In modern collegiate football no position has undergone more change than the secondary. The days of Ronnie Lott safeties are gone as are four man units playing 60 plays a night. Modern secondaries require safeties that can cover slots, play centerfield, run the alleys, and play in the offenses backfield. We like active, rangy, secondaries that are versatile and cause HAVOC. What is havoc? It's a statistical measure of how disruptive a player is by looking at his tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, pass break ups, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. We first learned of havoc through the geniuses at Football Outsiders.
We've also tried to measure ball skills by looking only at ballhawking stats, i.e. interceptions and pass break ups. When the offense goes at you, can you make plays? The Texas FBS is full of playmakers this season.
1. Texas A&M
A&M's safeties are perhaps the best group in the country. They make up for a multitude of sins. Even with inexperience at the corner position, the Aggie safeties are a security blanket. A blanket that loves to come up and hit. A&M ranked 17th in passing yards allowed per attempt and was one of only two Texas FBS school that ranked in the top 40. (The other being TCU at no. 40)
Armani Watts is a three year starter who continues to develop and come into his own. Watts led the Aggies in stops with 104 including six tackles for loss. Donovan Wilson can play in the nickel or centerfield. Wilson is a mini Honey Badger with 8.5 tackles for loss, five picks, two sacks and three forced fumbles in 2015. Justin Evans is a hammer in run fits. Add to those three Larry Pryor, a redshirt freshman thumper and the Aggies have depth, experience, and skill. The Ags received some bad news this week with the loss of backup safety Justing Dunning to another knee injury. At 6'4 220, Dunning provided great run support in nickel and dime packages.
At corner the Aggies will run out a group of tall, rangy athletes whose production has been exceeded by pedigree. That should change in 2016. Roney Elam, Deshawn Capers-Smith, and UCLA transfer Priest Willis all top 6'0 and combine with Nick Harvey to form as athletic a group as Aggieland has seen in a decade. DC John Chavis has made it clear through his recruiting practices that he wants his corners 6'1 or taller and he's stocking the shelves with those athletes.
Harvey and Willis look to be the starters as fall camp winds down. Capers-Smith will challenge for playing time and Elam is versatile enough to play at safety or corner but needs to mature physically. Junior Noel Ellis will also see playing time.
Speaking of young and talented, Texas will trot out five sophomores at the corner and nickel positions. They are rangy, fast, and were thrown into the fire in 2015 where they succeeded by and large. Holton Hill is the best of the lot, but Davante Davis isn't far behind.
Hill has the classic look of a future pro. At 6'2 and 195, he's fitted with excellent size. Hill flashed in 2015 and his production should increase with his comfort level.
At safety the Longhorns will start a ball hawk in Dylan Haines. Haines a former walk-on has a knack for being in the right spot. Haines is a playmaker, surprisingly so. Entering his senior season Haines ranks second in Longhorns history in interception return yards. He's also led the horns in picks two years in a row. Haines picked off five passes in 2015 and led the Horns in havoc plays.
Jason Hall made two picks but he's known as a thumper first and foremost. Haines and Hall aren't flashy, but they're good. They'll need to be because 5-star, all everything safety Brandon Jones arrived on campus this fall and he'll push for playing time along with sophomore DeShon Elliott.
3. Texas Tech
Tech was a terrible defensive team, a 50 point a night team. That has to change, at least somewhat, in 2016. The best returning group for the Red Raiders defense is the DB group.
Ja'Shawn Johnson and Keenon Ward are experienced playmakers at the safety position. Johnson played a role in eight turnovers in 2015 and he's only a sophomore. Ward is a multi-year starter, thumper at 5'9 200. What he lacks in height he makes up for in aggression.
At corner the Red Raiders start DJ Polite-Bray and Thierry Nguema. Polite-Bray missed 2015 due to a knee injury, and converted to DB in 2014. Nguema continues to develop and grow physically.
Tevin Madison is Tech's Swiss army knife, starting all 13 games in 2015 at nickel corner and safety. He's listed as a safety on 2016's depth chart but he'll move around. He also rated as our number one "Ballhawk" among all Texas FBS schools and made 18.5 havoc plays in 2015.
Tech's depth took a hit in 2016 with the announcement that Nigel Bethel was transferring. Bethel was a ballhawk for Tech in 2015 with 11 pass breakups and a pick. Senior Paul Banks III, a lanky athlete, provides a steady hand for the rotation.
Davion Hall is moving to defense. That's big news in Waco. Hall, a receiver in 2015, will jump to defense and bring his lanky athleticism to the safety position. Hall has taken to the position by all accounts, with six tackles and and interception in the Bears first fall scrimmage.
The rest of the Bears are more familiar with the defensive side. Orion Stewart and Ryan Reid are stalwarts in the backfield. Stewart is a multi-year starter and quarterback for the defense. Reid moves to the boundary corner, replacing NFL bound Xavien Howard. Helps already one of the best cover corners in the Big 12. Chance Waz also returns at safety after a decent 2015. Waz is the best tackler of the group.
Reid's backup is senior Tion Wright. Wright has two career starts under his belt. At the other corner redshirt freshman Jameson Houston and sophomore Verkedric Vaughns will fight it out. Houston looks like he'll start, but Vaughns will play.
The Horned Frogs are thin at corner coming into 2016. They were thin in 2015 as well. Ranthony Texada's injury left the Frogs short last season. Expected starter Julius Lewis was lost for 2016 in the spring. Texada returns, Lewis is out. 2015 contributor Torrance Mosely transferred to Southeastern Louisiana this spring. Lewis will be replaced by some combination of Jeff Gladney or redshirt freshman and converted wide receiver Tony James.
If Texada can come back healthy, he's a difference maker. A fluid athlete who can run and cover with the best of them.
At safety Niko Small and JC transfer Markell Simmons are locked in a battle for the free safety job. The other two spots are more settled. Denzel Johnson and his 13.5 tackles for loss returns at strong safety and Nick Orr returns at the weak safety position. Orr is the returning leader in pass break ups with nine and Johnson managed eight.
2014 starter Kenny Iloka is returning from injury and looking for playing time as well. Sophomore Ridwan Issahaku started five games in 2015 due to injuries, that experience should do nothing but help him in 2016. If the saying "injuries build depth" is true then TCU should have its fair share of depth.
The Cougars lost four of the top five producers from the 2015 secondary, not just any four guys, big time producers. Trevon Stewart was a four year starter and a guy you just don't replace. Adrian McDonald left Houston as the career interceptions leader. William Jackson is playing in the league. Those three were responsible for 66.5 havoc plays in 2015 including Jackson's remarkable 23 pass break ups. Add to that Lee Hightower, who started 20 games in his Cougar career. Big shoes to fill in Third Ward.
The replacements are led by the lone returning starter, corner Brandon Wilson. Wilson's not a bad place to start with 21 career starts including two at running back. Wilson is a senior who'll likely spend a lot of 2016 watching his DB mates get picked on.
At the other corner junior Howard Wilson returns from injury that sidelined him for most of 2015. Wilson was a big contributor in 2014. He'll be backed up by sophomore Jeremy Winchester. Winchester made 2 starts in 2015.
At safety sophomore special teams contributor Garrett Davis moves into regular role at strong safety. Davis missed the spring due to a foot injury. Khalil Williams gets the nod at free safety. Williams has seen a good bit of action the past two seasons. He'll be backed up by JC transfer Terrell Williams.
UTEP returns four of its top performers in the secondary in 2016 plus a key returner from 2015 in Devin Cockrell. Cockrell is a big addition to the Miners. The strong safety registered seven tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception in 2014, numbers that led the team in havoc stats.
He's joined by senior free safety Dashone Smith and his 17 career starts. Adrian Hynson, a special teams contributor in 2015 moves into the safety rotation. Safety depth took a hit with the news that sophomore Michael Lewis was declared academically ineligible for 2016. Junior Brendan Royal and true freshman Kolbi McGary will be asked to provide depth in his place.
At corner Nik Needham and Kaylon Beverly return after starting much of 2015 on the edges. Needham leads the UTEP returners in pass breakups. Both Beverly and Needham had a pick last season, though neither was very active. Scheme changes may help that. 6'3 corner Brandon Moss converted to defense from receiver in 2015 and he's back to bring depth to the position.
UTSA allowed over 270 yards per game through the air and 13.5 yards completion. Both ranked in the triple digits among FBS schools. The Roadrunners were hospitable through the air in 2015, so much so that teams enjoyed the heck out of a Saturday throwing the ball against UTSA.
Michael Egwuagu is the best among the returners. Egwuagu was Honorable Mention all CUSA in 2015 with three interceptions from his safety position. He's joined at safety by junior Chase Dahlquist. Dahlquist sat out 2015 after starting seven games as a freshman and a sophomore. Nate Gaines is back for another year at the third safety position after making nine ballhawking plays (interceptions + pass break ups) in 2015.
UTSA must find a replacements for All Conference corner Bennett Okotcha and starter Trevor Baker. Okotcha created 14 havoc plays in 2015 while Baker made 12. Aneas Henricks and his four career starts looks to step in at one corner while N'Keal Bailey moves into the other. Bailey plays physical on the edge and is a better run fit. Jacolbie Butler provides depth and brings starting experience.
9. North Texas
The guy to keep an eye on here is Kishawn McClain, the Mean Green's junior free safety. McClain led the Mean Green in stops and was an All Conference selection in 2015. McClain is a playmaker to the tune of 93.5 stops. He's joined at safety by James Gray a senior and no slouch at free safety.
Senior John Schilleci provides depth and grit at the safety position. He had a solid spring but might be pushed by the seemingly daily new arrivals that Littrell is brining in.
At corner, the Mean Green lost Kenny Buyers in 2015 to a knee injury, this season they lose him to the offense as he switches to wide out. Senior Chad Davis and sophomore Andrew Jones are in a battle at one corner while sophomore Nate Brooks holds down the other position. Davis was actually the most active on the ball of Mean Green players in 2015 with 5 pass break ups and an interception.
Much like the rest of SMU's defense, continuity was an issue in 2015. The Mustangs couldn't keep four players healthy on the back end. The result was a mixed bag. A mostly porous, flimsy bag. SMU allowed almost 50 points a game and 9.3 an attempt. Worse, the secondary coming back wasn't active. Chalk up some of that to the fact that SMU couldn't keep guys on the field, but even when given opportunities, the Mustangs were passive.
Two seniors, Darrion Millines a safety and Horace Richardson a corner, lead the charges. Millines played in 10 games in 2015, leading the secondary in tackles and was third on the team. He's started 22 games in his career and plays the run well. Richardson was limited to seven games due to injury though he was tied for the team lead with two picks.
Jordan Wyatt switches from safety to the other corner position, opposite Richardson. He's rangy and looked good as freshman. Former JC transfer and redshirt sophomore Rashaad Burton is versatile enough to play either safety or corner but he looks like he'll play the other safety position.
Rice's secondary intercepted two passes in 2015 and were dead freakin' last in all of the FBS at passing yards per attempt, allowing over 10 yards a game. That's the bad news. The good news is most of those guys are back. We think that's good news. That's gotta be good news. Right? The Owls were inexperienced and injured in 2015, they were also incredibly passive. No Owls defensive back tallied more than 5.5 havoc plays last season. No returning player intercepted a pass.
Rice has a large number of guys with initials for first names. That's more of a trivia nugget that anything substantive. Feel free to use that at parties. Speaking of, former walk-on J.P. Thompson returns after finishing third on the team in tackles. He'll be joined by Destri White at the KAT position. White missed spring practice due to injury.
An interesting addition is converted linebacker Tabari McGaskey who moves to strong safety at 6'0 230 pounds. McGaskey is a senior with 32 games at linebacker under his belt. He impressed the coaches with his move in the spring and should be an interesting addition to the back end.
Rice returns four corners with significant experience from 2015. J.T. Blasingame and Justin Bickham are penciled in after the spring.V.J. Banks, Josh Cummings and Brandon Douglass will also see time on the edge.
12. Texas State
Texas State's didn't intercept a pass until two weeks before Thanksgiving last season. The Bobcats, like Rice, lack playmakers but they do return a bunch of guys. Texas State's transition to a 3-4 isn't affecting the Bobcat's secondary much. A familiar scheme is probably a good thing.
The 'Cats return Brandon McDowell at corner and he'll probably be paired with Dila Rosemond or Clarence Guidry on the other side. McDowell has had a strong spring and fall camp and led the Bobcats in passes defensed last season. Rosemond worked as a nickel in 2015, though he wasn't exactly ball dominant. At all. Guidry played sparingly, but did break up two passes.
Javante O'Roy looks to step in at free safety after seeing time at safety in 2015. On the other side safety Damani Alexcee returns at strong safety after leading the Bobcats in tackles. Alexcee, a three year letterman is a good run fit and doesn't look lost in coverage either. Alexcee is the returning leader in havoc plays for the Bobcats. Alexcee's and Stephan Johnson have split time in fall camp. Johnson also saw a fair amount of action in 2015 and was getting a lot of looks with the first team in fall camp.