The 2012 NCAA Football season kicks off on Thursday night, and as fans of the site know, we here at sportsmasher.com have been previewing the top players in the country position by position. With only a few days until kickoff, we finish up our season preview by breaking down the top safety prospects in the country:
Eric Reid, Junior (6’2 208lbs) LSU – An experienced player who was a major contributor to the Bayou Bengals defense in 2011, Reid is coming off a stellar season where he totaled 76 tackles and two interceptions, plus a multitude of highlight reel big hits. Reid enters his junior season as the most experience player in the Tigers secondary, he is a punishing hitter who makes plays in the box, but also has the speed and agility to cover the deep ball downfield. While the nation focused on Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Morris Claiborne during the 2011 season, I thought Reid was actually the best player in the LSU secondary, and those two no longer on campus, the spotlight will belong to Reid.
T.J. McDonald, Senior (6’3 205lbs) USC – The big safety is an incredible athlete and heavy hitter, he contributed 69 tackles and three interceptions for a Trojans team that was not bowl eligible in 2011. McDonald will now be relied on by Lane Kiffin to be the leader of a defense that has a lot of talent but lacks overall depth as USC will make a run for the conference championship and a BCS Title Game berth in 2012.
Tony Jefferson, Junior (5’10 200lbs) Oklahoma – The former Big 12 Freshman of the Year (2010) Jefferson has always been all over the field for the Sooners, and his numbers show it, in 2011 as a sophomore he had 74 tackles 4.5 sacks, four interceptions, three passes defended and one forced fumble. He has not only produced since he set foot on the field at Oklahoma, but he has continued to improve, and I would not be shocked if he is the top safety draft prospect when he leaves Oklahoma. Just an excellent, smart football player with a nose for the ball.
Baccarri Rambo, Senior (6′ 218lbs) Georgia – No safety in the country has a better name than Baccrri Rambo, and few players in the country are more talented, the presence of the senior in the secondary is one of the main reasons that I picked the Georgia Bulldogs to win the 2012 BCS Championship. Rambo had 66 tackles and eight interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown in 2011. With an excellent defensive line and pass rush in front of Rambo in 2012, I expect Rambo to have a lot of opportunities to make plays in the Georgia secondary, and he will make some spectacular ones for a very good Bulldogs team.
Robert Lester, Senior (6’2 210lbs) Alabama – One of the few returning starters from the Crimson Tide’s 2011 National Championship defense, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest of all time, Lester now steps into a leadership role in Tuscaloosa. He is not the heavy hitter that his former defensive backfield-mate Mark Barron was at Alabama, but Lester may be better in coverage, and that is saying something considering Barron was the 7th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Lester finished the 2011 season with 38 tackles and two interceptions, however those numbers should increase, as the senior will be asked to do much more this coming season.
Josh Boyett, Senior (5’10 202lbs) Oregon – Oregon’s best defensive player in 2011, some of Boyett’s stat lines absolutely jump off of the page, such as a 17 tackle game in a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Boyett had 107 tackles, 0.5 sacks and one interception for the Ducks in 2011 and was able to dominate single-handedly in some games, where it seemed like he made every single tackle. Back for his senior year in Eugene, I expect Boyett to continue to be a tackling machine, while increasing his playmaking ability in 2012.
Matt Elam, Junior (5’10 202lbs) Florida – One of Florida’s top defensive performers as a sophomore and the former top recruit from Florida, the athletic Elam contributed 78 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two interceptions in 2011 for a young Gators defense, which should improve as a unit this coming season. Elam is a sound tackler who seems to be at his best while reading and reacting to an offensive play, the Gators defense should improve as a whole after some growing pains in 2011, and Elam should be one of its best players.
Kenny Vaccaro, Senior (6’1 215lbs) Texas – An All-Big Ten First team pick, Vaccaro had 67 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two interceptions in 2011 and should be one of the leaders of an improving Longhorn defense in 2012. Vaccaro has good instincts and is a smart football player who can deliver the big hit, 2011 was his first full season as a starter and I expect him to become an even better player in 2012.
Hakeem Smith, Junior (6’1 190lbs) Louisville – The best player on defensive minded head coach Charlie Strong’s defense at Louisville last season was sophomore safety Hakeem Smith, a player that had 84 tackles and one interception while improving every single game. Now a year older and more mature, I expect Smith to pick up where he left off in 2012 and become the defensive leader of what should be an underrated and surprisingly good Cardinals team.
Brian Blechen, Junior (6’2 225lbs) Utah – A huge safety who is a big hitter, Blechen is at his best while playing in the box, but is no slouch in coverage either. In 2011 Blechen had 75 tackles and two interceptions while providing some highlight reel hits for the Utes, and while I question if he has enough speed and athleticism to play safety at the NFL level, I expect Blechen to continue to make plays and punishing hits this season at Utah.
Honorable Mention: Isaiah Johnson, Junior – Georgia Tech, Brandan Bishop, Senior – North Carolina State, C.J. Barnett, Senior – Ohio State, Vaughn Telemaque, Senior – Miami, Prentiss Waggner, Senior – Tennessee, Jarredd Holley, Senior – Pittsburgh, DeVonte Holloman, Senior – South Carolina, Rashard Hall, Senior – Clemson