NOTE: This is the second installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
With Vernon Adams, Cooper Kupp and Co. coming back to Eastern Washington lock, stock and barrel, every defensive back in the Big Sky Conference is on alert. The Adams-to-Kupp combo was the scourge of the league last year, and the Eagles put up an astonishing 58 passing touchdowns.
But it's not just Adams. The Big Sky brings back a number of quality QBs, including Montana's Jordan Johnson and Sac State's Garrett Safron among others. So defenses will be tested through the air again in 2014, no doubt. Here are 10 DBs to watch this fall. As was the case in this space last year, the "pass def" statistic is combined between pass breakups and passes defended into one number.
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS
1. TEVIN MCDONALD, S, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 48 tkl, 2½ tfl, 1 int, 5 pass def, 1 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: McDonald came to Eastern Washington in 2013 from UCLA, where he was a two-year starter, but he struggled through injuries and didn't put up the kind of stats he did with the Bruins. He missed EWU's final six games but was still named third-team All-Big Sky. The 5-11, 190-pound McDonald, the son of six-time NFL All-Pro Tim McDonald, is an unquestioned talent. If he stays on the field he has what it takes to be the Big Sky's best defensive back. He's just one more stud on a team with serious national championship aspirations.
2. DEONTE FLOWERS, CB, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 53 tkl, 1 tfl, 1 int, 25 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Flowers is great in coverage -- his 12 pass breakups last year were tied for the most in the league -- and his name has been mentioned in some early 2015 NFL draft chatter. He had just one interception last year, but would have had another if his pick-6 against rival Montana wasn't called back for pass interference. MSU's base two-deep defense calls for its corners to go one-on-one in coverage, and Flowers handles the responsibility. With T.J. Lee III no longer at Eastern Washington, Flowers looks to take the mantle as the Big Sky's best corner.
3. COURTNEY HALL, CB, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2013: 75 tkl, 5 tfl, 1 int, 13 pass def, 1 fumble rec, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Playing bigger than his size (5-10, 168), Hall led all Big Sky Conference cornerbacks in tackles last season. And he really came on at the end of the year, finishing with 12 tackles and a 48-yard interception return for a touchdown in the season finale against Cal Poly. Northern Colorado lost 11 straight games in 2013 as the defense struggled, and respected defensive guru Larry Kerr was tabbed to coordinate the D this year. Hall is certainly one of the building blocks, with his combination of speed and coverage ability.
4. MATT HERMANSON, S, SR., MONTANA 2013: 107 tkl, 2 tfl, 0 int, 2 pass def, 1 sack, 3 ff, 2 fumble rec, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Hermanson led all Big Sky defensive backs in tackles (107) and forced fumbles (3) in 2013. It was a big bounceback year for the Sioux Falls, S.D., product, who struggled at times during his sophomore year. Hermanson played with a lot more snarl as a junior, and his production showed it. The onus will be even bigger on Hermanson this year to anchor a defensive secondary that went through a few difficult spells at the midway point of last season and has a couple new faces in starting spots. "Hermie" is up to the task.
5. LESHAUN SIMS, CB, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2013: 62 tkl, 1½ tfl, 3 int, 11 pass def, 2 fumble rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: At 6-foot and 200 pounds, Sims is big and physical. His 67 tackles ranked second among all cornerbacks in the Big Sky last season (behind UNC's Hall), and he was a major reason the Thunderbirds made the playoffs. Sims' exploits helped Southern Utah rank third in the league in pass defense. Quality pass coverage begins with a strong rush, and the T-birds have one of the best defensive ends in the country in James Cowser. So Sims is in position to improve his interception totals this fall and make SUU's pass coverage even stronger.
6. DEON'TAE FLORENCE, CB, SR., WEBER STATE 2013: 30 tkl, 1 tfl, 4 int, 20 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: In what was one of the more interesting sidebars from last season, Florence arrived to Weber State by way of Boise State after the season had already began. He only started four games but still finished second in the Big Sky in interceptions and was an honorable mention all-conference pick. Florence had a great year even though he was still finding his footing in Ogden. He has the chance to be even better in 2014 (partnering with fellow corner A.J. Coney) as the Wildcats look to change their fortunes from a combined 4-19 record the past two years.
7. MARCUS ALFORD, CB, JR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 26 tkl, 1 int, 11 pass def, 1 fumble rec, 3 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Lucky Dozier and Anders Battle are no longer in Flagstaff, which means it's time for new leadership in the Lumberjacks' secondary. Alford, the lone returning starter back there, is one guy to take the reins. He scored a pair of TDs as part of NAU's incredibly opportunistic defense in 2013, and now is ready for an even bigger role. Alford knows this, saying during the spring that Dozier, Battle and last year's seniors "showed us how to do it, the blueprint for being great, doing the extra things that people might not see and I try to keep doing that."
8. CHARLES BOYETT, S, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 86 tkl, 1½ tfl, 1 int, 9 pass def, 2 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Aside from his impact as an All-Big Sky punt returner, Boyett is one of the better safeties in the Big Sky. But he is now on the verge of becoming one of its best. He was the Aggies' top tackler last season (both in total and solo stops) and is in line to again be their best defensive player as a senior. The Aggies were part of a four-way tie for fourth place in the league standings at 5-3, and made strides under first-year coach Ron Gould. Boyett, who seems to always be in the right spot on defense, has been a major cog in laying that foundation.
9. AARON SIBLEY, CB, JR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 42 tkl, 1½ tfl, 1 int, 9 pass def, 1 fumble rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Sibley started every game at cornerback for the Vikings as a sophomore and was solid. And as the only starter returning to the secondary, he'll have to be again. The Vikings expected to bring back senior safety Dean Faddis, who had nearly 90 tackles last season and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. But Faddis decided to leave the team. So it's up to Sibley to anchor things in the back end. One of the best facets of Sibley's game is his tackling ability. Of his 42 tackles last season, only eight were assisted.
10. CODY SORENSEN, S., JR., IDAHO STATE 2013: 78 tkl, 2 tfl, 8 pass def, 1 fumble rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Sorensen is the kind of player coach Mike Kramer loves: Sturdy, smart and responsible. Now he expects Sorensen to take more of a leardership role on defense. Kramer has always demanded that from his safeties. Idaho State allowed the third-fewest completions in the league last season (199) and ranked fourth in overall pass defense. Part of that was because teams ran all over the Bengals, but at least there are solid, tangible numbers to point too. Sorensen has a lot of experience under his belt. This season he could break out.
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: DANIEL FITZPATRICK, S, SR., TENNESSEE STATE. The ball-hawking Fitzpatrick is the reigning FCS interception champion, and he returned three of them for TDs last year while being named to a staggering seven All-America teams. He has all the makings of an NFL draft pick, much like TSU's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a few back.
LAST WEEK: 2014 special teams rankings
LAST YEAR: 2013 defensive back rankings
NEXT WEEK: Linebackers