Stats-based evaluation of defensive backs is tricky. Sure, tackles indicate an ability to finish a play when necessary, but ideally, DBs shouldn't get that many opportunities; if corners are making lots of tackles, it often means they're getting beaten too much, and then tackling the receiver after the catch. Meanwhile, safeties making lots of tackles tends to indicate the rest of the defense isn't very good, and lots of ball carriers are getting into the defensive backfield. Similar caveats can apply to interceptions and sacks- the opportunities presented are often dictated by the opponent. Moreover, the differences between corner and safety are substantial enough that it doesn't exactly make a lot of sense to rank them together.
But, we've committed to saying who's best at all the positions, and I don't feel like writing a separate piece for all four DB positions (and having gone that far, who would I be to leave out nickel and dime back lists, after all?) so there's no backing down now. Stay the course.
1. Kurtis Drummond, RS Senior FS, Michigan State
Safety is a difficult position to play in Michigan State's aggressive, man coverage system. Instead of helping corners with double teams, safeties are frequently expected to be locked up in single coverage themselves. Depending on how the play unfolds, they can also be expected to help in run coverage.
Drummond, going into his third year as a starter, has proven up to those tasks for the most part. Despite the presence of standout seniors Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Isaiah Lewis on the field with him, Drummond still gathered 91 tackles in 2013, as well as 4 interceptions and a forced fumble. He showed a particular knack for seek-and-destroy plays on screens and other throws in the flat, a tempting playcall for offenses testing the coverage abilities of MSU's linebackers. Like Trenton Robinson before him, Drummond will go into his senior year as the logical leader and field general of a secondary with high expectations placed upon it.
2. Blake Countess, RS Junior CB, Michigan
With Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby gone, Blake Countess can reasonably stake his claim as the conference's best returning corner. He missed pretty much the entire 2012 season after tearing an ACL against Alabama, but returned to the field even sharper in 2013. Countess is a shade on the small side, and wasn't deployed on blitzes much, but he definitely has a knack for making the big play in pass defense, snagging 6 INTs in 2013 and gathering 169 return yards off of them. Between Countess, senior Raymon Taylor, and incoming uber-croot Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's corners should be the best in the conference, on a defense returning the large majority of its starts from last season.
3. Ibraheim Campbell, RS Senior SS, Northwestern
Playing on a perennially underrated Northwestern defense, Campbell's career has gone largely unnoticed around the conference. Insofar as any Northwestern defender gets attention this offseason, it will probably be Chi Chi Ariguzo, but Campbell, going into his fourth year as a starter, is probably the more indispensable player. He accumulated respectable stats last year (73 tackles, 4 INTs), and showed up big against the best opponents with 10 tackles against MSU and Nebraska, and 9 against both Ohio State and Wisconsin. Of course, Northwestern came up short in all of those games, but it would be hard to pin much of the blame for the team's disastrous season on Campbell's steady play.
4. Adrian Amos, RS Senior DB, Penn State
Amos is perhaps as overlooked a player as has played in the B1G in the last few years. Penn State's profound personnel shortage the last few years has required some creative depth chart maneuvering. Ergo, Amos, who had spent the first years of his career at corner, transitioned to safety before the 2013 season. Then, roughly 2/3 of the way through the season, he had to move back to corner after Trevor Williams struggled at the position. In his first game back at CB, Amos notched 8 tackles against Illinois, and tipped a pass that resulted in a game-clinching interception for Ryan Keiser.
Amos' flexibility will likely be a vital tool in new head coach James Franklin's efforts to adjust to his sanctions-depleted roster, as he has shown the ability to capably play either corner or safety. Although Penn State's pass defense struggled in 2013, Amos was the one reliable piece and could play the pass, support the run (50 tackles), and even get into the backfield (2.5 sacks). Penn State's roster figures to recover somewhat as the sanctions pass, but for 2014, Amos will be essential to the success of their secondary.
5. Desmond King, Sophomore CB, Iowa
Welp, here's Iowa's latest in a long chain of unheralded defensive backs from Detroit with nothing but MAC offers who then turn into All-B1G performers with NFL potential. As a true freshman, King showed a truly impressive willingness to get dirty in run support, piling up 69 tackles- on a defense with three linebackers that racked over a hundred stops each.
Moreover, he wasn't the liability in coverage that freshmen often are, and though he didn't bring in any INTs, he broke up 8 passes, and his likely ascension into the #1 CB spot will mean plenty more opportunities while tasked with shutting down opponents' top receivers.
Honorable Mention- Sojourn Shelton, Sophomore CB, Wisconsin
Much like Desmond King, Shelton was an impressive find by his coaches, and looked prepared for the college game from day one. The only differentiation between them is the relative success of the units they played on. Perhaps it is isn't fair to ding Shelton for the suspect play of the rest of the secondary around him, but Wisconsin's pass defense was a serious Achilles heel on an otherwise stout defense, while Iowa's was generally reliable.
Still, the Badgers have a budding star in the defensive backfield, and with their massive losses in the front seven, it will be crucial for the relatively experienced secondary to raise its level of play and leadership.