Top-flight '09 safeties a versatile bunch


The safeties in the 2009 class are big, physical football players who pack a punch when they tackle. The top safeties in the class are characteristically tall athletes who carry enough weight to punish their opponents on contact. Eight of the top 10 safeties are taller than 6 feet and eight are at least 185 pounds, with three tipping the scales at 200-plus.

The other trait of this year's safety class is its versatility. The vast majority of these playmakers can line up at other positions. Some are wide receivers, while others are running backs and even quarterbacks. They rarely come off the field; they are active on special teams as returners or speedsters on the coverage units.

College football fans in South Carolina will enjoy watching several of the top safeties the next few years. In fact, four of the top five are headed to either Clemson or South Carolina (as of now).

It's tough to find more of a triple-threat athlete than Craig Loston (Houston, Texas/Eisenhower). The future Clemson Tiger -- who has excelled as a defensive back, wideout and return specialist -- tops the list of safeties for the 2009 class. Loston has great leaping ability and the soft hands to bring down the interception. Loston has great body control and change-of-direction ability. He, like most of the safeties in this class, isn't afraid to give up his body to make a hit.

As impressive as Craig Loston is physically, the second-ranked safety is even bigger. Damario Jeffery (Columbia, S.C.) has a large enough frame to grow into an outside linebacker; he is listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds (Loston is 6-2, 193). He loves contact, whether coming up on run support or separating the receiver from the football.

Jeffery uses his long arms to keep would-be blockers off his legs and takes great pursuit angles to the football. When the coach wants to call a safety blitz, Jeffery is the man he wants running it. He refuses to be blocked as he makes penetration into the offensive backfield.

Meanwhile, there is no one better at playing the deep ball than DeVonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe). He has amazing athletic ability for a safety who weighs more than 210 pounds. He has a great break on the ball when playing downfield and times the interception perfectly.

Holloman is so effective as a pass-defender in part because he has been a quarterback. His experience at that position helps him understand coverages and read route progressions. At the same time, don't think that this productive football player can't stop the run. Holloman attacks the sweep and sprint-out with speed and a sense of urgency.

The only one of the top-five-ranked safeties yet to make a college choice is Darren Myles Jr. (Atlanta, Ga./Carver). He really stands out at free safety. Myles is a sure open-field tackler who is smart enough to use the sideline as the 12th defender. Myles has excellent timing on the blitz and can redirect if necessary.

Myles is one of those rare safeties who can play three-deep zone or halves coverage with equal ability. He displays a real burst when breaking from the middle of the field or from the hash. Myles has the hips and athletic ability to possibly play corner at the next level.

Rounding out the top five of the 2009 safeties is Chris Payne (Columbia, S.C.). He is a true tone-setter and his name speaks volumes; he brings major pain to the opposition. Although he isn't as big (5-10, 190) as the other top safeties, don't let that fool you. He is a very physical player.

Payne fills the box in a hurry on run action. Once he does, all you have to do is listen for the explosion. He sheds blocks with tenacity, ripping through anyone who tries to take him out of the play. He brings his toughness and intensity to special teams, too, by consistently being the first man down on kick coverage.

The rest of the top 10 safeties are nearly as big as the top five in terms of physical size. They also possess many of the same skills and display the same aggressive attitude typical of the position for 2009.

The sixth-ranked safety is Gerald Demps (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes). Demps is another one of those multi-position athletes who plays much faster than his straight-ahead speed suggests. The Florida State Seminoles will love the way he explodes through the ball carrier when making open-field tackles.

Safety grading criteria

Scouts Inc. grades safeties in eight categories:

1. Man-to-man coverage: How flexible are their hips and smooth are their turns? How well do they backpedal? How fast can they accelerate?

2. Zone coverage: Do they show good range? Do they cover a lot of ground? How are they in the deep half? How is their overall awareness and instinct?

3. Closing quickness: Do they plant and drive well? Do they close and get to the ball in the air?

4. Key and diagnose: How well do they read the QB? Do they anticipate well? Do they seem to be in the right spot?

5. Lateral pursuit: Can they get over trash? How is the movement in their hips? Can they chase sideline to sideline?

6. Tackling: Do they wrap up well? Do they tackle low or high? Are they able to drag down? Do they tackle with power and are they punishing?

7. Pass drop: How flexible are their hips and how smooth are their turns? Do they get adequate depth? Do they show awareness in zone coverage?

8. Pass coverage/hands: Can they cover man-to-man? Can they match up in the red zone? Do they have good ball skills?

Secondary coaches love to coach a safety who can transition quickly after beckpedaling and who can plant and drive to the football without a loss of speed or motion. Such is the case with Gabe Lynn (Jenks, Okla.) who also excels as a return specialist.

Safety T.J. McDonald (Fresno, Calif./Edison) is a powerful hitter who unloads on running backs and receivers more like a linebacker. He flies to the football like a heat-seeking missile.

The Big Ten Conference picked up verbals from the final two safeties ranked in the top 10. It's only fitting they will go to rival schools -- Michigan and Ohio State. Isaiah Bell (Youngstown, Ohio/Liberty) will venture from Youngstown to play for the Wolverines, and Jamie Wood (Pickerington, Ohio/Central) will stay in central Ohio to play for the Buckeyes.

At 209 pounds, Bell is a huge safety, but he moves like a much lighter athlete. He is a very fluid defensive player who is especially impressive in zone coverage. Wood, meanwhile, is an intensely competitive back who is best-suited for the strong safety position. He displays great timing on special teams when coming off the edge to block punts and field goals.

The Class of 2009 safeties are confident, skilled athletes who pride themselves on their physical nature. They react, attack and hit with reckless abandon whether in run support or covering kicks. They also thrive on separating wide receivers from the football on pass coverage anytime they have the opportunity.

Bill Conley worked at Ohio State for 17 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. Since retiring from Ohio State in 2004, Conley has worked as a contributor and analyst for Columbus-area print and broadcast media and as a professional speaker. He also published a book recounting his years as Buckeye recruiting coordinator, "Buckeye Bumper Crops."