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What college coaches look for in a defensive back prospect

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A roster can never have enough guys with speed and length, let’s take a look at DB U.

Edward Reed #20 Getty Images

Ronnie Lippett, Bennie Blades, Ryan McNeil, Bubba McDowell, Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Duane Starks, Phillips Buchannon, Mike Rumph... the list goes on. Miami is and always will be DB U. The position has been splintered between cornerbacks and safeties for quite some time but in this modern era of football there’s even more specialization amongst the positions.

There are hybrid Striker type positions that play special roles on the field in certain situations. There are schemes that require the nickel back to be the fastest player, while the Striker is often the slowest of the DB’s and even labeled a LB at Miami.

The dime teams will often have three deep safeties on the field, with one as a true free and the other two in more of a strong safety type of build and role. Big nickel, similar to Miami’s 4-2-5 when the Striker is on the field, has three safeties as well, but one typically in or around the box.

The position of cornerback requires an elite athlete. Someone that can not only run fast in a straight line, because that’s imperative, but also has fluidity in the hips and ankles to open up the hips, change direction, and re-accelerate instantly.

At safety, you’re looking for someone that can work downhill fast, and that plays tough in run support. The safety is often a captain on the field because of what he can see, and the checks he can make from his vantage point on the field.


The highlight tape

In Bruce Feldman’s book, Meat Market, Ed Orgeron is looking for length in his defensive backs. Before even clicking on the tape, he seems turned away by the short cornerback, even with big speed. If a player was a little taller, Coach O’s staff felt they could sacrifice a little speed. That’s the size-speed ratio Orgeron impressed upon his coaches regarding all players, but especially linebackers. Orgeron offers about one kid whose 40-yard dash time didn’t impress, “I’m not offering if he’s 5’9, but if he’s 5’11 we might take him (Pg 19).”

On tape, the Ole Miss staff wanted to see length, but also swift hips, and a good burst of speed. If the length was there, say 5’11-6’1, that’s obviously great too. For both cornerbacks and safeties the Ole Miss staff was needing to see balance, quick change of direction, and acceleration out of cuts. One player gets “gonged” (his tape removed from the VCR) when he’s unable to break on the football fast enough to make the play. At the SEC level, every split-second counts when it comes to making a play or being burned for a touchdown.

Where hips and chase-from-behind speed were imperative at cornerback, at safety Coach O was looking for a few other qualities. Of course he wanted a tall safety, too, but he loved one 5’8 safety who showed quickness, physicality, toughness, and who “hit like a truck.” Orgeron really liked that he was on the honor roll and was a student council kid, because the safety position is often the leader on the field.

Something Orgeron also liked was seeing defensive backs in the return game. If a safety or cornerback can return kids and punts that shows ball skills. Think of guys like Ed Reed and Sean Taylor- they made big hits, sure tackles, but they were also money on interception and fumble returns for touchdowns or big gains. Those plays change the course of a football game and Orgeron wanted those type of players. Guys like All-American safety Darryl Williams and All-American cornerback Ryan McNeil, whom Orgeron saw while coaching at Miami.


At camps

The first thing coaches want to do is to get the height and weight of the campers. College coaches don’t trust the high school data from players, as it’s often two inches and 20 pounds off from the truth. Most coaches want cornerbacks to be 5’9 and above, but really closer to 5’11 to 6’2. For safeties it’s less important, but again the 5’11 to 6’3 range is what they’re looking for with 10-20 more pounds on their frame.

40-yard Dash: There’s definitely a baseline of speed at cornerback and safety. Of course everyone wants the hyperbolic “4.3 40” but in reality a kid coming in from high school can be closer to a 4.65 and still be fast enough at 17 or 18 years old. Only 15 defensive backs ran a 4.49 or less 40 at the NFL Combine in 2020. The first nine were CB’s and the back six are safeties.

20-yard Shuttle: Of course at a position like defensive back, coaches want to see the change of direction ability and the change and accelerate transition speed as well. If you’ve read my previous recruiting posts, you know I don’t love the closed-track and lack of read and react nature of the shuttle. Below, I’ll take you into a few DB drills that could be timed and monitored for success.

Vertical Jump: With the vertical jump showing the explosiveness of the athlete, it’s an important drill to watch guys excel at, or fail at, when doing combine drills at a camp. When Orgeron saw a DB run a 4.47 per his stopwatch and then VJ 38” he was sold on that kid as a superior athlete. It also gives you an indication of a shorter CB can use his explosion and vertical ability to fight for balls with taller WR’s.

Broad Jump: Again, if you’ve been reading, you know I love the broad jump as a test of power angle explosion. The ankles, knees and hips are all used, as are the hamstrings and quads, in the BJ.

Combine 2.0 Drills

Personally, I love to use drills that are open-ended (the one below isn’t, it’s a closed track) and where you react to the coach or a ball or something that requires read-and-react to teach players. However, for a combine drill, this one is pretty good.

Back pedal, flip, accelerate

Now, you don’t want the players looking down, so they have to trust the coach and flip and sprint on a verbal or physical command. I personally use hand signals that mimic their eye discipline and cognitive to physical reaction time.

Back pedal and accelerate

Again, I use a hand signal that the DB has to follow in the drill. I see when they hit the back cones and signal them to sprint upfield.

W-Drill Variations

There are multiple variations of the W-Drill. The purpose is to work on pass drops getting the back pedal, crossover run, scrape or scallup, and sprint finish through.

1-on-1’s

Of course whether you’re Ed Orgeron or Manny Diaz, you hold these camps to watch the best compete against the best. Coaches want to see the mental, physical, and emotional toughness of beating guys and overcoming getting beaten, in 1-on-1’s.


The defensive back total package

When looking at the evaluation process for both a Power 5 and a Group of 5 school, they both split their evals by cornerback and safety.

Cornerback

At one G5, the recruiters and assistant coaches who do evaluations break them down between CB and Safety. For CB’s, the top qualities they look for are:

1- Ball Judgment

2- Plant & Drive

3- Catch-up speed

4- Burst to close

5- Ability to play man-to-man

Then qualities 6-10 are: tackling, zone coverage, ball reaction, hands, and run support.

Their CB critical factors are: play speed, reactionary quickness, production versus the pass, toughness (mental and physical), and awareness.

Safety

At the Safety position, they’re looking for most of the same items but in a different order, which makes sense. They are different positions played from different leverage.

1- Key and play diagnosis

2- Awareness

3- Range

4- Burst to close

5- Man tight and press

And 6-10 are: ball reactions, run support, mental toughness, 3rd down value, and special teams value.

Their Safety critical factors are: instincts and thought process, competitiveness, tackling and run support, ball skills, coverage, and leadership.

At one Power 5 program, their recruiting assistants and assistant coaches break down the DB position like this:

1. Size and length: If they aren’t tall, are they at least long-limbed? Do they have the ability to disrupt/make plays with their length? Are they put together well enough to be physical and durable?

2. Short area quickness: Do they have burst and acceleration? Can they close space quickly? Can they recover quickly (catch up speed)?

3. Tackling: MUST be able to tackle in space - no such thing as JUST a “cover” CB; guys who are inherently more physical will fit the safety mold. Are they a striker? If not, are they effectively tackling on the edge and in space?

4. Feet/COD: How well can they transition to break on a route? Can they read and react and “run the route?” How quickly can they transition to get in phase on a deeper route?

5. Ball skills: How well do they play the ball? Do they have natural hands? Can they win the 50-50 ball?

6. Man/Man cover skills: How well can they press at the LOS? Are they keeping WRs from creating separation from them?

7. Flexibility/Athletic Ability: How is the overall athletic ability? Can they bend? Are they fluid in their movements? Do they have loose hips?

8. Instincts/Awareness: How well do they “feel” the game? Are they able to anticipate routes/patterns? Are they able to “see” run fits develop and play accordingly?

9. Effort: Are they willing to make the plays downfield? Can they be the “eraser”?


What does this mean for Miami?

Miami’s defensive back room is littered with former blue chip four-star prospects who should be dominating in 2020. South Florida is known for producing undersized but speedy and highly competitive defensive backs. Deland Safety Avantae Williams, Jalen Harrell, and Isaiah Dunson from GA should all be able to make an impact in the kicking game as freshmen.

2019 signees CB’s Christian Williams and Te’Cory Couch, and S Keontra Smith are all four-stars as well per 247 Sports. The 2018 haul of S Gurvan Hall, CB Al Blades Jr, S Gilbert Frierson (now a Striker) and CB D.J. Ivey were blue chip four-stars, too. One of the few three-stars expected to see the field in 2020 is safety Amari Carter. Transfer Bubba Bolden was a four-star out of Las Vegas when he signed with USC originally.

That means that for all of the commentary on Coach Rumph’s (cornerbacks) ability to recruit, he’s signing a two-deep of four-stars; as is Coach Banda (safeties). The real question is are they developing the talent the acquire into four-star college players, or are they not progressing under the tutelage? Is the S&C program, the daily drill work and film time, and the scheme (deployment) setting up the Miami defensive backs to dominate in college and be drafted high in the NFL Draft? That is the question Miami fans are split on at the moment.