Safety is the inverse of our DE position - lots of experience, less upside on raw talent.
The minimum I want from a solid safety is the ability to create turnovers (whether interceptions or forced fumbles), to not give up anything cheap over the top, and sound tackling underneath and in run support. What they bring beyond those traits are gravy.
Sticking strictly from our current roster designations, here are our four safeties:
Blake Gideon has started 39 games for the University of Texas. He's arguably the most experienced player in college football when you calculate not only total starts, but consider the stakes of some of the games he's participated in. Blake is always a source of internet debate, but his year he has a chance to reprise the crucial role he played as a true freshman in 2008 when he held together a young secondary that improved markedly over the course of the year. In 2011, Gideon will be surrounded by youth and inexperience, particularly at CB, all learning a new system that is not without complexity against a schedule that will throw the kitchen sink at them. Gideon has a real chance to be a stabilizing force for us.
The problem with Blake's game is that he doesn't particularly excel in one area (enforcer? coverage guy? ball hawk?) and he's more likely to receive a turnover than to create one. He's not that physical against the running game, doesn't show with authority in the alley, and though he has underestimated range and good ball anticipation, he lacks the ability to man up in the slot and he's not a particularly adept blitzer. He pretty much has to play deep safety, let things develop in front of him, and play pop flies. That makes us predictable. To his credit, he does it pretty well - I can count the number of times he has been beaten over the top on one hand during his career here. He's not a great physical complement to Vaccaro, but his experience and mental prowess are crucial for us and he should eat up Diaz's pattern matching instruction and turn it into some easy picks.
If he can hold together a young secondary and help restore us to our winning ways, he'll leave here with our gratitude.
Junior Kenny Vaccaro brings an element of dynamism and intensity to the defensive backfield and this should be the year he really blossoms. Kenny is a brutal tackler who relishes contact, enjoys mixing it up in the run game and over the middle, and has developed physically into a 6-0 210 pound enforcer. He's basically a former power lifter who can run well. Kenny is also our best coverage safety and we can use him in man situations without too much fear on most receivers in this league. He should be our best player in the defensive backfield. The Diaz fire zone defenses will allow short completions over the middle with the devil's bargain that the receivers are going to get hit. Kenny's job will be to make that arrangement an undesirable one.
To date, his ball skills have only been OK. If he makes a leap there, this may not just be his junior year, but a contract year.
Christian Scott certainly looks the part. He's 6-1, 215, sculpted, and has good straight line speed for a big safety. A long time fan favorite for what he could be. Unfortunately, he's also a cautionary tale on aspects of our previous S&C regime. Like Chykie Brown, Scott has actually gotten less athletic every year he has been here. I don't mean vertical leap, lifts, or gym shorts appeal. I mean lateral movement, agility, quickness, flexibility, and kinesthetic awareness. He missed a dozen tackles last year and quick receivers give him fits. He certainly isn't lacking for experience and he's a valuable guy on the roster, but one can't help but wonder what might have been.
Nolan Brewster is another big safety (how does this current squad pick it's safeties? all of the guys incapable of playing corner) and he too is a mature player that has seen a lot of football. He made the interesting decision to redshirt as a junior and now he's solidly #2 on the depth chart. Brewster has good size, is a willing tackler, and actually moves OK laterally. He has average speed and isn't really someone who can high point a ball. He brings some things to the table, but we don't want him covering 65-70 snaps a game.
The quip about how we choose our safeties for this squad is actually true. Right now we have about ten guys auditioning at CB and nickel and some of them will be making the move to safety by the end of summer drills.
Most talented possibilities include:
Freshman Sheroid Evans is one of the fastest college football players in the country and he doesn't mind contact. He has good size (6-0, 185-190), but is mostly an unknown due to limited high school reps. High upside, to put it mildly. Bryant Jackson is a lanky (6-2, 190) athlete still growing into his body who excels at getting after the ball in the air and has the look of a future free safety if big corner doesn't pan. Mykkele Thompson might be the best all around athlete in the incoming class and can play anything you ask him to play. I list Phillips and Diggs only because they both have the theoretical capacity to play safety, but they should be our starting nickel and cornerback, respectively.
The safety group has a lot of experience, but aside from Vaccaro, the talent level is average. Vaccaro should be a presence and Gideon will provide stability for young secondary.
There are some exceptional athletes among the freshman and 2nd year guys currently trying out at corner who have the potential to be difference makers down the line, but we'll have to wait and see what develops with Jackson, Evans, Thompson etc.