College Football: Top 10 secondaries ahead of the 2024 season

2T8M7FT Ohio State defensive back Denzel Burke plays against Minnesota during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

• Ohio State places first once again: For the third time in these position unit rankings, the Buckeyes are the best in the nation.

• Iowa comes in second: Even without Cooper DeJean, the Hawkeyes’ secondary is loaded.

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

A secondary's importance increases every year due to how pass-happy football is today. You can’t afford to have any weak links in your defensive backfield, whether it be at outside cornerback, slot cornerback or safety.

With that in mind, we wrap up our position unit rankings with the top 10 secondaries in college football heading into the 2024 season.

Other position group rankings:

Quarterback Rooms | Running Back Units | Receiving Corps | Offensive Lines | Defensive Lines | Linebacker Units

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

This is the third position unit ranking where Ohio State places first, showing how loaded the Buckeyes’ roster is. In fact, they’re the only team to lead multiple lists.

Ohio State also placed No. 1 for their running back unit, and that was largely because of an incoming transfer (Quinshon Judkins). The same could be said for the team's secondary, as the Buckeyes added the best safety in America, Alabama’s Caleb Downs. He was a first-team PFF All-American as a true freshman last season and ranked third among Power Five safeties with an 88.9 coverage grade.

Ohio State lost only one starter from its secondary last year (safety Josh Proctor). Denzel Burke returns and is one of my top 10 cornerbacks in the country. He’s joined by Davison Igbinosun, Jordan Hancock and Josh Proctor, who all earned 70.0-plus grades on at least 450 snaps in 2023.

2. Iowa Hawkeyes

Even without Cooper DeJean, Iowa still has one of the best defensive backfields in college football. Sebastian Castro is the sport's best slot cornerback and was a first-team All-American last season. He was both the highest-graded and most valuable cornerback in the nation in 2023, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

He isn’t the only returning Hawkeye who was the most valuable player at their position last year. Xavier Nwankpa led all FBS safeties in wins above average and is a top-10 returning safety in college football. Quinn Schulte was an honorable mention on my safety list and is the most valuable returning Power Five safety over the past two years, per PFF's wins above average metric.

Iowa’s outside cornerbacks will be Jermari Harris and Deshaun Lee. They both earned 70.0-plus PFF grades on more than 430 snaps each last season.

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame will field college football's only secondary with a top-five player both at cornerback and safety. Benjamin Morrison is my No. 2 cornerback in the nation and has posted an 86.8 single-coverage grade since 2022, which paces all returning Power Five cornerbacks.

Xavier Watts took home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2023, given to the best defensive player in college football. He led the FBS with seven interceptions and didn’t allow a touchdown into his coverage. His 37.8 passer rating allowed in 2023 was the eighth-best mark by a Power Five safety.

The Fighting Irish also added Northwestern transfer cornerback Rod Heard II, who is expected to play safety in South Bend. He tied for first in coverage stops (19) among FBS cornerbacks in 2023.

4. Michigan Wolverines

Michigan finds itself in the top five of this list largely due to rostering the best cornerback in college football, Will Johnson. Since 2022, his 90.8 man-coverage grade is tied for the best in the nation with Quinyon Mitchell, who was a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The Wolverines will have two new starters elsewhere at cornerback in Ja’Den McBurrows and Keshaun Harris.

Michigan’s safety room was dealt a couple of major blows this offseason when Keon Sabb transferred to Alabama and Rod Moore tore his ACL in March. While Sabb won’t suit up for the Maize and Blue again, there’s a chance Moore returns at some point this season. When healthy, he’s a top-10 safety in college football. Even without those two, the Wolverines are still in good hands with Makari Paige and Quinten Johnson patrolling the backend. They each played more than 300 snaps in 2023 and were two of the 12 most valuable Big Ten safeties, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

5. Oregon Ducks

Oregon rebuilt its secondary through the transfer portal after losing three starters to the NFL. The biggest addition was Washington cornerback Jabbar Muhammad, my No. 6 returning cornerback in the nation. He led all cornerbacks this past season with 19 forced incompletions, 17 of them coming in single coverage.

The Ducks also added Kam Alexander (UTSA), Kobe Savage (Kansas State) and Brandon Johnson (Duke), all of whom were starters for their respective schools. As for returning players, Oregon brought back starters Tysheem Johnson and Nikko Reed. Jahlil Florence and Dontae Manning also return, and each played nearly 400 snaps last season.

6. Texas Longhorns

Texas returns four defensive backs who played at least 300 snaps in 2023: Jahdae Barron, Malik Muhammad, Derek Williams Jr. and Gavin Holmes. Muhammad is a rising star in college football after starting at outside cornerback for the Longhorns as a true freshman. His 79.9 coverage grade ranked second among all Big 12 cornerbacks, and his 20% forced incompletion rate placed fifth.

Texas also added Clemson’s Andrew Mukuba from the transfer portal. He ranked seventh among Power Five cornerbacks in 2023 in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.46). Mukuba is expected to start at safety for the Longhorns in 2024.

7. Georgia Bulldogs

While Georgia returns only two of its five starting defensive backs from last season, the Bulldogs still deserve a spot in this top 10. A major reason for that is junior Malaki Starks, my No. 2 returning safety in college football. He earned an 84.8 run-defense grade as a sophomore, which placed him seventh in the Power Five at his position. He also tied for sixth in that same group with seven forced incompletions in 2023.

Georgia also returns one of its starting outside cornerbacks in Daylen Everette, who tied for third among SEC cornerbacks this past season with a 27.8% open-target rate allowed. The Bulldogs added a couple of five-star recruits to their secondary in cornerback Ellis Robinson IV and safety KJ Bolden, each of whom was the No. 1 player in the country at their respective positions.

For those keeping score at home, Georgia has placed in the top 10 of all of these position unit rankings. The only other school to accomplish that feat is Ohio State.

8. Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin’s secondary features one of the nation’s 10 best safeties (Hunter Wohler) and a top-15 cornerback (Ricardo Hallman). Wohler earned the second-best coverage grade among FBS safeties in 2023 and was the second-most valuable safety in the nation, according to PFF's wins above average metric. Hallman was a ball-magnet in 2023, tying for the national lead with seven interceptions. That helped him generate just a 37.4 passer rating allowed, which ranked ninth among FBS cornerbacks.

The Badgers also return four defensive backs who played at least 300 snaps last year and added one of the nation’s most underrated cornerbacks in Toledo’s RJ Delancy II from the transfer portal. He was among the nation’s 10 best cornerbacks last year in completion rate allowed, passer rating allowed, yards per coverage snap allowed and open-target rate allowed.

9. Oklahoma Sooners

Of the 10 defensive backs who played at least 300 snaps for Oklahoma in 2023, eight are returning for 2024.

The Sooners are loaded at safety, and the star of that unit is Billy Bowman Jr., whose six interceptions last year tied for the third most among all defenders in college football. Dasan McCullough is a hybrid safety/linebacker for Oklahoma and ranked sixth among Power Five safeties with an 88.2 coverage grade this past season (minimum 275 snaps). Peyton Bowen was a five-star recruit in the 2023 class and earned an impressive 68.0 grade on 363 snaps in his true freshman campaign.

10. Arizona Wildcats

Arizona brings back four of five starters from its secondary last season, including a top-five cornerback in Tacario Davis. The first thing you notice about him is his freakish size at 6-foot-4. That length allows him to significantly bother receivers at the catch point. The sophomore posted a 27.8% forced incompletion rate in 2023, ranking fifth among Power Five cornerbacks. Davis forced more incompletions (14) in single coverage than he allowed catches (11).

Slot cornerback Treydan Stukes and safety Gunner Maldonado also return and each earned 75.0-plus PFF grades last season.

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