Let's turn our attention to safety.
Earl Thomas, RS Sophomore 5-10 195
Earl is our best defensive back. He accounted for six turnovers last year (2 ints, 4 ff), 72 tackles, and 17 PBU. He also got better every week. His ability to support the run like a big safety and cover like a corner gives us great flexibility. You can man him up on a slot receiver or let him play center fielder. It's interesting that the safety imagined to be ideal (OU's 6-3 220 Nic Harris) by the media and the actual ideal (Earl) are so divergent.
Blake Gideon, Sophomore 6-1 198
Is he a guy that elevates a young defense, but holds back a more experienced one? What's his athletic ceiling? The object of fan debate for the next three years is a willing tackler (64 tackles) that Muschamp trusts to set the defense. Blake has average athletic ability and he didn't make a lot of special plays last year: one forced fumble in 13 starts was his only contribution to the turnover calculus. That needs to improve considerably. Gideon's ability to start rests on three things - two of them within his sphere of control.
First, he needs to create turnovers - whether by jarring some fillings loose over the middle and in run support or by making some plays on the ball. He's never going to move like Curtis Brown, but 200+ pound enforcer who catches fly balls is attainable.
Second, are we best served in the nickel with three safeties and two corners or three corners and two safeties? In that sense, he's not just competing with Christian Scott (as most tend to frame it) - he's also competing against our #3 CB.
Third, the X and O progress of others. If either Earl Thomas, Christian Scott, or perhaps AJ Williams demonstrate that they can set the defense, his value will need to come from his actual play and production - not the prevention of alignment error.
Christian Scott, RS Sophomore 6-1 205
This will be Christian's third year in the program and if he can make more consistent plays and match his mental game to his physical, he's tough to keep off of the field. Christian brings the hurt in run support and he's athletic defending the passing game. That written, mental errors at safety are magnified in ways that a mental error at defensive tackle or linebacker is not. Like Gideon, Scott is also competing for a starting job with our #3 CB. Either way, Muschamp needs to get him snaps.
Nolan Brewster, Sophomore 6-2 210
He's a classic tweener - too slow to play safety in a pass first league, not physical enough to warrant major snaps at LB unless he embraces the Brian Cushing Developmental Plan. If he remakes his body, I could see a solid depth/special teams guy.
Ben Wells, Sophomore 6-1 197
Probable transfer, IMO.
Kenny Vaccaro, Freshman 6-0 198
Like Eryon Barnett, he's coming off of a knee injury. If he gets his head right, I think Kenny can be an enforcer with wheels. If not, he'll be a quick transfer. Summer drills will probably tell us if he can contribute this year on special teams.
Overall, we have seven guys (Thomas, Gideon, Scott, Beasley, Brown x 2, Williams) that can play good football. Given that we'll spend 80%+ of our snaps in at least nickel, getting a starting five is a brutal Darwinian process. Only Earl Thomas and Chykie Brown are assured starting jobs - no matter what the Spring depth charts suggest. Muschamp will rotate bodies so we'll get a fair amount of snap distribution though.
Defensive backfields, like offensive lines, aren't just about individual talent. Unit cohesion and the ability to act in concert are key. It's one thing to play a defensive alignment correctly, it's another thing to understand the opposing QBs reads against that defense and have the athletic confidence (and ability) to jump a route. Remember pattern matching? There's no way we could pull that off last year. I'm not confident in Duane Akina's ability to teach zone coverage or relate big picture concepts to his guys, but I do have some confidence in Muschamp's ability to do so. As always, Akina will teach individual skills well and toughen his guys up. We played everything straight up in '08 and we didn't have the athletic confidence to play our hunches. Granted, several of our guys appear to wear concrete mittens, but catching a ball gets easier when the game slows down.
I think it slows down a lot for our DBs in '09.