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What it takes to succeed as a college defensive back

The following is a breakdown of the six categories (size excluded) we use when evaluating college defensive backs. Also included in each category are, in my opinion, the top three examples from college football today.

1. PASS COVERAGE (LEGS)

Best three examples:
1. Justin King, CB, Penn State (Jr.)
2. Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State (Jr.)
3. Kenny Phillips, DS, Miami (Jr.)

Cornerbacks must be fast and fluid enough in the hips to turn and run with speedy wide receivers one-on-one. Their technique must be polished, as they can't afford to get turned around or to take false steps. Free safeties generally spend more time in deep zone coverage or matched up one-on-one versus the slot receiver, so instincts, angles, speed and change-of-direction skills are most important. Strong safeties generally spend more time in underneath zone coverage or matched up against tight ends one-on-one, so they can get away with just adequate speed, but they must be big enough to challenge tight ends physically. Confidence and "selective amnesia" are important qualities for all defensive backs.


2. INSTINCTS (HEAD)

Best three examples:
1. Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona (Sr.)
2. Kenny Phillips, DS, Miami (Jr.)
3. Jonathan Hefney, DS, Tennessee (Sr.)

Don't get caught peeking in the backfield on play-action. Be able to read opposing quarterbacks' eyes when facing them. Sense when the ball is in the air. Know opposing wide receivers' tendencies and weaknesses, as well as how to attack them. Know how to protect yourself versus faster receivers. Show good timing when jumping routes, as well as on the jump ball. Be consistent and reliable in zone coverage, don't get caught out of position.

3. DURABILITY (BODY)

Best three examples:
1. Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona (Sr.)
2. Jonathan Hefney, DS, Tennessee (Sr.)
3. Quintin Demps, DS, UTEP (Sr.)

Keep in peak physical condition. Show stamina to maintain high level of play late in games and late in the season. Be a flexible athlete who won't get injured easily. Play through pain.

4. RUN SUPPORT (ARMS)

Best three examples:
1. Jonathan Hefney, DS, Tennessee (Sr.)
2. Tom Zbikowski, DS, Notre Dame (Sr.)
3. Kenny Phillips, DS, Miami (Jr.)

Generally speaking, supporting the run is more important for safeties than cornerbacks. Regardless, aggressiveness and willingness are key traits to study when it comes to defensive backs supporting the run. Know how to take on and disengage from blocks in space. Use quick feet to "slip" blocks, but also while maintaining "outside leverage". Explosive hips are important in order to overcome size disadvantages when tackling bigger runners. Know how to "cut" runners and how to use shoulders when matched up against bigger runners or blockers.

5. QUICKNESS (FEET)

Best three examples:
1. Brandon Flowers, CB, Virginia Tech (Jr.)
2. Justin King, CB, Penn State (Jr.)
3. DeJuan Tribble, CB, Boston College (Sr.)

Quickness and speed are premiums for defensive backs. Upper-echelon cornerbacks typically run the short shuttle in 3.9 seconds or faster, the three-cone drill in 6.9 seconds or faster and the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds or faster. Upper-echelon safeties typically run the short shuttle in 4.0 seconds or faster, the three-cone drill in 7.0 seconds or faster and the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds or faster.

6. BALL SKILLS (HANDS)

Best three examples:
1. Dwight Lowery, CB, San Jose State (Sr.)
2. Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas (Jr.)
3. DeJuan Tribble, CB, Boston College (Sr.)

Need to be aggressive and show soft, reliable hands to make a play on the ball when in position. Instincts are critical. Must be able to find the ball in the air quickly when turning to look for it. Also need to time jumps well and make plays on the ball when it is in the air.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN Insider. Listen to Todd McShay break down the biggest games and give you all the scores on "College GameDay" on ESPN Radio every Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. ET. He is also a frequent contributor to ESPNU.

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