clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

B1G 2016 Spring Position Rankings: Cornerbacks

New, 45 comments

While the B1G is known more for line play than it is for cornerbacks, don't forget that football royalty such as Rod and Charles Woodson played cornerback in the B1G. The question is who will take up that mantle for the 2016 season?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

According to Business Insider, cornerback is the fourth-highest paid position in the NFL. This may come as a surprise to some, but when you consider the freakish mix of speed, agility, acceleration and technique that is required for the position, it's not surprising at all.

This year, the B1G returns both of its all-conference cornerbacks as well as one of its second-teamers. Couple this with a loss of three of the five most efficient quarterbacks in the conference, and the field is ripe for interceptions.

For the purposes of this article, a "starter" is any player with four or more starts to his credit in one season. Also, "other contributors" mostly focuses on players who are likely to see the field this year. I did look into true freshmen but not too heavily. Lastly, before anybody says anything, Jabrill Peppers and Demetrious Cox were considered safeties, even though both have played a good deal of cornerback, and Peppers is something of a hybrid.

1. Iowa Hawkeyes

Returning Starters: Desmond King SR, Greg Mabin RS-SR
Other Contributors: Maurice Fleming RS-SR, Joshua Jackson SO

King is a three-year starter, a consensus All-American and the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner. He was solid as a freshman and sophomore, but he exploded in his junior year, picking off eight, breaking up 21 passes, and pulling in one pick-six. He's also a solid tackler, ranking fifth on the Hawkeyes with 72 tackles. Usually, a cornerback with tackles is a sign something is wrong, but in King's case, he was that dominant in shutting down the edge in the run game.

Mabin came to Iowa as a receiver, but switched to defense and quickly took over a starting spot in 2014. He was raw but has developed. He is not a shut-down corner a la King, but he is solid, improving and will hear his name called in the NFL Draft.

2. Michigan Wolverines

Returning Starters: Jourdan Lewis SR, Jeremy Clark RS-SR
Other Contributors: Channing Stribling SR, Brandon Watson RS-SO

Lewis might be the most inherently talented of all B1G cornerbacks, and he will be the lynchpin of a defensive backfield that returns three starters and ranked first in the country in opposing quarterback passer efficiency. Lewis finished 2015 with 22 passes defended and two interceptions. Given the treasure trove of talent in UM's backfield, quarterbacks will only be able to avoid Lewis minimally which could result in more picks.

At 6'4", Clark is a big cornerback. Last year, as UM juggled its backfield due to the flexibility of Jabrill Peppers, Clark saw his star come and go. This year, he will be the man, and he will push for all-conference honors. Stribling, who also has starts to his name, will push for playing time.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Returning Starters: Derrick Tindal JR, Sojourn Shelton SR
Other Contributors: Natrell Jamerson JR

The Badgers return both cornerbacks from the No. 2-ranked defense in the country in opponent quarterback efficiency rating. Shelton will be a four-year starter with five career interceptions. He is short—5'9"—but fast and smart. Last year was Tindal's first year as a starter. He is the bigger and more physical of the two, but he is also the more easily picked on. Jamerson came to Wisconsin as a wide receiver and moved to the defense in 2015 spring practices. The Badgers do lack depth in the backfield, so they concentrated on defensive backs in this recruiting class, picking up seven. Don't be surprised if one or more sees the field.

As with all elements of the Badgers' defense, the bigger issue than the talent is how well the units respond to losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

4. Northwestern Wildcats

Returning Starters: Matthew Harris SR
Other Contributors: Keith Watkins RS-JR, Marcus McShephard RS-JR, Montrey Hartage SO

Matthew Harris didn't receive first or second-team all-conference honors which speaks to how deep the pool of conference cornerbacks was. Harris finished the season with four interceptions and one pick-six. He will finish his career as a three-year starter, and the conference will be hard-pressed to deny him honors this year. Also, he went to the same high school as OTE's own LincolnParkWildcat, which has to be worth something.

Watkins will most likely start on the other side. He earned two starts last year when Nick VanHoose went down. Is it a coincidence that those two starts were against Michigan and Iowa, both of which curbstomped Northwestern? Hard to say, but he will be one year more experienced in 2016.

5. Michigan State Spartans

Returning Starters: Darian Hicks SR
Other Contributors: Tyson Smith SO, Vayante Copeland RS-SO, Jermaine Edmondson SR

The best MSU defenses under Mark Dantonio featured lock-down cornerbacks in the form of Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. It has been two years since Dennard's graduation and one year since Waynes left for the NFL, and the Spartans still have found no suitable replacements. Hicks saw five starts while Edmondson earned time in sub packages. Both were serviceable, but both also played a part in MSU letting up the fourth-most passing plays of 20+ yards in the conference.

Copeland might have the most upside of all the candidates for playing time, but he lost most of last year with a neck injury that also plagued him during his high school career. If none of these players work out, MSU might have to turn to its true and redshirt-freshman pool.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

Returning Starters: Grant Haley JR
Other Contributors: John Reid SO, Christian Campbell JR, Garrett Taylor R-FR

Haley picked up his first start as a true freshman in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl and has been starting ever since. With much of the No. 1 pass rush in the conference lost to the NFL, it will be up to Haley and the rest of the secondary to pick up the slack. Reid is the frontrunner for the other job, having burned his redshirt and picked up playing time on special teams and in sub-packages. He came to PSU over offers from Alabama, Michigan and Notre Dame. Campbell will also push for playing time, having one start in his career.

There might be a statistical drop off for this group, but it will have more to do with what is going on in the front four than what is going on in the secondary.

7. Ohio State Buckeyes

Returning Starters: Gereon Conley JR
Other Contributors: Damon Webb JR, Marshon Lattimore RS-SO, Denzel Ward SO

Do you remember the last OSU starting cornerback who wasn't drafted? Me neither. And typically a player who is drafted had an impressive college career. Conley started last year opposite Eli Apple. Predictably, he was picked on, but he registered a solid and consistently improving performance. Look for Conley to step up as one of the leaders of what will have to be a rebuilt defense. Obviously, there is a good deal of speculation in this "prediction," but it is definitively educated speculation.

Speaking of speculation, word out of Buckeyenation is that the second starting cornerback job will probably go to Webb unless he is moved to safety to make way for Ward, the fastest player on the team. Meanwhile, Lattimore has talent but has battled injuries his entire career.

8. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Returning Starters: Joshua Kalu JR, Chris Jones JR
Other Contributors: Boaz Joseph RS-JR

Last year, the Nebraska pass defense was laughably bad. It had the second-most passing attempts in the conference thrown against it mainly because why not? That's how bad the secondary was. Much of that had to do with youth, inexperience and a new coaching staff. This year, the coaching staff has one year in place, and both of the starting cornerbacks return along with an experienced back-up. Don't expect a return to the days of Ralph Brown and Keyuo Craver, but the cornerbacks will return to respectability. Any more than that, which is possible, has to be considered a bonus.

9. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Returning Starters: Jalen Myrick JR
Other Contributors: KiAnte Hardin SO, Craig James JR, Antonio Shenault SO

The Gophers graduate their top two cornerbacks, leaving a sizeable hole in the defense. Myrick has the talent and experience to fill one of those holes, as he started seven last year. He did lose the end of the season to rib and lung injuries, but was awarded conference honorable mention despite only playing in 10 games.

The other side of the field will see a youth explosion. If the established players can't make the depth chart, perhaps one of the freshmen will. The Gophers signed seven potential defensive backs in this year's class to go along with six from 2015. However, going into spring, Hardin and Shenault look like the most likely to win the job.

10. Maryland Terrapins

Returning Starters: William Likely SR
Other Contributors: Darnell Savage SO, Jarrett Ross SR

As Likely was one of the few bright spots on the second-worst ranked passing defense in the B1G (opposing quarterback efficiency rating), quarterbacks largely avoided his side of field. This resulted in an unimpressive stat sheet for the to-be senior, including no interceptions; however, make no mistake, there was a reason he had no picks, and it wasn't because of lack of ability. In 2014, Maryland's first year in the B1G, Likely snagged six interceptions, including two pick-sixes. Prospects don't look much better for the Terps in 2016, but one side of the field will be well defended.

Savage had his redshirt pulled, and he picked up one start last year. Ross is a career backup and special teams contributor. The Terps will need to dig into their true freshman pool to build up their depth. If Likely could cover both sides of the field, I'm sure he would, but barring that, quarterbacks will again pick on half the field.

11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Returning Starters: Isaiah Wharton RS-SO, Blessaun Austin SO
Other Contributors: Jarius Adams SO, Ronnie James SO

Last year, among a number of other problems in Piscataway, Rutgers lost its entire secondary to arrests and eventual suspensions and expulsions. That led to putting in a number of players who weren't ready for the big time. That led to a pass defense that ranked 119th in the country in opposing quarterback efficiency rating. This year, all of those not-ready-for-primetime cornerbacks are back, and they should be considerably more up to the task. It's still unlikely that, as a unit, they will be good, but they might be serviceable, especially with new head coach Chris Ash whose specialty is the defensive backfield.

12. Indiana Hoosiers

Returning Starters: Rashard Fant RS-JR, Andre Brown SO
Other Contributors: Ben Bach RS-JR, Tyler Green SO, Devonte Williams RS-FR
Speaking of bad, all elements of Indiana defense have been bad for as long Kevin Wilson has been in Bloomington, and they were bad long before he arrived. The pass defense, and cornerbacks specifically, have been no exception. Indiana has ranked at or near the bottom of opponent quarterback efficiency rating since at least 2008 (cfbstats.com only goes back to 2008, and I didn't want to do extra leg work to prove what is common knowledge). The 2016 Hoosiers cornerback corps return en masse, and they may be (slightly) better than (both) Indiana fans have come to expect. However, expecting more than "slightly better" would be a fool's errand until IU proves it can be something more than a sieve of a defense.

13. Illinois Fighting Illini

Returning Starters: None
Other Contributors: Ahmari Hayes (JUCO transfer), Darius Mosely JR, Caleb Day SR, Jaylen Dunlap RS-JR, Cameron Watkins RS-FR, Chris James RS-FR

Illinois, despite its issues as a program, had a respectable pass defense last season, and much of that was because of its now-graduated cornerbacks. Mosely, Day and Dunlap have experience in sub packages, while Hayes has two years of JUCO experience. Watkins and James are newcomers who will get their first experience of B1G football. At this point, any positivity concerning the Illini cornerbacks would be speculatory.

14. Purdue Boilermakers

Returning Starters: None
Other Contributors: Myles Norwood RS-JR, Da'Wan Hunte RS-JR, Race Johnson RS-JR, Evyn Cooper RS-SO

Purdue's pass defense was also pretty bad—third-worst opposing quarterback efficiency rating in the B1G—but it probably appeared better, statistically, due to an awful rush defense. Opponents didn't pass against the Boilers when they could rush. It's difficult to see any improvement from Purdue in 2016 unless it's addition by subtraction. The Boilermakers lose both starting cornerbacks. Norwood will most likely to take over one starting position while Cooper and Hunte will compete for the other. Norwood has bounced back and forth between cornerback and wide receiver, but he seems to have settled on the defense. At 6'2", Cooper looks more like a safety than a corner. Out of the three, Hunte has the most on-field experience. If head coach Darrell Hazell's job is on the line in 2016, it's not likely to be saved by the cornerbacks.