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Secondary swagger

Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's all about turf in the defensive backfield. Corners and safeties are the last line of defense and they take great pride in that. If a receiver gets in the clear, blame is almost always affixed to them. Wideouts have to be wary of roaming over the middle with some of these guys, as bone-jarring collisions are the likely result. Others simply own their side of the field, making opposing QBs think twice before throwing anything in their vicinity.

Here are the top defensive backs heading into the 2011 FBS season.

CORNERBACKS:

DRE KIRKPATRICK - Alabama is once again loaded for bear on the defensive side of the football, as the 6-3, 195-pound Kirkpatrick is one of several Alabama players regarded as the best at their position. A two-time high school All- American, Kirkpatrick initially had to wait his turn in Tuscaloosa behind some talented DBs. His patience paid off in 2010, with 53 tackles and three INTs. He is a big corner, with elite speed and athleticism and if he stays the course, Kirkpatrick should hear his name called very early on the first day of whatever NFL Draft he takes part in.

STEPHON GILMORE - The Gamecocks are loaded on both sides of the football and that includes a very talented secondary. The 6-1, 195-pounder has produced since day one at South Carolina. As a freshman, he tallied 56 tackles, three sacks and one INT. There was no sophomore slump in 2010, as Gilmore racked up 71 tackles, three sacks and three INTs, one he returned for a score. He is the complete package at the cornerback position and if he has yet another superior season in Columbia, this very well may be his last for the Gamecocks.

JAYRON HOSLEY - There is no denying the fact that Virginia Tech puts up strong defensive numbers every year and players like Hosley are the reason why. A bit undersized at 5-10, 170 pounds, Hosley plays physical when needed. Regarded as one of the nation's premier ballhawks, earning All-American and First-Team All-ACC honors in 2010 after leading the nation with nine INTs. A playmaker extraordinaire as a sophomore in 2010, opponents are likely to stay away from his side of the field if they can. That may not bode well for matching last year's ridiculous numbers, but it is the ultimate sign of respect for a cornerback that obviously deserves it.

Dre Kirkpatrick is one of several Alabama players regarded as the best at their position.
CLIFF HARRIS - Another junior makes the cut, in the 5-11, 180-pound Harris. Certainly a big reason for Oregon's run to the BCS Title Game last year, Harris is perhaps the most gifted cover corner in the college ranks. Throw in the fact that is the premier return man in the nation (four TDs last season) and it is easy to see why Harris makes the grade. He isn't the biggest guy in the world and doesn't always enjoy the physical aspects of the game, but there are plenty of talented corners in the NFL that fit that bill.

ALFONZO DENNARD - He teamed with now New York Giant Prince Amukamara last year to give Nebraska one of the best secondaries in the Big 12, ranking fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense and passing yards allowed. He opted to return for his senior season in Lincoln, much to the delight of the Cornhusker faithful. The 5-10, 205-pound Dennard earned All-Big 12 Second-Team honors in 2010, finishing with 30 tackles and four INTs.

HONORABLE MENTION: Casey Hayward (Vanderbilt), Chase Minnifield (Virginia), Morris Claiborne (LSU), Desmond Trufant (Washington), Donnie Fletcher (Boston College).

SAFETIES:

ROBERT LESTER - It is no surprise that once again it is an Alabama defensive back sitting atop the leader board. The 6-2, 210-pound Lester had a huge sophomore season in 2010, as the ballhawking safety led the SEC in interceptions with eight. For his efforts, Lester picked up All-SEC Second- Team honors, as well as All-American accolades. In a secondary loaded with talent, Lester may be the best of the bunch. He has ideal size and superior athletic ability, added to his obvious instinctual ball-hawking skills, making him the premier safety in college football heading into the 2011 season.

T.J. MCDONALD - McDonald had the unenviable task of replacing a three-time All-American (Taylor Mays) in the secondary for USC and did so effectively. The 6-3, 205-pounder is great in run support, instinctual with decent ball- hawking skills. As a sophomore in 2010, McDonald started 12 games and posted a team-high 89 tackles, three INTs and one sack, en route to All-Pac-10 Second- Team honors. Bloodlines are strong with this one, as his father (Tim) was a two-time All-American safety for USC (1985-86).

RAY-RAY ARMSTRONG - The Miami Hurricanes are once again able to boast of the type of feared defensive back that Armstrong represents. Perhaps the best strong safety in the nation, the 6-4, 215-pounder burst on the scene as a sophomore, finishing 2010 with 79 tackles and three INTs (one returned for a score), earning All-ACC Second-Team honors. A superior athlete that packs a wallop, Armstrong possesses first-round NFL talent and may not remain at Miami past this season.

MARK BARRON - Surprise, surprise -- another Crimson Tide player makes the list. This one has been mentioned in prior years, as the 6-2, 220-pound Barron heads into his senior season looking to cap off a truly accomplished career in Tuscaloosa. A two-time First-Team All-SEC and two-time All-American, Barron led a young secondary in 2010, finishing the year with 75 tackles, two sacks and three INTs.

DEVONTE HOLLOMAN - South Carolina's emergence as one of the SEC's top teams is due to players like Holloman. The 6-2, 226-pounder made a name for himself last season as a sophomore, finishing with 69 total tackles and two INTs. He has linebacker size, but enough athleticism to flourish in the secondary. A big hitter who is capable of elevating his game to new heights in 2011. If the Gamecocks vie for an SEC title this year, Holloman will have a big part in it.

* KENNY TATE - He would be rated among the very best safeties in all of college, but has been moved to linebacker for Maryland in 2011. A physically imposing defensive back at 6-4, 220 pounds, if the transition to linebacker doesn't work out, Tate could slide back to his natural position and flourish. Posted 100 tackles in 13 starts last year at free safety, earning All-ACC First-Team honors. Expect the senior to have a huge impact game-in and game- out and find a way to pick up All-ACC honors if not All-American honors, regardless of what position he plays.

HONORABLE MENTION: Blake Gideon (Texas), Delano Howell (Stanford), Vaughn Telamaque (Miami-Florida), Aaron Henry (Wisconsin), Tony Dye (UCLA).

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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