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2012 Big Sky position rankings: Defensive backs
Happy Fourth of July everyone! As you know, Trumaine Johnson set the standard by which cornerbacks in the Big Sky Conference are judged. The Montana star dominated his side of the field, going head-to-head with the league’s top receivers each and every Saturday.
But Johnson has moved on after being chosen in the third round of April’s NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. With his departure, Johnson leaves a void at the top the list of the best defensive backs in the league. Who should assume the mantle heading into 2012?
Clearly, this year’s crop of DBs isn’t the deepest the Big Sky has seen in recent seasons. It seems like this could be a bit of a transition year for some new blood to step up. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a handful of established, veteran talent at the position, as you’ll see below.
Here’s our list of the Top 10 DBs in the Big Sky for the upcoming season. Who is No. 1 on your list?
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS FOR 2012
1. T.J. LEE, CB, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2011: 48 tkl, 2 int, 3 pass def, 1 breakup. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Lee, a Seattle native, is the only returning first-team All-Big Sky performer at the defensive back position from 2011. Last year was his first as a starter, and Lee showed his talent a solid cover corner. The Eagles are working in a new cornerbacks coach this year (Cherokee Valeria) and must fill in two new starters in the defensive backfield. But they’ll be in good hands with Lee, who along with safety Jeff Minnerly helped the Eagles rank third in the league in pass defense. Lee has great work ethic and has visions of becoming an All-American this season. He’ll at the very least be the best in the Big Sky in 2012.
2. DARIUS JONES, CB, SR., MONTANA STATE 2011: 61 tkl, 4 tfl, 1 int, 9 pass def, 8 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: It’s says a lot when you can rack up 60-plus tackles from the cornerback position, and Jones loves to get involved. With only one career interception, which came last year in a gritty playoff win over New Hampshire, Jones can go unnoticed at times. But with 22 pass breakups in the last three years (11 as a sophomore and 8 last year) Jones has proven to be a lock-down defender on the edge. Quarterbacks don’t test Jones too often, but he’s always around the ball when they do. Jones is fast, physical and plays well in both bump coverage or off the line. He’ll be an even better this year.
3. MATT HERMANSON, S, SO., MONTANA 2011: 64 tkl, 3.5 tfl, 3 int, 2 ff, 1 fum rec, 4 pass def, 1 breakup. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Just a sophomore, Hermanson already has established a reputation as a stud in the defensive backfield, and he’ll establish himself as the No. 1 safety in the Big Sky in 2012. He might even be on top of this entire list by the end of the season. Hermanson is steady, he runs well, he tackles hard and he ball-hawks as good as any guy in Montana’s secondary. The Sioux Falls, S.D., product will need to become a bigger leader this year, and we’ll find more about what he’s made of in that department once the season starts. But expect big things as the Grizzlies reorganize on defense.
4. MARCEL GIBBONS, S, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2011: 90 tkl, 12 tfl, 3 sacks, 2 int, 6 pass def, 4 breakups, 2 ff, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Gibbons earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades last year. How he didn’t get more recognition was a bit surprising. Maybe it was the Bears’ porous defense. Maybe it was their 0-11 record. In spite of all that, Gibbons had an awesome year. His 12 tackles-for-loss ranked fifth in the league, and that’s impressive coming from the safety position. In fact, he was the only DB on that list. Clearly Gibbons can hold his own just fine playing against both the run and the pass, making him perhaps the most diverse safety in the conference.
5. DONOVAN HENLEY, CB, SR., IDAHO STATE 2011: 43 tkl, 2 tfl, 4 int, 10 pass def, 6 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Henley’s four interceptions were the most in the Big Sky last year, and his 10 passes-defensed were tied for third. As the Bengals try to slowly rebuild their program under second-year coach Mike Kramer, Henley will be relied upon heavily again for results. Despite ISU’s struggles, Henley hasn’t gone unnoticed on a nation scale: He was recently added to the College Football Performance Awards watch list for 2012 and will surely be a candidate for other honors by the end of the season.
6. JEFF MINNERLY, S, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2011: 77 tkl, 5 tfl, 1 int, 3 pass def, 2 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Minnerly’s experience is perhaps his best attribute, having played a big role in Eastern Washington’s march to the FCS national title in 2010. He also might be the smartest defensive player in the Big Sky Conference. Minnerly injured his groin very early on in spring drills and had to miss valuable practice time, but he’ll be ready by the opening game. Minnerly’s 77 tackles were second on the team last year, but safeties coach Jeff Schmedding told The Spokesman Review that he expects Minnerly to have his best season as an Eagle in 2012.
7. BIJON SAMOODI, CB, SR., CAL POLY 2011: 62 tkl, 2.5 tfl, 1 int, 6 pass def, 5 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: The lone returning starter in Cal Poly’s secondary, Samoodi provides distinct big-play ability for the Mustangs. He had just one interception last season, but he took it back 46 yards for a touchdown in a 48-14 victory over South Dakota State. Otherwise, Samoodi finished third on the team in tackles last year and ranked high in passes-defensed. With the departure of All-America corner Asa Jackson, Samoodi is now the man in the defensive backfield for Cal Poly. That’s a good thing for the Mustangs.
8. JOEL FULLER, S, SR., MONTANA STATE 2011: 58 tkl, 2 tfl, 0 int, 7 pass def, 7 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Fuller is a former high school quarterback, but he took a big step forward last year in his first season as a starter at strong safety, earning second team all-conference accolades. A solid tackler with a nose for the ball, Fuller has the makeup of a prototype. He’ll be motivated to answer some critics this season, especially following what he described as “a disappointing performance for myself” in a loss to rival Montana in which he was beaten deep over the top for a back-breaking TD. Head coach Rob Ash has said Fuller has the ability to be a first-team All-Big Sky guy, and he’s aiming for that this year.
9. JONATHAN PERKINS, CB, JR., UC DAVIS 2011: 28 tkl, 0.5 tfl, 2 int, 12 pass def, 10 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: A two-time All-Great West Conference performer, Perkins was heavily involved in the Aggies’ pass defense last season, snuffing out a whopping 22 passes and snagging a pair of interceptions. As UC Davis transitions to the Big Sky, they’ll look for bigger things from Perkins. He has started 21 career games at corner already, and he’s just now entering his junior campaign. That experience should serve Perkins well going up against the throng quality receivers his new league has to offer.
10. WILLIE OKWUONU, S, JR., WEBER STATE 2011: 60 tkl, 3 tfl, 0 int, 2 pass def, 2 breakups. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Okwuonu and fellow junior Tony Epperson serve as Weber State’s safety tandem, and both were honorable mention all-conference picks last season. The thing that sets Okwuonu apart is his ability to make plays one-on-one in the open field: He had the third-most unassisted tackles on the Wildcats’ defense a year ago. While Okwuonu is one of the best tacklers on the team, interim coach Jody Sears would love to see his inteception numbers improve in the new season.
By Greg Rachac, Billings Gazette