May 24, 2024
College Football's 20 best safeties of 2024

Oklahoma safety Billy Bowman (2) attempts to strip the ball from Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) during the first quarter Saturday October 28, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

They’re the last line of defense.

A safety has the responsibility of cleaning up the mistakes made in the front seven. The elite ones are field generals and often the most physical defenders on the defense. They can provide run support, and drop back in coverage to make plays.

These 20 safeties are looking to make some more noise in their expanded conferences this fall.

20. Andrew Mubuka, Texas: The former four-star prospect stockpiled 143 tackles over the past three seasons at Clemson. Mubuka even earned third-team, All-ACC honors as a true freshman in 2021. He only played in 10 games in 2023, but his numbers were still solid. Mubuka got off to a hot start with seven tackles in the opener at Duke. The 21-year old made five stops, including three solo in the victory at Syracuse. Mubuka tallied six tackles apiece, including four solo at Miami and Notre Dame. The six-foot, 186-pounder made four solo tackles in the win over North Carolina. Mubuka returned to his hometown, and will impact a defense that finished 113th nationally against the pass last year.

19. Jaden Mangham, Michigan State: The Michigan native led the Spartans in interceptions, and was their sixth-leading tackler in 2023. Mangham proved he was a ballhawk with his natural instincts, and made several plays out in coverage. He recorded six tackles in the opening victory over Central Michigan. The former four-star prospect also tallied six stops at Ohio State. Mangham posted a season-high, eight tackles, and picked off a pass against Washington. The six-foot-two, 191-pounder generated five tackles, and hauled in an interception at Rutgers. Not to mention he picked off a pass at Minnesota. Mangham stockpiled seven stops, to go along with an interception against Nebraska.

18. Marques Sigle, Kansas State: Despite not having any stars behind his name out of high, and starting out at the FCS level, he tied for first on the Wildcats in tackles last season. Sigle was a staple against the run, and out in pass coverage. He posted a season-high, eight tackles, including six solo at Missouri. Sigle also had six solo stops against UCF. The Omaha native recorded seven tackles apiece against Oklahoma State and Houston. Sigle tallied eight stops, including five solo at Texas. Not to mention he generated four solo tackles, and hauled in an interception in the victory at Kansas. Sigle also made four solo stops in the win over Baylor. He’ll be general in Kansas State’s secondary this fall.

17. Isaac Gifford, Nebraska: The hometown kid is an enforcer in the secondary, and has 156 tackles over the past two seasons. Gifford had a breakout campaign in 2023, in which he led the Huskers in stops, and finished fourth in tackles for loss. He made eight solo stops at Colorado. Gifford recorded seven tackles, and picked off a pass in the victory over Louisiana Tech. The former three-star prospect also posted seven stops apiece against Michigan, Northwestern and Maryland. Not to mention he tallied eight tackles apiece at Illinois and Wisconsin. Gifford left a lasting impression with a season-high, 11 tackles against Iowa. He’ll thrive in year two of Tony White’s system.

16. Donovan McMillon, Pittsburgh: The former four-star prospect made an instant impact in his first year with the Panthers, and led the team in tackles in 2023. McMillon was a tackling machine, and averaged 8.8 stops per game. McMillon posted eight tackles apiece against Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Notre Dame. He generated a season-high, 18 tackles, including nine solo at West Virginia. The Pennsylvania native tallied 13 stops in the victory over Boston College. McMillon stockpiled 12 tackles, including nine solo at Virginia Tech. Not to mention he had 11 stops, including nine solo at Syracuse. McMillon even recorded a double-digit tackling performance against Florida State.

15. Brylan Green, Liberty: The Louisiana native finished 13th in the FBS in interceptions per game last season. Green tied for third nationally in interceptions, and capped off his campaign with first-team, All-CUSA honors. He started off on fire, and picked off a jaw-dropping, five passes through the Flames’ first six games. Green posted four tackles, and an interception against Bowling Green. The former three-star prospect tallied six stops, including four solo and an interception against New Mexico State. Green also recorded four tackles, and picked off a pass against Sam Houston. Not to mention Green hauled in an interception against Jacksonville State, and Middle Tennessee.

14. Rod Moore, Michigan: The 20-year old was the sixth-leading tackler for the undefeated National Champs last season. Moore has been productive over the past two years, with 109 tackles, and six interceptions during that span. Not to mention he earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors in 2023. Moore picked off a pass against Indiana. He recorded six tackles at Penn State. Moore had a season-high, five solo stops, and hauled in an interception at Ohio State. The six-foot, 198-pounder also had five tackles apiece against Iowa and Alabama. Moore left a lasting impression with four stops against Washington. However, Moore is currently out this spring while recovering from a torn ACL.

13. Kendal Daniels, Oklahoma State: The 21-year old has been very productive with 175 tackles, and five interceptions over the past two seasons. Daniels finished second on the team in stops in 2023. He tallied nine tackles at Arizona State. Daniels put the quarterback to the turf against South Alabama. The Oklahoma native recorded eight stops apiece against Kansas State and Texas. Not to mention he posted 10 tackles, including seven solo at Iowa State. His 11 stops at West Virginia were a season-high. Daniels also had 11 tackles, including a sack at UCF. He generated seven tackles apiece and an interception in wins over Kansas and Texas A&M. Daniels will now play closer to the ball.

12. Ike Larsen, Utah State: The Utah native is one of the most dangerous ballhawks in the nation, with eight interceptions over the past two seasons. Larsen finished second on the Aggies with 103 tackles last year, and capped off his campaign with first-team, All-Mountain West honors. He posted five stops, and returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown against Idaho State. Larsen generated a season-high, 11 tackles apiece against Air Force and Georgia State. The 5-foot-10, 105-pounder tallied 10 stops apiece against James Madison, San Jose State and New Mexico. Larsen picked off two passes in the win over Colorado State, and had an interception against San Diego State.

11. Jeremiah Cooper, Iowa State: The former three-star prospect had a breakout campaign in 2023, and tied for third nationally with five interceptions. Cooper broke up 1.4 passes per game, which ranked No. 3 in the FBS. Not to mention he earned first-team, All-Big 12 honors for his heroics. He got off to a hot start with two interceptions, including one he returned 58 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Northern Iowa. The following week Cooper tallied six tackles, and picked off a pass against Iowa. Cooper also posted six stops, and an interception at Oklahoma. His seven tackles against TCU were a season-high. Cooper hauled in an interception in the victory over Cincinnati.

10. Kobe Savage, Oregon: The former juco turned himself into a two-time, All-Big 12 performer at Kansas State over the past two seasons. Savage racked up 110 tackles, and six interceptions during that span. He finished third on the Wildcats in stops last year. Savage posted a season-high, eight solo tackles at Missouri. The Texas native also had eight stops at Oklahoma State. Savage tallied seven tackles, and picked off two passes in the victory at Texas Tech. Not to mention he recorded six stops at Texas. Savage generated five solo stops, and hauled in an interception in the win at Kansas. The former three-star prospect brings a ton of production, experience and leadership to Oregon’s secondary.

9. Jack Howell, Colorado State: The former three-star prospect has led the Rams in tackles for the past two seasons. Howell stockpiled 220 stops, and four interceptions during that span. He’s also a two-time, first-team, All-Mountain West performer, and a team captain. Not to mention Howell averaged 9.5 tackles per game in 2023, which ranked 17th nationally. Howell recorded a jaw-dropping, 16 tackles against Washington State. The six-foot, 200-pounder tallied nine stops, and picked off a pass against Utah Tech. Howell generated 15 tackles in the victory over Boise State. The Colorado native also had double-digit tackling performances against UNLV, Wyoming and Nevada.

8. Major Burns, LSU: The hometown kid started every game for the Bayou Bengals last season, and led the team in tackles. Burns got off to a hot start with eight tackles in the opener against Florida State. He also posted eight stops against Alabama and Florida. Burns put the quarterback to the turf at Mississippi State. The six-foot-two, 195-pounder tallied 12 tackles, including seven solo against Arkansas. Burns recorded 11 stops at Ole Miss. The former four-star prospect posted three solo tackles, and returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown in the victory at Missouri. Burns left a lasting impression with a season-high, 13 tackles, including nine solo in the bowl win over Wisconsin.

7. Sebastian Castro, Iowa: The Illinois native had a breakout campaign with the Hawkeyes last season. Castro led the team in interceptions, was the third-leading tackler and earned third-team, AP All-America honors. He posted four tackles, and returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown in the victory at Iowa State. Castro tallied four solo stops, and picked off a pass against Michigan State. Not to mention he recorded a season-high, seven solo tackles, and hauled in an interception in the win at Wisconsin. Castro also generated seven stops against Minnesota. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder put the quarterback to the turf at Nebraska. Castro had a season-high, nine tackles against Michigan.

6. Dillon Thienman, Purdue: The 19-year old led the Boilermakers with 106 stops as a true freshman last season. Thienman tied for second nationally with six interceptions. He finished third in the FBS in solo tackles per game. Not to mention Thienman earned second-team, All-Big Ten honors, and was named the league’s Freshman of the Year. The Indiana native generated 10 solo tackles, and hauled in an interception against Fresno State. Thienman picked off two passes against Indiana. The former three-star prospect also recorded an interception against Virginia Tech, Iowa, and Northwestern. His 14 stops against Syracuse were a season-high. Thienman even tallied 12 tackles at Nebraska.

5. Hunter Wohler, Wisconsin: The former four-star prospect had a monster campaign last season, and finished with 120 stops. Wohler ranked 10th nationally in solo tackles per game. Not to mention he was 21st in the FBS with 9.2 tackles per game. Wohler even capped off his campaign with second-team, All-Big Ten honors. He started off on fire with 11 tackles, including 10 solo in the opener against Buffalo. The Wisconsin native generated 13 stops apiece at Washington State and Illinois. Wohler posted 10 tackles, including a sack and two interceptions against Georgia Southern. Not to mention Wohler tallied double-digit tackling performances against Northwestern and Minnesota

4. Malakai Starks, Georgia: The former five-star prospect was the Bulldogs’ fourth-leading tackler in 2023. Starks got off to a fast start with a season-high, eight tackles in the opener against Tennessee-Martin. The following game against Ball State he picked off a pass. Starks posted five tackles, including four solo, and hauled in an interception at Auburn. He also tallied five stops, including four solo against Kentucky. The six-foot-one, 205-pounder generated seven tackles at Georgia Tech. Starks made eight stops, including six solo in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. The Georgia native left a lasting impression with an interception in the Orange Bowl win over Florida State.

3. Billy Bowman, Oklahoma: The Texas native was the Sooners’ third-leading tackler, and tied for second nationally with six interceptions last year. Bowman was arguably one of the best ballhawks in the FBS, and capped off his campaign with first team, All-Big 12 honors. He posted four tackles, and picked off a pass at Cincinnati. Bowman returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown against Iowa State. The former four-star prospect recorded a season-high, 11 stops in the victory over Texas. Bowman returned an interception 100 yards to the house at BYU. The following week Bowman tallied nine tackles, and returned an interception 45 yards for a score in the win over TCU.

2. Caleb Downs, Ohio State: The former five-star prospect delivered on the hype, and led Alabama in stops as a true freshman last year. Downs tied for 19th nationally in solo tackles per game, and finished with first-team, All-SEC honors. He tallied 10 tackles against Texas. Downs recorded a season-high, 13 stops, and picked off a pass at Mississippi State. The following week he generated seven tackles, and hauled in an interception at Texas A&M. Downs also had seven stops apiece against Arkansas, Kentucky and Chattanooga. The Georgia native stockpiled 13 tackles against LSU, nine against Tennessee, and eight against Michigan. Downs will make Ohio State’s secondary elite.

1. Xavier Watts, Notre Dame: The 22-year old put together a monster campaign last season, and tied for first in the FBS in interceptions. Watts was Notre Dame’s fourth-leading tackler, and earned first-team, All-America honors. He even won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player. Watts recorded three tackles, and picked off a pass at NC State. The Omaha native posted a season-high, eight tackles, and an interception in the victory at Duke. Watts generated seven stops, including six solo, and two interceptions in the win over USC. Not to mention he picked off two passes against Pittsburgh. Watts recorded four solo stops against Ohio State, and an interception at Clemson.

Honorable Mention

Jonas Janker, Virginia: The hometown kid led the Cavaliers in tackles, and broke up 11 passes in 2023. Janker has 170 stops over the past two seasons. Last year he had double-digit tackling performances against James Madison, Boston College, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Now Janker is due for an All-ACC caliber campaign.

Beau Freyler, Iowa State: The former three star prospect led the Cyclones with 107 stops last year. Freyler averaged 8.2 tackles per game which ranked fourth in the Big 12. He posted three interceptions in conference play. Not to mention Freyler recorded double-digit tackling performances against Iowa, TCU, Kansas, Kansas State, and Memphis.

Quinn Schulte, Iowa: The Cedar Rapids native has been a staple in the Hawkeyes’ secondary for the past two years, with 136 stops, and two interceptions during that span. Schulte was Iowa’s fourth-leading tackler last season. He even helped the defense finish fifth nationally against the pass. Schulte and Castro will make the secondary elite again.

Shilo Sanders, Colorado: Coach Prime’s son on defense is physical and fast. Sanders led the Buffaloes in stops last season. He tied for 19th nationally in solo tackles per game. Not to mention he returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown in the victory over Colorado State. Sanders along with Travis Hunter make Colorados secondary dangerous.

A.J. Haulcy, Houston: The hometown kid led the Cougars with 98 tackles in 2023. Haulcy had a season-high, 15 tackles, including 11 solo in the victory over West Virginia. He posted 11 stops, including 10 solo at Kansas State. The former three-star prospect racked up 13 tackles apiece, including 10 solo against Cincinnati and UCF.

Trey Rucker, Oklahoma State: The Maryland native had a breakout campaign, and was the Cowboys’ third-leading tackler with 100 stops last year. Rucker had a season-high, 11 tackles in the victory over Kansas State. He tallied 10 stops, and an interception at Houston. Rucker generated nine tackles apiece in wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma.