As we’ve pointed out in some of our earlier entries in our Top Five ProCanes series, the University of Miami has generated NFL talent at every position on the field. Some lists have been topped by rookies, others by All-Pros and future Hall of Famers. Today’s countdown of UM’s top cornerbacks to play in the NFL was the most challenging list to formulate yet.
The Hurricanes have a stake to the claim of ‘defensive back U’, but after doing some digging, it has become apparent that most of Miami’s DBs in the pros have enjoyed much of their success as safeties, not cornerbacks. That’s right. Despite the pedigree we have at safety, our lesser-known cornerback contributions are more successful. Given the prevalence of pass defense in both college football and the NFL, the lack of elite corners to come from The U is startling.
So with that, here are some of the names that stood out to us based on the information we found.
Brandon Harris — One of the vaunted cornerbacks the Hurricanes landed recent, Harris was a prized commit from local Booker T. Washington. Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft by the Houston Texans, the former UM CB tallied 48 tackles and batted down 10 passes in his four-year career. He also started for Houston in their divisional round playoff matchup against New England. After three seasons with the Texans, he would play one season with the Titans.
Kelly Jennings — Before the selection of Artie Burns in the 2016 NFL Draft, Kelly Jennings was the last Cane to be taken in the first round of an NFL draft. Standing at 5’11” and weighing 180 pounds, Jennings possessed the prototypical measurements. His 4.39 40-time helped vault him into first-round consideration. The former Suwanee High School grad seemed to fit well with the Seahawks his rookie year, snagging an interception, forcing a fumble and piling 40 tackles. Jennings would spend five seasons with the Seahawks and start in five postseason contests. After six seasons in the league — he did spent one season in Cincinnati — Jennings totaled 240 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a forced fumble, two interceptions, 53 pass defenses and two fumble recoveries.
I may have skirted the line here on this selection, but let me explain. Antrel Rolle was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals as a cornerback out of Miami as the 8th overall pick in the 2005 draft. A 6’0” corner with length and a 4.48 timed 40-yard dash, Rolle projected as the next shutdown CB. For his first three seasons with the Cardinals, he came close to that label. Nabbing seven interceptions in his first three seasons — five INTs in 2007 with a career-high 231 interceptions return yards.
That said, Rolle’s best years in the league will be remembered as his time roaming the middle of the field as opposed to his time working close to the boundary. All three of his pro bowl seasons (2009, 2010, 2013) occurred after he made the position switch. Both of his Second Team All-Pro (2010 & 2013) nods came as a safety. When he admires his Super XLVI ring, he’ll remember one of the most exciting title games in the league history… when lined up as a safety.
Rolle had the necessary qualities and instincts to be a good CB in the NFL, as the numbers indicate. However, Rolle’s best days in the NFL were his time playing safety.
Rolle’s Cornerback Stat line (first three seasons in the NFL):
Passes Defended: 23
Tackles for Loss: 4
Forced Fumbles: 2
A gifted athlete during his time at the University of Miami, Sam Shields arrived to the school as a running back, but in senior year, he played wide receiver and spent some time at cornerback. Shields switched positions in his senior year, moving from WR to CB. He went undrafted after running a 4.30 40-yard in the 2010 NFL Draft, but Shields signed with the Green Bay Packers. Over the next seven years, Shields developed into an integral piece of the Packers’ defense.
With the instincts to read plays as they unfolded, you’d often see No. 37 undercut routes for an interception. It’s a skill that Shields became adept at over the course of his eight seasons in the league, starting 64 of his 96 career games. After sitting the entire 2017 season due to complications from concussions, Shields joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2018.
Shields’ penchant for picks is the main reason he makes our list. There’s just something poetic about seeing him close ground on an unsuspecting wideout who waits with outstretched hands for a ball that doesn’t arrive.
Shields Stat Line:
Interceptions Return Yards: 202
Passes Defended: 70
Tackles for Loss: 5
Forced Fumbles: 1
In his time on UM’s campus, CB Ryan McNeil was an All-American corner. In the NFL, McNeil was an accomplished journeyman who spent 11 seasons playing for six different NFL clubs (Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Dallas, San Diego and Denver). McNeil was a second-round selection of the Lions in the 1993 NFL Draft. He would go on to start 136 of 161 career games.
Undoubtedly, McNeil turned in his best season in league as a member of the St. Louis Rams. The Fort Pierce, Florida, native put together a nine interception year — the NFL leader in the category — to go along with one interception TD return in the 1997 season. That performance may only be eclipsed by his 2001 season, where he put together a statline of 76 tackles, two TFL and eight INTs to earn his first and only Pro Bowl appearance.
Through perseverance and longevity, McNeil has earned his place within the top three corners to play in the NFL from the University of Miami.
Ryan McNeil’s NFL Statline:
Interceptions Return Yards: 312
Passes Defended: 49
Tackles for Loss: 8
Forced Fumbles: 2
Before the New England Patriots climbed to the apex of the NFL mountain, the northeastern club still had ProCane connections running through the organization. Ronnie Lippett was a 5’11”, 180 pound cornerback who was picked up in the eighth round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Pats. Despite his lack of experience, Lippett went on to start all 16 games of his rookie year in New England. He became a focal point of the Patriots defense, starting all 111 games for the Patriots over the span of eight seasons. The Melbourne, Florida, native was integral in the Patriots’ 1985-86 playoff push, nabbing two interceptions before his club was dismantled by the Bears in Super Bowl XX.
However, falling short of winning it all appeared to only further invigorate the corner. The following season, Lippett picked off Miami QB Dan Marino twice in a game — interestingly, seven of Lippett’s career interceptions came against Marino. From 1986 to 1988, the Sebring High School product was considered among the league’s best cornerbacks. In his final two seasons in New England, Lippett corralled six interceptions in the final two years of his career. Lippett flies under the radar of ProCanes. It’s only fitting that he was presented the 1987 Unsung Player Award by New England. Today, we remedy that by making him our number two.
Lippett’s NFL statline:
Interceptions Return Yards: 420
Fumble Recoveries: 8
Passes Defended: N/A
Tackles for Loss: N/A
Forced Fumbles: N/A
Standing tall at the top of “Cornerback Mountain” is Duane Starks. This Miami Beach native spent eight seasons in the NFL, beginning his career with the Baltimore Ravens in 1988 when they took him as a first-round selection in the Draft. Starks started half of his rookie season for the Ravens. Ray Lewis was the anchor of that defense, but Duane Starks played a vital role. Apparently Starks never told anyone about the magnetic attraction he had when the ball was in the air. In his first year in the league, Starks collected five interceptions. In fact, there wasn’t a single season where the cornerback would have less than four interceptions as a Raven. Playing on an opportunistic defense that often were put in the position to score points for their offense, Starks was a literal “Turnover Machine”.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of his career came when the Ravens took on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Starks picked off a slant intended for Giants’ WR Amani Toomer, taking the ball all the way back to the Giants’s end zone 49 yards away. The touchdown helped secure one of the most impressive defensive performances in a Super Bowl, delivering a championship to the city of Baltimore. During a three-year span between 1999 and 2001, Starks set up a no-fly zone, credited with batting away 56 passes in that timeframe.
Standing at 5’10”, Starks illustrates that CBs don’t need to measure six-foot-plus to make an impact on the field. After signing with the Arizona Cardinals as a free-agent, Starks didn’t have the same impact that he’d enjoyed with the Ravens due to injuries and his supporting cast — or lack thereof. Although he didn’t replicate his numbers from his time with the Ravens, few ProCanes have reached the heights that this Miami Beach native has enjoyed.
Duane Starks Pro Numbers:
Interceptions Return Yards: 245
Passes Defended: 81
Tackles for Loss: 2
Forced Fumbles: 7
Agree, disagree or want to debate some other choices? Make sure to let us know in the comment section.
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!