NOTE: This is the second installment of our weekly series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2013 Big Sky Conference football season.
There's no changing of the guard this year. Eastern Washington CB T.J. Lee III was my pick at No. 1 here in 2012, and he remains in the top spot heading into the new season. Actually, my defensive back rankings for 2013 are loaded with veterans. But Lee stands above them all. We can expect lots of big plays, big hits etc. from this group in the fall. (Note: For the "pass def" statistic, I've combined pass breakups and passes defensed into one number).
From a team standpoint, it seems Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona have the most experience coming back in the secondary, including a few guys that could've been included on this list (like EWU corner Ronald Baines and safety Allen Brown, or NAU safety Blair Wishom). The Eagles, in particular, got a huge boost with the addition of UCLA transfer Tevin McDonald. How that translates to the field is yet to be seen, but it's a nice advantage.
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS FOR 2013
1. T.J. LEE III, CB, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2012: 90 tkl, 9 tfl, 1 int, 23 pass def, 2 ff, 2½ sacks. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Lee is the best cover corner in the Big Sky, but he's also a top-notch tackler (he had 90 last year). He was named to two All-America teams last year, including the College Sporting News' "Fabulous 50" first team. In one of his best performances of 2012, Lee had eight tackles, a forced fumble and two pass breakups in a quarterfinal playoff win over Illinois State. Lee is a two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection, and he's a lock for a third this season. He was No. 1 on this list last season, too.
2. LUCKY DOZIER, S, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2012: 57 tkl, 2 tfl, 4 int, 14 pass def, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Dozier came to the Lumberjacks last year out of a junior college in California and made an immediate impact. Dozier always seems to be in the right place at the right time. His four interceptions last season tied for the Big Sky lead. Dozier made two of those picks (including several big hits) in a 41-31 win at Montana, which was coach Jerome Souers' first victory against UM in 15 tries. Dozier gives the Lumberjacks versatility and big-play prowess at strong safety. It helped them rank second in total defense in 2012.
3. STEVEN BETHLEY, S, SR. MONTANA STATE 2012: 44 tkl, 1 tfl, 3 int, 17 pass def, 2 fum rec, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: This season is Bethley's time to take over Montana State's secondary. It will be his third season as the starter at free safety, yet he's been overshadowed at times in the past, particularly by all-conference CB and top cover man Darius Jones. But not this year. Bethley plays the pass perhaps better than any safety in the Big Sky, and has a knack for forcing turnovers. With Bethley's help, the Bobcats typically are one of the best in the league at limiting opposing quarterbacks' completion percentage (52.6 percent last year).
4. ANDERS BATTLE, CB, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2012: 64 tkl, 2 tfl, 1 int, 13 pass def, 1 ff, 1 sack. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Like EWU's Lee III, Battle isn't afraid to stick his nose in the mix and make tackles. His presence, coupled with safeties Lucky Dozier and Blair Wishom, gives the Lumberjacks one of the most physical defensive secondaries in the Big Sky. Battle has more forced fumbles in his career (3) than he's intercepted passes (2), but don't be surprised if that changes this season. Battle is turning into one of the top corners in the league, as evidenced by his first-team all-conference nod last year. He's primed for another big year.
5. TEVIN MCDONALD, S, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2012 (at UCLA): 79 tkl, 1 int, 19 pass def, 1 ff, 2 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: You can't ignore McDonald's football lineage -- nor his talent. The son of former NFL All-Pro safety Tim McDonald was a two-year starter at UCLA, and had 135 tackles in 27 games. But he was booted from the Bruins last year after failing a third drug test and wound up at EWU. The Eagles already have an all-conference safety in Allen Brown, but McDonald could be at the top of this list come season's end ... provided he stays out of trouble. And Beau Baldwin wouldn't have brought him in if he didn't think he could.
6. MATT HERMANSON, S, JR., MONTANA 2012: 67 tkl, 1½ tfl, 2 int, 6 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Expectations were high for Hermanson after a breakout true freshman season. But the Sioux Falls, S.D., product wasn't as sharp in 2012. In fact, the Grizzlies' entire pass defense from top to bottom struggled last year. But give "Hermy" and safety partner Bo Tully the benefit of the doubt. There was a new head coach, a new coordinator, new schemes ... and lots of off-the-field drama to deal with. So don't be surprised if Hermanson comes back better than ever this season. But will he be included on the list of recent great Griz safeties when it's all said and done?
7. OSAGIE ODIASE, CB, SR., SACRAMENTO STATE 2012: 65 tkl, 3 tfl, 1 sack, 3 int, 19 pass def, 1 ff, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: The 2013 season will be Odiase's fourth as a starter at cornerback for Sac State, which makes him one of the most seasoned and accomplished defensive players in the Big Sky Conference. Odiase was a second-team all-conference selection last year, and has made seven career interceptions, which puts him in the Top 10 all-time in Hornets history. Odiase seems to always be around the ball. His eight pass breakups in 2012 ranked in a tie for third among the league's leaders, while his three interceptions were second.
8. JONATHAN PERKINS, CB, SR., UC DAVIS 2012: 36 tkl, 1 tfl, 1 int, 16 pass def, 1 ff, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: With a nice combination of quickness and strength, Perkins thrives on versatility. He comes into this season with six career interceptions and 94 return yards (69 of which went for a TD last year vs. South Dakota State). Perkins has also forced a pair of fumbles, recovered one and has blocked one kick. An honorable mention all-conference pick a year ago, Perkins is also one of the more dangerous kickoff return men in the Big Sky. He's a candidate for all-league honors again as the Aggies begin a new era under first-year coach Ron Gould.
9. LESHAUN SIMS, CB, SO., SOUTHERN UTAH 2012: 37 tkl, 3 int, 7 pass def, 1 fum rec.THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Any time a freshman puts together the kind of year Sims did, it bodes well for the future. Sims came to SUU out of 8-man football in high school, which makes his performance in his first year on the field all that more impressive. His 6-foot, 200-pound frame make him a tough matchup for receivers in the Big Sky, and that showed itself on more than one occasion in 2012. Of his 37 tackles, 22 of them were solo. Barring a sophomore slump, Sims' production (and his numbers) will only increase this season.
10. ERYON BARNETT, S, SR., MONTANA STATE 2012: 9 tkl, 2 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2013: Formerly a cornerback, Barnett is the likely replacement at strong safety for the graduated Joel Fuller, who was a first-team All-Big Sky pick last year. Barnett was a teammate of MSU QB DeNarius McGhee in high school, and has a huge upside: He transferred to MSU prior to last season from Texas, where he played in 18 games at DB and on special teams. Barnett saw limited playing time last year in an experienced Bobcats secondary, but should fit in well this year with fellow safety Steven Bethley and talented cornerback Deonte Flowers.
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: MARCUS WILLIAMS, CB, SR., NORTH DAKOTA STATE. Williams has 18 career interceptions, five of which he's returned for TDs. He had 7 picks in each of the last two years for the two-time reigning FCS champs. He should be prominent in the Buck Buchanan Award conversation.
LAST WEEK: 2013 special teams rankings
LAST YEAR: 2012 defensive back rankings
NEXT WEEK: Linebackers