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August 25, 2011

Preseason top 20: Safeties

We continue our breakdown of the nation's best players at each position with a look at safeties.

Two teams have both their starting safeties on our list, and in all, eight leagues have safeties on our list. In addition, there is an independent player, as well.

"Best" doesn't necessarily mean the most pro potential or even the most talent. Instead, it's a mix of what the player has accomplished and how we think the player will do this season. But production does trump potential.

We will look at a position a day until Monday, when we rank all 120 of the nation's quarterbacks. Friday, we will look at kickers. Here are the safety rankings.

20. FS JARRED HOLLEY, PITTSBURGH
THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/190, Jr.; Easton (Pa.) Easton Area
THE BUZZ: This season will be Holley's third as a starter, and he is coming off a strong campaign in which he garnered All-Big East notice. He had five interceptions, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and 54 tackles last season. He had 21 interceptions in high school as a cornerback.

19. S JON DAVIS, AIR FORCE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/210, Sr.; Cincinnati Winton Woods
THE BUZZ: Davis will be a three-year starter for the Falcons; he has started every game the past two seasons. He was second on the team with 93 tackles last season and also had three interceptions and three pass breakups as the Falcons finished 10th nationally in pass defense. He has four forced fumbles in his career.

18. FS AARON HENRY, WISCONSIN
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/210, Sr.; Immokalee (Fla.) High
THE BUZZ: Last season was Henry's first as a starter and his first as a safety; he had played cornerback earlier in his career, including being named to the Big Ten's all-freshman team in 2007 at the position. Henry adapted nicely to the move, being named a second-team all-league performer. He has three interceptions and 16 pass breakups in his career, and he is coming off a season in which he had 58 tackles.

17. FS VAUGHN TELEMAQUE, MIAMI
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/200, Jr.; Long Beach (Calif.) Poly
THE BUZZ: He had a solid season in 2010, his first as a full-time starter. Telemaque had 58 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions; he also had four pass breakups and a forced fumble. His name has surfaced in the Nevin Shapiro allegations and he could miss some time this fall.

16. SS SEAN RICHARDSON, VANDERBILT
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/220, Sr.; Linden (Ala.) High
THE BUZZ: Richardson, who contemplated turning pro, will be a three-year starter for the Commodores. He led Vandy with 99 tackles last season, a figure that was seventh in the SEC. He also had seven tackles for loss, five pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. Richardson had four games with at least 10 tackles and made at least six stops in 10 games. He has made 183 tackles in the past two seasons.

15. FS SEAN BAKER, BALL STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/204, Sr.; Canfield (Ohio) High
THE BUZZ: Baker is, quite simply, a big-play guy. He is heading into his fourth season as a starter and leads all current FBS players with 16 career interceptions, which already is a school record. He had six picks and 10 pass breakups last season; he has 33 breakups and five forced fumbles in his career. Baker also had 88 tackles last season and has 243 in his career.

14. S DUKE IHENACHO, SAN JOSE STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/205, Sr.; Gardena (Calif.) Serra
THE BUZZ: Ihenacho missed all but two games last season with a foot injury, and he will be a four-year starter for the Spartans. He plays aggressive football and is a hard hitter. Ihenacho has six career interceptions to go along with 17 pass breakups and 195 tackles. He's a two-time All-WAC player and is bidding to become the first player in school history to be a three-time selection.

13. FS TRAMAIN THOMAS, ARKANSAS
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/204, Sr.; Winnie (Texas) East Chambers
THE BUZZ: Thomas blossomed into one of the best safeties in the SEC last season, which was his first as a full-time starter. He garnered some All-SEC recognition after making 83 tackles and coming up with four interceptions and five pass breakups. He is a big hitter and has five forced fumbles in his career.

12. FS EDDIE WHITLEY, VIRGINIA TECH
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/200, Sr.; Charlotte Butler
THE BUZZ: After serving as a reserve in his first two seasons, Whitley became a dependable starter last season as a junior. His versatility -- he can play both safety spots, as well as cornerback -- served him well last season, when he had two interceptions, six pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 80 tackles. He missed his senior season of high school in 2007 with a torn ACL, yet played as a true freshman in '08 with the Hokies.

11. SS MARKELLE MARTIN, OKLAHOMA STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/198, Sr.; Wichita Falls (Texas) Rider
THE BUZZ: Martin is an excellent athlete, with sub-4.4 speed and a 37-inch vertical jump, and he also delivers quite a wallop as a tackler. A two-year starter, he's coming off a breakout season in 2010 in which he had 55 tackles, three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Martin was named defensive player of the game in the Alamo Bowl victory over Arizona. He'll be a strong contender for All-America honors if he improves on last season's showing.

10. FS LANCE MITCHELL, OREGON STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/207, Sr.; Pasadena (Calif.) Muir
THE BUZZ: An athletic safety with a knack for making big plays, Mitchell has started 21 consecutive games for the Beavers and 24 in his career. Voted a co-captain by teammates, Mitchell could have a shot at All-America acclaim if he builds on his 2010 performance; last season, he had 74 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups.

9. FS JOHN BOYETT, OREGON
THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/202, Jr.; Napa (Calif.) High
THE BUZZ: Though often overlooked because of higher-profile teammates, Boyett has emerged as one of the top defensive backs in the country. He's been named to various all-conference squads and some All-America teams, and he was a freshman All-America picks two seasons ago. He's strong and has tremendous lateral quickness, and he has used those assets to post impressive numbers. He has eight career interceptions and 168 tackles in two seasons.

8. SS RAY-RAY ARMSTRONG, MIAMI
THE PARTICULARS: 6-4/215, Jr.; Sanford (Fla.) Seminole
THE BUZZ: Armstrong has been ensnared in the Nevin Shapiro scandal, but UM needs him on the field. Armstrong, a phenomenal athlete for his size, emerged as one of the ACC's top players during an excellent sophomore season in which he earned all-conference recognition. His 79 tackles were the team's third-highest total, and he posted three interceptions -- including one returned for a touchdown. He seems to play his best against top opponents. Armstrong posted nine tackles against both Ohio State and Florida State last season, and as a freshman, he had seven stops against Oklahoma.

7. SS TONY DYE, UCLA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/216, Sr.; Corona (Calif.) Santiago
THE BUZZ: He has been overshadowed in the Bruins secondary' the past two seasons by All-America FS Rahim Moore. But Moore now is in the NFL and Dye is switching from strong safety to free safety. A former hockey star, Dye won't shy away from contact. Last season, he led the Bruins with 96 tackles and nine pass breakups. He also had one interception. The move to free safety should mean more interceptions this fall.

6. FS GEORGE ILOKA, BOISE STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/216, Sr.; Houston Kempner
THE BUZZ: Iloka, who will be a three-year starter, was named an All-WAC performer to cap an excellent 2010 campaign. He's a sure tackler and has good range in coverage. Last season, Iloka -- who has excellent size and packs a punch -- recorded at least five tackles in six games and finished with 63 stops, the third-highest total on the team. He also had two interceptions, five pass breakups and a forced fumble.

5. FS T.J. MCDONALD, USC
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/205, Jr.; Fresno (Calif.) Edison
THE BUZZ: The son of former USC All-America Tim McDonald, T.J. has vowed to take over a leadership role and oversee improvement in USC's secondary. He's a play-maker who aims to build on a strong sophomore season in which he posted a team-leading 89 tackles. He also had three interceptions, four pass breakups and a blocked punt.

4. S HARRISON SMITH, NOTRE DAME
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/214, Sr.; Knoxville (Tenn.) Catholic
THE BUZZ: After making a game-clinching interception with 36 seconds left in a 20-16 victory over USC, Smith followed that up by picking off three passes in a 33-17 Sun Bowl triumph over Miami. Smith closed 2010 with 93 tackles, and his seven interceptions ranked fourth nationally. Smith is the only player in Notre Dame history with more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in a career.

3. FS ROBERT LESTER, ALABAMA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/210, Jr.; Foley (Ala.) High
THE BUZZ: Free safety was a huge question for the Tide heading into last season, but Lester -- who barely saw the field in 2009 as a redshirt freshman -- had a breakthrough season. He had eight picks, which led the SEC and was second nationally, and it also tied the second-best single-season mark in school history. Lester added 54 tackles and four pass breakups, and he and Mark Barron give Alabama the nation's best safety duo.

2. SS DELANO HOWELL, STANFORD
THE PARTICULARS: 5-11/189, Sr.; Newhall (Calif.) Hart
THE BUZZ: Howell, originally a running back prospect, has developed into a crunching hitter as well as a ball hawk. Last season, he earned All-Pac-10 acclaim while posting 60 tackles and leading the Cardinal with five interceptions and 10 pass breakups. How vital is he to Stanford's secondary? He missed last season's Washington State game with a forearm injury, and two Cougars receivers had more than 100 receiving yards.

1. SS MARK BARRON, ALABAMA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/218, Sr.; Mobile (Ala.) St. Paul's
THE BUZZ: Barron, who hasn't redshirted, is heading into his third season as a starter. He's a two-time All-SEC selection who also has received some All-America notice. Barron has 169 career tackles, and he led the Tide with 75 last season, when he also had three interceptions, six pass breakups, two sacks and a forced fumble. He missed the Capital One Bowl last season with a torn pectoral muscle, but is expected to be 100 percent this fall.

Rankings and player capsules compiled by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.

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