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Big Sky position rankings: Defensive backs
They’re the last line of defense. They’re the ones who must make stops or defend passes when no one else is between the opposing offense and the goal line.
It’s not an enviable task, and it takes poise and patience to be successful. It also takes plenty of skill, and these guys have it.
The best DB in the Big Sky Conference is …
This season, the Big Sky Conference brings back four all-conference defensive backs from last year, including All-America corner Trumaine Johnson of Montana.
Naturally, Johnson tops our list. He’s probably the most NFL-ready of any player in the league, and will undoubtedly be drafted next spring. He’s already projected as a fourth-rounder.
But there are nine others defensive backs on this list that are plenty good, too. Have a look:
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS
1 - Trumaine Johnson, Sr., CB, Montana
Comment: The best cornerback in the FCS.
2 - Matt Johnson, Sr., S, Eastern Washington
Comment: Made big plays at big times last season.
3 - DeShawn Shead, Sr., S, Portland State
Comment: Vikings hope move to safety won’t alter impact.
4 - Jeff Minnerly, Jr., S, Eastern Washington
Comment: Former QB had no problems on defense in ‘10.
5 - Darius Jones, Jr., CB, Montana State
Comment: Underrated ballhawk gobbles up receivers.
6 - Mike McCord, Sr., S, Montana
Comment: Stepping into big role on Griz D.
7 - Daivon Dumas, Sr., CB, Northern Arizona
Comment: Tore ACL last year; hopes to rebound.
8 - Greg Melendez, Jr., S, Idaho State
Comment: Heady safety eager to finally prove his talent.
9 - Taylor Malenfant, Jr., S, Northern Arizona
Comment: Coming of age in Lumberjacks defense.
10 - Ryan McMahon, Jr., S, Sacramento State
Comment: One-time USC walk-on should boost Hornets secondary.
Trumaine Johnson was named a preseason All-American for 2011 by everybody and their dog, including the AFCA, the AP, The Sports Network, Phil Steele and Walter Camp. And it’s no wonder. Johnson’s coverage ability and ball skills make him incredibly tough to contend with. His 23 career pass breakups rank second in Griz history, while his 13 career picks rank fourth.
En route to a national title, Eastern Washington safety Matt Johnson played as big a role as anyone on the Eagles’ defense. Johnson had nine tackles and broke up a pass in a 20-19 victory over Delaware in the championship game, and collected nine tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery the week prior in a semifinal win over defending champ Villanova. His 105 total stops were more than any DB in the league.
It was a gutsy move, but second-year Portland State coach Nigel Burton moved All-Big Sky corner DeShawn Shead to strong safety during spring ball. The plan is to get Shead – who quarterbacks shied away from – more of an opportunity to make plays. With nine interceptions and 21 pass breakups, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Shead has done plenty of playmaking thus far in his career already.
Smarts is what separates Jeff Minnerly from most safeties in the Big Sky. How else can you make a successful move from backup quarterback to starting free safety? A whiz in the classroom, Minnerly had 48 tackles and three picks last year, and busted up two passes in Eastern Washington’s championship victory over Delaware.
Darius Jones is Montana State’s most experienced returner in the secondary, and that’s a good thing for the Bobcats. Jones, playing much of last season with a wrist injury, finished the season ranked second in the Big Sky with 11 pass breakups. Now fully healthy, Jones should continue that trend in 2011 as the man in the back end for the Cats.
The safety spot is the most important position in coordinator Mike Breske’s defense at Montana, and Mike McCord will be called on to step up this season. With 45 tackles last year, McCord is the most veteran of UM’s safeties. … Daivon Dumas ranked fourth on NAU’s defense with 56 tackles before injuring his knee. Now 100 percent, Dumas says he’s ready go go. … Idaho State’s Greg Melendez also injured his knee last season. A one-time transfer from Hofstra, Melendez could prove to be a big asset in the Bengals secondary. … Taylor Malenfant was named NAU’s “outstanding sophomore” at the end of last season. Malenfant had 24 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 2010. … Ryan McMahon starred on special teams at USC two years ago, but redshirted last season before transfering to Sac State. McMahon expects to produce for the Hornets.
NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a nine-part series in which we project the Top 10 players at each position in advance of the 2011 Big Sky Conference football season – summer transfers be damned!
LOOKING BACK: Don’t forget to revisit last year’s list.
By Greg Rachac, The Billings Gazette