary spot for most of 2021 but struggled, prompting Branch to man the spot for the last few games of Alabama’s season. They both can be moved around, which could allow them to get them on the field at the same time in 2022, but regardless, the Crimson Tide are in good hands.

Moore didn’t play up to his standards in 2021, finishing with a 60.0 PFF grade. As a true freshman in 2020, he closed out the year with a hot stretch of play. From Week 7 on that season, the four-star recruit put up the highest slot coverage grade in the FBS.

As for Branch, he was a higher-ranked four-star recruit from the 2020 class but played only 290 snaps in Year 1. He did impress on that small sample before sustaining that and then some this past season. Branch brings the physicality, which shows up in the run game and when blitzing. He posted an 88.1 run-defense grade and a 90.0 pass-rush grade in 2021. His tackling was also among the best in the country, with zero misses on 56 attempts.


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9. ISHEEM YOUNG, OLE MISS REBELS

Young excelled at manning the middle of the field in Iowa State’s three-high safety defense over the past couple of seasons. Now, he takes his talents to Ole Miss.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound safety has been the model of consistency the past two seasons, recording PFF grades of 74.7 and 75.1. He forced five fumbles in that span while intercepting three passes and breaking up five others. He has allowed only one touchdown and missed 12 tackles on 129 attempts since 2020.

10. KRIS ABRAMS-DRAINE, MISSOURI TIGERS

Abrams-Draine came to Missouri as a wide receiver before flipping to the defense near the end of 2020. He played only 27 snaps in his first year on campus — nine on offense and 18 on defense — before winning the starting nickel spot for 2021, where he broke out.

Abrams-Draine earned an 83.0 PFF grade in his debut season starting at the position and allowed under 30 yards in 10 of his 13 games. He racked up three interceptions and nine pass breakups. He even made a start at outside corner against Vanderbilt and allowed nine yards while breaking up two passes. The 5-foot-11, 177-pound defensive back returns as one of the top slot corners and best kept secrets in the SEC.

SLEEPER TO WATCH: CALEN BULLOCK, USC TROJANS

Lincoln Riley and company should be hyped to inherit Bullock. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound safety flashed high-level playmaking traits as a true freshman. He intercepted a couple of passes and broke up four others en route to a 72.3 coverage grade.

However, Bullock was rather up and down for most of the season and needs to add more to his frame and improve his tackling. But at the end of the day, his best performances were special for a first-year player in the Power Five.

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