August 8, 2022

College Football’s 20 best safeties of 2021

College Football's 20 best safeties of 2021

Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

They are the last line of defense and the ones who clean up the mistakes made by other defenders.

Safeties have to be flat-out physical and a leader in the secondary. In order to be successful they have to excel against the run and in pass coverage. One missed tackle from them could lead to a big gain and often times six points. They’re usually required to help out in coverage on a team’s top receiver.

Scanning the field, recognizing formations and reading the quarterback’s eyes is what makes them ballhawks. These 20 defenders are naturals at accomplishing those three tactics and here’s why they’re the top returning safeties in the country.

20. Delarrin Turner-Yell, Oklahoma: The former three-star prospect finished second on the team in tackles last season. Turner-Yell picked off a pass in the opening win over Missouri State. The Texas native tallied seven total tackles against Kansas State, Texas and Baylor. He generated a season-high, six solo stops in the victory over Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder followed up that performance with six tackles in the bowl win over Florida. Last year the Sooners finished 83rd in the FBS in pass defense. So with Turner-Yell’s return, the unit should be improved.

19. Gilbert Frierson, Miami: He’s the enforcer from the Hurricanes’ striker position, which is a hybrid safety that plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Frierson tied for third on the team in tackles in 2020. The Florida native recorded six stops, including five solo against Clemson. Frierson added six tackles apiece in wins over Virginia and NC State. The six-foot-one, 205-pounder tallied a season-high, eight tackles and two sacks in the victory at Virginia Tech. Miami’s defense has improved every season under Manny Diaz. Frierson will be a staple in the unit again this fall.

18. Kolby Harvell-Peel, Oklahoma State: He’s just one part of the best safety tandem in the country. Harvell-Peel started strong out of the gates, with an interception in the opening win over Tulsa. The Texas native generated five total tackles and picked off a pass in the victory over Iowa State. Harvell-Peel racked up a season-high, eight total stops on Senior Day against Texas Tech. Not to mention he earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. The Cowboys’ defense finished third in the Big 12 in passing yards allowed because of their duo at safety.

17. Daxton Hill, Michigan: The former five-star prospect finished second on the team in tackles as a true sophomore. Hill tallied eight stops apiece in back-to-back games against Michigan State and Indiana. The Oklahoma native recorded a season-high, 12 tackles against Wisconsin. He followed up that performance with seven solo tackles, two pass breakups and an interception in the win over Rutgers. Hill stockpiled nine total stops and broke up a pass against Penn State. He’ll be a nice piece to operate with for Michigan’s two new Defensive Coordinators.

16. Jack Koerner, Iowa: The Des Moines native led the Hawkeyes in interceptions last year. Koerner started out on fire, with 13 tackles in the opener at Purdue. He followed up that performance with an interception against Northwestern. Koerner also picked off another pass in the win over Michigan State. The six-foot, 205-pounder tallied six stops in victories over Nebraska and Wisconsin. Koerner is a former walk-on, with no stars out of high school, but earned second-team All-Big Ten. Iowa’s defense allowed nine passing touchdowns in 2020 and Koerner was a big reason why.

15. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State: Last season the Pittsburgh native finished third on the team in tackles and led the Nittany Lions in pass breakups. Brisker had eight stops against Ohio State. The former junior college transfer stockpiled eight tackles and broke up a pass against Iowa. He played his best game of the year in the win over Michigan State. Brisker racked up nine tackles, a sack and an interception against the Spartans. The six-foot-one, 202-pounder finished 2020 with third-team All-Big Ten honors. He’ll be a ballhawk in Penn State’s secondary this fall.

14. Antavious Lane, Georgia State: As a true sophomore he led the Panthers in interceptions and tied for third on the team in tackles. Lane was very consistent. He made nine tackles, including eight solo against Louisiana. The former three-star prospect generated four solo stops and an interception in the win over East Carolina. Lane stockpiled eight tackles in the loss at Arkansas State. He had seven more stops and an interception at Troy. Lane had nine tackles and picked off a pass at Appalachian State. He also had an interception in Georgia State’s bowl win.

13. Nick Andersen, Wake Forest: Last season he finished fourth on the team in tackles and led the Demon Deacons in interceptions. Andersen racked up nine stops, including six solo and broke up two passes against Virginia. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder followed up that performance with 11 tackles and snagged three interceptions in the victory over Virginia Tech. He combined for 26 solo tackles, three pass breakups and an interception over the Hokies’ final four games. Anderson went from having no stars out of high school, to third-team All-ACC in 2020.

12. Alex Spillum, Coastal Carolina: He’s another defender who had no stars behind his name out of high school. However, Spillum racked up 60 tackles for the Chanticleers and earned third-team All-Sun Belt honors. The Minnesota native has the athleticism, speed and awareness to blanket one side of the field. Spillum picked off a pass against Campbell, Appalachian State, Troy and Liberty. The six-foot-two, 190-pounder recorded at least four solo tackles in five different games. Coastal Carolina finished 31st in total defense in 2020 and return several studs this fall.

11. A.J. Finley, Ole Miss: Last season he led the Rebels in interceptions and tied for third on the team in tackles. Finley picked off a pass and broke up another in the opener against Florida. He generated six stops, including four solo against Alabama. Finley racked up a season-high, 12 tackles, an interception and recovered a fumble in the win at Vanderbilt. The six-foot-two, 200-pounder snagged a pick in the victory over South Carolina. Over the Rebels’ final three games, Finley had 17 solo tackles. The Rebels’ finished 125th in the FBS in pass defense, so that must improve.

10. Greg Eisworth, Iowa State: He’s a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 performer. Eisworth raised eyebrows when he decided to return for another season. He has been a leader in Iowa State’s secondary for quite some time. Not to mention he’s one of the Big 12’s best tacklers. The Texas native started all 12 games in 2020. Eisworth generated six tackles apiece against Louisiana, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. The six-foot, 198-pounder had a 29-yard punt return, recovered a fumble and picked off a pass against Kansas. Eisworth has 199 career stops under his belt.

9. Alonzo Addae, West Virginia: The Ontario native had no stars behind his name out of high school. However, Addae finished second on the Mountaineers in tackles last season. He also tied for first in interceptions. Addae posted seven tackles and picked off a pass in the win over Eastern Kentucky. The 5-foot-11, 189-pounder followed up that performance with nine stops apiece against Oklahoma State and Baylor. Addae picked off his second pass in the win over Kansas. He had eight tackles apiece against Kansas State and TCU. Addae earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.

8. Daniel Wright, Alabama: The former three-star prospect played in all 13 games and stockpiled 60 tackles for the National Champs. Wright started out on fire with 11 tackles, including 10 solo at Missouri. The following week he picked off a pass and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown against Texas A&M. The Florida native posted four solo tackles and an interception in the win over Georgia. Wright generated five solo tackles in the Iron Bowl victory. The six-foot-one, 195-pounder isn’t hard to spot on the field with his crimson dreadlocks. Wright also knows how to deliver a big hit.

7. Christian Izien, Rutgers: The New York native led the Scarlet Knights in interceptions and finished third on the team in tackles. Izien racked up 10 tackles against Illinois. The former three-star prospect recovered a fumble and broke up two passes against Michigan. He tallied eight total stops in the win at Purdue. The 5-foot-10, 198-pounder posted a season-high, 11 tackles and snagged an interception against Penn State. Over Rutgers’ final two games, Izien combined for 16 stops, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

6. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame: As a true sophomore he led the Fighting Irish in tackles. Hamilton has great range, standing six-foot-four. He racked up seven tackles in the opening win over Duke. The Atlanta native generated eight solo stops against Florida State. Hamilton had eight solo tackles, including one for loss in the win over Clemson. The former four-star prospect played better in the ACC Championship. He tallied 10 tackles and an interception in the rematch. Hamilton posted seven stops against Alabama and earned first-team All-ACC.

5. Gregory Grate, Middle Tennessee State: The Miami native is as physical as they come. Last season he led the Blue Raiders in interceptions and finished second on the team in tackles. The former three-star prospect generated eight tackles against Troy. The following week he intercepted a pass and forced a fumble at UTSA. Grate stockpiled eight stops and another pick at Florida International. The 5-foot-11, 186-pounder had double-digit tackling performances against North Texas and Rice. Grate snagged two interceptions over the final three games.

4. Chamarri Conner, Virginia Tech: The former four-star prospect led the Hokies in tackles last season. Conner generated eight tackles, including seven solo at Duke. He posted double-digit tackling performances against Boston College, Wake Forest and Liberty. Not to mention the Florida native combined for 16 tackles and two interceptions at Louisville and Pittsburgh. Conner’s 81 total stops only landed him Honorable Mention All-ACC, so the six-foot-two, 21-pounder will use that as motivation for the league this fall.

3. Tre Sterling, Oklahoma State: He finished third on the team in tackles and tied for first in interceptions. Sterling is a natural against the run and in pass coverage. He combined for 17 total tackles through Oklahoma State’s first two games. Sterling posted nine stops, and two for loss in the win over Iowa State. The former three-star prospect generated nine tackles and broke up a pass against Texas. Sterling also had nine stops in Bedlam and picked off a pass at Kansas State. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder stockpiled nine tackles and an interception against Texas Tech. Sterling had 13 tackles in the bowl victory over Miami.

2. Jalen Catalon, Arkansas: The Texas native finished third on the team in tackles and tied for first in interceptions. Catalon generated nine tackles in the opener against Georgia. He followed up that performance with 13 stops at Mississippi State. The following week he posted 14 tackles at Auburn. The former four-star prospect combined for 24 total stops and two interceptions against Tennessee and Florida. Catalon racked up a season-high, 16 tackles against LSU. The 5-foot-10, 189-pounder stockpiled 10 total tackles in the finale against Alabama. With Hudson Clark at corner and Catalon at safety, Arkansas will be lethal in the secondary.

1. Brandon Joseph, Northwestern: He tied for first in the FBS with six interceptions as redshirt freshman. Joseph finished fourth on the team in tackles and earned first-team AP All-American honors. The Texas native picked off two passes at Iowa. The six-foot-one, 192-pounder followed up that performance with an interception in the victory over Nebraska. Joseph’s balled out against Wisconsin and tallied seven tackles and two interceptions. The former three-star prospect had four solo tackles and an interception in the Big Ten Championship. Despite Joseph’s success, he wasn’t a Thorpe Award semifinalist or named Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Now he’ll be using it all as motivation this fall.

Honorable Mention

Isheem Young, Iowa State: The former four-star prospect is the other stud in the Cyclones’ secondary. Last season Young generated 50 tackles, forced three fumbles and picked off a pass for the Fiesta Bowl Champs.