Ranking college football’s top 10 defensive backs for 2024

Ranking college football's top 10 defensive backs for 2024

As we continue our top 10 rankings at various positions around college football, it seems our voters had as much trouble finding separation among the candidates at defensive back as receivers do when going against the defenders themselves.

This was the tightest contest so far, with a tie at the top that was broken based on the number of first-place votes each of the two contenders received from our ESPN reporters. That left Georgia’s Malaki Starks at No. 1, edging Colorado two-way star Travis Hunter, who also made our top 10 receivers list.

The bunched results did not end there. In fact, the player with the most first-place votes was Michigan’s Will Johnson, who was third overall, and five players were No. 1 on at least one ballot.

Points were assigned based on our reporters’ votes: 10 points for first place, nine for second place and down to one point for 10th place.

Here are the results.

Previous top 10 lists: Receivers | Running backs | Quarterbacks | Pass-rushers

2023 stats: 3 interceptions, 7 passes defended, 52 tackles

Points: 67 (two first-place votes)

From the very first time Starks stepped on the field for the Bulldogs, there was a feeling that the five-star safety was different. In the first quarter of his first collegiate game Sept. 3, 2022, Starks intercepted a deep pass from Oregon quarterback Bo Nix. He high-pointed the ball and hauled it in while falling backward in Georgia’s 49-3 victory. Starks was named a freshman All-American while helping lead the Bulldogs to their second straight CFP national championship.

Last season, Starks was even better. He was named a consensus All-American after totaling 52 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups, which was sixth among all Power 5 safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. With safeties Tykee Smith and Javon Bullard leaving for the NFL draft, Starks will have an even more important role on the back end of Georgia’s defense this season. He could become the Bulldogs’ first two-time All-American safety since John Little in 1985-86. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior is projected to be a first-round selection in the 2025 NFL draft. — Mark Schlabach

2023 stats: 3 interceptions, 5 passes defended, 31 tackles

Points: 67 (no first-place votes)

When Deion Sanders spoke of the Louis Vuitton he was bringing to Colorado, Hunter was one of the players he was referencing, and rightfully so. While he was the best player in the country who was getting snaps on both offense and defense, Hunter’s best plays from 2023 stand out on the defensive side, such as his spectacular interception in the opener against TCU.

He routinely followed the opponent’s best receiver and had three interceptions on the season, second most among Pac-12 corners. He also had 31 total tackles, two for a loss, as well as five passes defended. If Colorado takes another leap in 2024, Hunter will be a big reason. — Harry Lyles Jr.

2023 stats: 4 interceptions, 4 passes defended, 27 tackles

Points: 60 (three first-place votes)

One of Jim Harbaugh’s more decorated recent recruits, Johnson immediately lived up to blue-chip hype, allowing just a 44% completion rate and an 11.9 QBR in coverage and playing a major role for the Wolverines’ 2022 CFP team. In 2023, both Michigan and Johnson raised their respective games. He allowed just a 42% completion rate and a 4.3 QBR as the Wolverines won a national title with the No. 1 defense per SP+.

Just about everything is changing for Michigan in 2024 — Sherrone Moore replaces Harbaugh as head coach, Wink Martindale replaces Jesse Minter as defensive coordinator, and only about five total offensive and defensive starters return. But any secondary with Johnson in it will automatically be one of the nation’s best, especially with the veteran safety help he should receive. So that is something the Wolverines can bank on. — Bill Connelly

2023 stats: 2 interceptions, 3 passes defended, 107 tackles

Points: 53 (two first-place votes)

There is a reason Downs received more than 100 phone calls after he announced he was going to transfer from Alabama. Downs was the best freshman safety in the country a year ago, a five-star recruit in the Class of 2023 who lived up to the advance billing in his only season with the Tide. Downs became the first freshman to lead the team in tackles, tallying 107, and added two interceptions en route to freshman All-America honors.

He chose to transfer after Nick Saban retired and said he chose Ohio State over Georgia because it was the “best decision for me.” Downs joins a veteran defense that includes returning starters Jack Sawyer, JT Tuimoloau, Denzel Burke and Lathan Ransom. Ohio State already ranked in the top 10 in the nation in pass defense without him. His arrival only strengthens an already stout group. — Andrea Adelson

2023 stats: 3 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 31 tackles

Points: 48 (one first-place vote)

Morrison shares a defensive backfield with the 2023 Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner in safety Xavier Watts, but he might have a higher ceiling, both in college and with his NFL draft outlook. He had a breakout season as a freshman in 2022, recording six interceptions, which ranked seventh nationally and were the most for a Notre Dame players since Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o in 2012. Although Watts had the glitzier interceptions numbers last season, Morrison had a very strong encore, leading the team with 10 pass breakups. He also added three more interceptions as well as 3.5 tackles for loss, showing improvement against the run.

A sound tackler who can mark an opponent’s top receiver, Morrison was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. The son of former NFL safety Darryl Morrison could be one of the first defensive players selected in the 2025 draft if he maintains his trajectory as a ball-hawking cornerback. — Adam Rittenberg

2023 stats: 1 interception, 8 passes defended, 24 tackles

Points: 37

Burke was a freshman All-American in 2021 before stepping in as Ohio State’s full-time starter a year later. He has started 24 straight games at corner for the Buckeyes and has been exceptional at the job.

As a junior in 2023, he finished seventh in the Big Ten in completion percentage allowed (38.5%), surrendered just .88 yards per snap in coverage, allowed only one touchdown throw and broke up nine passes to go with one interception. — David Hale

2023 stats: 7 interceptions, 4 passes defended, 52 tackles

Points: 34 (one first-place vote)

Truth be told, Watts may be a little low on this list considering all he accomplished last season — and the potential for more in 2024. The reigning Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the best defensive player in the country, Watts was a unanimous All-American in 2023, leading the nation with seven interceptions while also finishing with 52 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 11 passes defended and a forced fumble returned for a touchdown.

Watts could have turned pro but decided to go back to school for one more season, returning to a veteran group that has designs on a playoff berth. His rise to becoming the best safety in the country has been fast. Watts began his career as a wide receiver, but switched positions and emerged as a starting safety at the end of 2022. — Adelson

2023 stats: 3 interceptions, 8 passes defended, 67 tackles

Points: 22

When your offense struggles to crack double digits in scoring, it is good to have a shutdown corner on the other side of the ball. Iowa was lucky enough to have two. While Cooper DeJean was the more recognized star in 2023, Sebastian Castro blossomed into a genuine star, doing a bit of everything along the way to help the Hawkeyes’ defense.

In coverage, he was among the nation’s best, allowing just 0.41 yards per coverage snap, which ranks as the third-best mark among returning cornerbacks for 2024. He allowed opposing QBs to complete just 37.5% of their passes against him, allowed just 3.3 yards per target and picked off one pass with eight PBUs. But he was also one of the most consistent tacklers at the position, racking up 67 takedowns, and he disrupted backfields routinely, racking up eight tackles for loss. — Hale

2023 stats: 0 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 42 tackles

Points: 16

After years of relying on a dominant defensive front, Clemson’s defense took an odd turn in 2023. The Tigers’ run defense was merely good, not great, but the pass defense was almost unassailable. Mukuba was the No. 1 reason for that. He erased half the field on any given play: In 10 games, his man was targeted only 27 times and caught only eight balls for 85 yards. That’s a paltry 0.27 yards allowed per coverage snap. He gave up one 20-yard completion all year, and it was a mere 21-yarder.

Now he moves back to his hometown of Austin, where, along with Jahdae Barron and Terrance Brooks, he should form one of the most physical and oppressive cornerback tandems in the country. He can play out wide or in the slot, and he could be a massive difference-maker for the Texas defense. — Connelly

2023 stats: 3 interceptions, 14 passes defended, 46 tackles

Points: 16

One of the most coveted cornerbacks in the transfer portal, Muhammad gives Dan Lanning’s defense another weapon. He began his career at Oklahoma State before spending last season at Washington, where he started all 15 games and had 46 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 16 passes defended and 3 interceptions. This was good enough to earn Muhammad second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

The addition of Muhammad, an honorable mention All-Big 12 pick in 2022, is big for Oregon, which revamped its secondary this offseason. What might be even bigger is taking him from Washington after Kalen DeBoer’s departure to Alabama, as both the Ducks and Huskies prepare for a transition into the Big Ten in 2024. — Lyles

Also receiving votes: Billy Bowman Jr., Oklahoma (14); Fentrell Cypress II, Florida State (14); Quincy Riley, Louisville (8); Tyreek Chappell, Texas A&M (8); Dorian Strong, Virginia Tech (6); Hunter Wohler, Wisconsin (6); Beau Freyler, Iowa State (5); Jordan Hancock, Ohio State (4); Deshawn Pace, UCF (3); Rod Moore, Michigan (3); Jahdae Barron, Texas (2); Kevin Winston Jr., Penn State (2)