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The best group of returning CBs in CFB belongs to the Pac-12

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NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Oregon vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As catchy as the title is here, I would be remiss if I didn’t say thank you and introduce myself first here on Pacific Takes. My name is Cam Mellor and I’m joining as Community Editor here. It truly is great to meet each and every past, present and eventual future member of this community!

I’m terribly eager to get rolling on Pacific Takes and continually get the word of Pac-12 athletics to those who need to know because there’s an entire half of the country who seemingly overlooks the downright remarkable level of play inside the conference. A bit of background on me before we go any further: I head over after nearly four years at Pro Football Focus (PFF) as their lead college football analyst and social media director.

Please say hello down in the comments and let’s discuss these terrific cornerbacks — the best group of cornerbacks in any college football conference across the country — below:

Here we are. It’s NFL Combine time. Very few people are looking towards the next college football season at this stage but if you were (I am always looking forward to football season), you wouldn’t be able to find a better group of returning cornerbacks for the 2020 season than in the Pac-12 Conference.

Sure, the SEC may boast the best all-around cornerback in all of college football in Derek Stingley but the conference lacks depth off the top. The ACC graduates several key playmakers and the Big Ten lost a bunch of talent to the NFL this offseason. The Big 12, never really known for their defense, even had a few make the leap from the secondary and the Group of 5’s top playmakers all have seemingly left as well (save for Brontae Harris, who returns after missing all of last year to injury at UAB).

The void is real. The top overall players at the cornerback position are heavily dominated by Pac-12. From Oregon and Washington manning heavy loads to Cal reloading and a potential first-round draft pick at Stanford, the west coast is loaded with cornerback talent heading into the 2020 season.

The list is so numerous that I decided to list them one-by-one below, outlining their strengths and why the nation should know these guys before the start of next season.

Household names:

Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon

The list of returning cornerbacks in the conference can begin just about anywhere but we’ll start in Eugene and perhaps the best out of all of them. Lenoir is no stranger to big plays and can line up all over the field but excels when lined up outside. He may give up a play here or there but the best skill of a defensive back is to move on from any lapse, no matter how big or small. He came away with one of the nation’s most acrobatic interceptions against USC last year and even if he did allow a reception, you can bet he wasn’t missing many tackles as he returns as arguably the nation’s most-sure tacklers at the position.

Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon

The Eugene trio (fine, quartet, see below) returns Lenoir and Graham on the outside as the two alternate from left to right and occupy the boundary and field cornerback positions for the Ducks. Graham is sticky in coverage and has a nose for the football, making multiple pass breakups and two interceptions last year. He didn’t allow many big plays at all, in fact, allowing just two catches over 25 yards last year.

Mykael Wright, Oregon

The Pac-12’s top-returning return man is also a damn good cornerback for the Ducks as well. He was hardly tested a season ago, his first season in college, but his coverage skills were certainly on display. He broke up almost as many passes as he allowed to be caught and was a sure tackler. He’s as well-rounded a player at the position as there is in the conference and may even be the best cornerback on the Oregon roster.

Elijah Molden, Washington

Molden returns to the Washington secondary as a ball-hawking monster for opposing quarterbacks to avoid. He had four interceptions a year ago and multiple pass breakups in several games. He was rarely called for a penalty as well and did all of this while typically lining up inside and against a plethora of receiver types. Molden can guard against big tight ends just as fast as he can guard shifty slot receivers or running backs. There’s not much he can’t do at an elite level.

Trent McDuffie, Washington

As press-corners go, McDuffie occupies the outside like a much bigger man than his 5’11, 185-pound frame would tell you at first glance. He’s quick and possesses strong hands that allow him to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. He was rarely beaten outside of one game last year (looking right at you Justin Herbert) and while he came away with just one interception, he forced incompletions just as frequently as he allowed catches by cutting off routes with his position, forcing his receivers out of bounds or simply batting the ball away.

Keith Taylor, Washington

Much like his teammate a little further down this list, Taylor doesn’t possess the box-score numbers that basic fans want to see. In fact, after three seasons, he doesn’t have a single interception. That being said, he’s only allowed a handful of touchdowns and certainly has more incompletions forced to his credit than he does big plays. He’ll give up the big play but he has shown the speed and ability to fight back to the top of the routes or back to the receiver to make the play. Taylor certainly has all the ability to be a household name by season’s end if the way he covers stands the test of the 2020 season, and if so, he’ll almost definitely come away with his first pick, or two.

Paulson Adebo, Stanford

There was a time that Adebo was a first-round lock for the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead, the rest of the Pac-12 has to throw at him for one more year as he returns to action after another four interceptions to his credit in 2019. He didn’t quite have the same impact a year ago as he did in 2018 but his ability to stack receivers and keep his receiver from the football is on another level. He plays fast and big and has no trouble pressing receivers just as he does sliding back into zone and breaking beautifully on passes. He’s broken up over a third of the number of passes he’s allowed to be complete in his career and has eight picks to his name through two seasons.

Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford

Seeing the Paulson-Adebo Effect cause a bevy of passes come his way during his first season as a college cornerback, Kelly is an incredibly long cornerback and a deceptively fast player. He loves to play near the line of scrimmage and that paid dividends at time during his first season at Stanford as he broke up a handful of passes and came away with his first interception against Washington in Week 6 last year. Kelly has as much talent at the position as anyone else and the conversation of best true sophomore cornerback in the conference has to include him.

Chris Steele, USC

Speaking of the conversation for best true sophomore cornerback in the Pac-12, Steele firmly enters that discussion as well after putting forth a solid first year in 2019. His biggest strength in Year 1 was certainly his intangibles as he was called for very few penalties and his tackling was among the best at the position for any cornerback. He’ll have to avoid allowing those big chunk plays and as mentioned above, will likely need to learn to move on from any minor lapses but for a strong stretch of the season, looked every bit of the former 4-star, heavily-recruited player that he was coming out of high school.

Olaijah Griffin, USC

Griffin went largely unnoticed it felt like when watching Trojans games this past season but he was every bit of a lockdown outside cornerback for USC. Sure, like a lot of these guys on this list, Griffin didn’t come away with an interception a season ago but those are so noisy at the college and professional level that so that is less of a concern. His ability to break up passes and stay with his receivers was evident as he spent several games in coverage without a completion allowed last year.

Isaac Taylor-Stuart, USC

Seeing extended playing time in his second season with the Trojans, Taylor-Stuart showed an innate ability to stick with receivers and if it weren’t for a rough stretch of three games against Colorado, Oregon and Arizona State, he would already be a household name for most. He has incredible length and uses that to his ability to create an extensive range of coverage and even had a few plays on the ball that weren’t in his specific coverage because of it.

Elijah Hicks, Cal

Sure, he’s listed as a safety on the Cal roster for 2020 but Hicks spent the majority of his time out wide last season so he certainly warrants a spot here on the household name section. The Cal secondary loses a bevy of snaps and a ton of experience so Hicks’ veteran leadership and ability in coverage will go a long way in 2020. Hicks keeps the play in front of him among the best in the conference and though he doesn’t have as many plays on the ball as you’d like to see, he can still force incompletions in a variety of other ways.

Christian Roland-Wallace, Arizona

Roland-Wallace had a great start to his career with the Wildcats, allowing very few receptions into his coverage and allowing very few big plays despite being tested on the outside by some feared receivers. He added value as a run stopped as well as he wasn’t afraid to take on any ball carrier for Arizona last year.

Isaiah Dunn, Oregon State

Dunn may be the most underrated at the position but that has no bearing on his play and rather because he plays on an Oregon State team certainly not known for its defense. Dunn allowed fewer than 50.0% of the passes thrown his way to be caught and did so by limiting big plays and yards after the catch in every game (save for Washington State). He plays a sticky brand of coverage that may get him in trouble at times with pass interference penalties but the good outweighs the bad in his play.

Primed to break out:

Chigozie Anusiem, Cal

Playing sparingly a season ago, Anusiem saw his impact for the Golden Bears increase as the season went along. He’ll certainly be counted on to a bigger degree as Cal has to replace a ton of experience on the backend and his five pass breakups and long reception allowed of 19 yards bode well for his breakout in 2020.

Chris Miller, Colorado (played 4 games)

Miller’s breakout is fully respective towards his health in 2020. If he can stay healthy, there is no doubt he’ll be an integral part of the Buffaloes defense as he’s shown glimpses of greatness during his time on the field, albeit as limited as that may be. Miller made an interception despite action in just four games this past season and if healthy through spring camp and into the fall, could be a breakout player in the Pac-12 and nationally.

Max Williams, USC

Williams played all of four games last year and didn’t see many targeted passes his way. When he did, however, he was more than solid. With a year of experience in his books, Williams seems ready to occupy the slot as he has the quicks to slide right in and should be healthy in 2020.

Nahshon Wright, Oregon State

The biggest cornerback on this list, Wright stands at 6’4 and 185 pounds, logging a heavy amount of snaps on the outside for the Beavers in 2019. He seemed to catch fire during the back half, more specifically, the final four games for Oregon State last year and if he can carry that momentum into this season, he most certainly will break out. He’ll get a ton of opportunities to show 2019 wasn’t a fluke as the aforementioned Dunn may be avoided in coverage.

George Hicks III, Washington State

If you didn’t hear about Hicks III last season, that’s likely not your fault as he didn’t allow many receptions into his coverage on the outside for Washington State. He was targeted but rarely beaten and outside of a few bad reps, was as solid as can be while having just a single interception to his credit. His plays on the ball were solid a year ago and that should only translate to more in 2020 as he assumes the veteran leadership role this fall.

Kyler Gordon, Washington

Rarely tested a season ago, Gordon wasn’t beaten for a touchdown and did an incredible job of keeping receivers in front of him. He’s not a household name as of yet because he doesn’t have the general box score interception numbers but those will come if he continues to blanket receivers in his coverage as he did a season ago.

K.J. Trujillo, Colorado

This one may be more projection than the others but when he is on top of his game, Trujillo has the chance to be great. Bulking up this offseason will be clutch for him as he played as slight as his 6’0, 165 pound frame may indicate at times, but his wingspan allows him to make up for any minor blemish in coverage.

Spends a lot of snaps at CB:

Jevon Holland, Oregon

Can’t go on about a list of cornerbacks without mentioning Holland who spends the majority of his time in the Ducks secondary occupying the slot cornerback position. He’s a terrific cover man from that position and was heavily targeted in 2019 yet rarely beaten. He doesn’t allow many big plays and doesn’t allow much after the catch while maintaining great coverage skills one-on-one and a strong tackling ability. He’s an all-around threat and one of the better cover guys regardless of position.

Jay Shaw, UCLA

Like Holland above, Shaw logs the majority of his snaps as a cover man from the slot and does an admirable job in doing so. He had glimpses of incredibly strong coverage at times last season, most notably during the middle of the year, and if he can continue that on a consistent basis, will certainly be known more for his coverage than anything else.

Camryn Bynum, Cal

Bynum had a down year in 2019 but that’s just because his standards were set so high after his first two years with the Golden Bears. He may be transitioning to safety in 2020 but his ability to man up on receivers across the defensive backfield will be a valuable asset to the Cal secondary that has to replace future NFL players in Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins.