Illinois proved last season how an elite group of defensive backs can set the tone for an entire team. The Fighting Illini enjoyed their best season since 2007 on the back of a secondary that picked off a nation-leading 24 passes on the way to an 8-5 season. In the realm of national competitors, Michigan allowed just 5.94 yards per pass attempt — sixth-best nationally — and used that stingy pass defense to win the Big Ten title and reach the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State and TCU each allowed more than seven yards per pass attempt, and while they made up for it in other areas while reaching the CFP, they needed better play from their secondaries. The team that did win the national championship, Georgia, wasn't quite as elite in the secondary as it was during its 2021 title season, but the Bulldogs were still stingy. They ranked No. 22 nationally at 6.45 yards per attempt allowed and finished 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
In an era when offenses like to spread opponents out and throw the football around, it's common for defenses to respond by placing five or even six defensive backs on the field simultaneously. That requires programs to place an outsized emphasis on recruiting and development of cornerbacks and safeties.
As the 2023 season approaches, some of the top defensive back rooms in the country are a predictable reflection of those who shined last season. However, others such as Pitt and Toledo receive honorable mentions here amid excellent retention and roster development in the transfer portal era. So which DB rooms are best? Let's break them down.
1. Penn State
Penn State ranked No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and No. 5 in yards allowed per attempt. Though the Nittany Lions bid farewell to NFL Draft selections Joey Porter Jr. at corner and Ji'Ayir Brown at safety, they return star cornerback Kalen King. Opposite King is Johnny Dixon, who deflected 10 passes and intercepted two last season. Veterans Jaylen Reed and Keaton Ellis are experienced anchors at safety, and second-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is one of the best in the business.
Star cornerback Riley Moss is off to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes are going to be stingy again, per usual. Cooper DeJean is back at corner after enjoying a breakout season with five interceptions -- including three returned for touchdowns -- last year. Fellow corner Jermari Harris missed last season due to injury, but if he can regain the form he enjoyed in 2021 when he picked off four passes, the Hawkeyes will be nasty at the position. Former five-star safety prospect Xavier Nwankpa could also be in line for a breakout sophomore season anchoring Iowa's back end.
The fact that converted wide receiver Amorion Walker is in the mix for a starting cornerback spot raises some concern as the Wolverines bid farewell to second-round NFL Draft choice D.J. Turner at the position. Otherwise, this group has little to worry about after ranking No. 5 in passing efficiency defense and sixth in yards allowed per attempt during the 2022 season. Former 247Sports Composite five-star prospect Will Johnson holds down a cornerback spot and could be a star after intercepting three passes as a true freshman. On the back end, safety Rod Moore is poised for a big season after being named an All-Big Ten honorable mention and intercepting four passes.
Georgia is replacing NFL Draft picks Kelee Ringo at corner and Christopher Smith at safety but is well-equipped to withstand their departures. Former five-star prospect Malaki Starks will anchor the unit from his safety spot after a standout freshman season, and Kamari Lassiter is poised to be one of the SEC's top corners. A couple of former five-stars in Daylen Everette and Nyland Green are battling for Ringo's vacated corner spot. Javon Bullard should hold down the strong safety position after a solid sophomore season, and fifth-year senior Tykee Smith is back in the mix at the star position.
Placing Alabama in the top-five requires faith in freshman Caleb Downs, but the former five-star prospect was the No. 1 ranked safety in the 2023 recruiting class for a reason and drew rave reviews in the spring. He will team with cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, a projected first-round pick in 2024, to give the Crimson Tide one of the nation's most-talented 1-2 cornerback-safety punches. Other projected starters such as cornerback Terrion Arnold and safety Malachi Moore have plenty of experience, and coach Nick Saban is known for extracting greatness from his secondaries.