Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Back Rankings
Which Mountain West defensive backs are considered the top units at the end of spring football practice?
No-fly zones everywhere.
POSITIONAL DEPTH RANKINGS
Overall | Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver/Tight End | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebacker | Cornerback/Safety | Kicker/Punter
Note: Italics denote projected starters.
High ranking in group: 8th | Low ranking in group: 12th
Projected depth: Cam Stone (CB), Peter Manuma (S), Matagi Thompson (S), Virdel Edwards II (CB), Jojo Forest, Justin Prince, Meki Pei, Justin Sinclair
The young Warriors defense definitely got a crash course against opposing quarterbacks last year, battling injuries and ultimately finishing 2022 with the highest opponent passer rating and yards per attempt average in the Mountain West, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see this group take a step forward thanks to some new arrivals.
Stone is the biggest newcomer after he was arguably Wyoming’s best cornerback last season (two interceptions, ten pass breakups), but others like Prince and Sinclair could play their way into a rotation that returns plenty of young potential. Manuma, for instance, put together one of the best overall freshman campaigns in the conference (70 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions) while Edwards was quietly solid in his first season on the islands (three INTs, five PBUs). Thompson was good enough to start in Week 0 as a true freshman before injuries cut his season short, so while there still might be a few growing pains, there’s a capacity for a surprise here.
High ranking: 6th | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Jaden Dedman (CB), Isaiah Essissima (CB), Emany Johnson (S), Zeke Robbins (NB), Tre Weed, Aedan Seiuli, Zach Lewis, Richard Toney
It won’t get the same amount of attention as losing Dom Peterson, but having to replace Tyson Williams, Tyriq Mack, and Bentlee Sanders in the secondary poses its own challenges. This could be a big year for Dedman and Essissima if they can get their hands on the football just a little more often after combining for 17 pass breakups in 2022.
On the whole, though, the major challenge will be to give up fewer explosive plays: Nevada allowed 44 plays of 20 or more yards through the air last year, the most in the Mountain West, while defending the fewest passes (43) in the conference.
10. Utah State
High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Michael Anyanwu (CB), Ike Larsen (S), Xavion Steele, Jordan Drew, Anthony Switzer, Dusten Ramseyer-Burdett, Omari Okeke
The Aggies are arguably in better shape than you might think in a lot of other areas despite heavy transfer portal losses, but the secondary isn’t one of them right now. Larsen had a strong freshman year in which he posted the highest overall Pro Football Focus grade (89.6) of any Mountain West defensive back, but now the challenge will be to do that over the course of more than 240 snaps.
Anyanwu is the only other established piece here and he’s coming off his best season to date (11 pass breakups, 50% of targets caught), meaning that there are a lot of question marks to sort through in the two-deep. Switzer’s return from a season-ending ACL injury last spring will provide a shot in the arm, but there’s a lot of “prove it” in the ranks.
High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 12th
Projected depth: Deron Harrell (CB), Wyatt Ekeler (S), Isaac White (S), Jakorey Hawkins (CB), Wrook Brown (NB), Koleby Taylor, Tyrecus Davis, Buck Coors
For as strong as the Cowboys defense was in some respects last season, the secondary did leave a little something to be desired: They tied for third in the conference with 45 passes defended but turned that into a Mountain West-low six interceptions while finishing in the middle of the pack with a 60.3% opponent completion rate.
Despite losing Stone to Hawaii, the good news is that everyone is back to improve upon those numbers so this ranking may seem a little low to the brown and gold faithful. There’s also a growing belief that this year’s unit could be even deeper than before, with newcomers like Coors and Davis earning high marks for their work in the spring, so keep a close eye on this group.
8. New Mexico
High ranking: 3rd | Low ranking: 11th
Projected depth: Donte Martin (CB), Tavian Combs (S), Christian Ellis (S), D’Arco Perkins-McAllister (S), Zach Morris (CB), Bobby Wooden, Hunter Sellers, Marvin Covington
The Lobos weren’t alone in losing key players to the transfer portal, but the particular sting that New Mexico felt is that they lost a pair of young standouts in A.J. Haulcy and Ronald Wilson. Combined with Jerrick Reed II’s departure to the NFL and Rocky Long’s exit to Syracuse, and you might think they’ll have to battle big regression in 2023.
That may be true, but Martin’s return for one last ride and getting Combs back from injury gives UNM a solid foundation from which they hope transfer portal newcomers like Covington and Perkins-McAllister can build. This unit has been a relative strength despite challenges elsewhere over the past few years, so don’t count them out.
7. San Jose State
High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 8th
Projected depth: Kenyon Reed (CB), Tre Jenkins (S), Chase Williams (S), Michael Dansby (CB), Elisha Guidry, Zavion Reese
This unit had its ups and downs in 2022, picking off 14 passes but finishing closer to the middle of the Mountain West with a 60.7% opponent completion rate and 7.4 yards per attempt allowed, though the only major loss headed into the fall is Nehemiah Shelton. On paper, SJSU’s secondary is much more established than it was this time last year.
Reed and Jenkins provide the veteran backbone, though when the former missed the last four games of the season, it provided Dansby the opportunity to finish the year as PFF’s highest-graded Spartan defensive back (75.2, two interceptions, four pass breakups). Williams also had a solid first year with San Jose State after transferring in from USC, so while there may not be obvious all-conference candidates in this bunch, they should provide a high floor for the Spartans to remain competitive.
6. Colorado State
High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 10th
Projected depth: Chigozie Anusiem (CB), Jack Howell (S), Henry Blackburn (S), Ron Hardge III (CB), Ayden Hector (NB), Brandon Guzman, Dominic Morris
A rough September obscures the fact that this group got markedly better as 2022 progressed, allowing a completion rate of just 56.1% and 5.8 yards per attempt in Mountain West play, both of which ranked in the top four. That everyone is back for another round in Freddie Banks’s defense makes this bunch one of the more intriguing ones anywhere in the conference.
Howell has a case as the Mountain West’s top safety after following his freshman all-American campaign in 2021 with one in which he finished third among all conference defenders with 103 tackles and allowed just 8.9 yards per reception. Hector was a revelation after transferring to Fort Collins from Washington State while Blackburn and Anusiem were rock solid in their own right. Hardge and Morris are the new arrivals among this bunch and their presence should only make a relative strength better.