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SI All-American: Ranking the Top 10 Nickel Prospects in the Class of 2021

Breaking down the top nickel prospects, next to be ranked by John Garcia, Jr. and Edwin Weathersby II at SI All-American.

After compiling several months worth of data in addition to cycling back for a closer look at the 2019 football season, SI All-American has put pen to paper at each position group.

As we work towards the preseason SI99 on Monday, ranking the top 99 college football prospects regardless of position, establishing a top 10 ahead of the 2020 season for each position group plays paramount. The offensive positions rankings have wrapped up and we kicked off defense in the trenches with the interior line prospects during the week. The secondary is up next.

Nickel is the newest position on the list as we attempt to reflect what the game has evolved towards. Most defenses' base alignment includes a fifth defensive back, or nickel, in place of an outside linebacker. These sub packages are virtual starting positions across America so it's only right the hybrid secondary players with the ability to play the run and pass effectively inside the box and out -- get their due. 

Here are the best of the best within the nickel projections ahead of the 2020 football season.

1. Jordan Hancock, Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett

6-feet-1, 175 pounds

Committed to Ohio State

Hancock debuts as our top nickel prospect due to his coverage traits. He offers good length at 6-foot-1, along with patience at the line when using a motor technique. He has hips and lower-half coordination to copy and mirror receivers at the line, plus he can sit in off-coverage alignments and challenge the break to combat 2-way go’s/options/choices, a staple stem from slot receivers that Nickel prospects must be able to defend. Hancock has route undercutting ability to combine with ball skills to make him able to challenge passing lanes and catch points. Toss in the notion that Hancock possesses solid blitzing ability, is a willing tackler and on-field savviness, and it becomes apparent why we like him inside at the Nickel spot, where he figures to begin his career at Ohio State before potentially transitioning to the perimeter.

2. Billy Bowman, Denton (Texas) Billy Ryan

5-foot-10, 175 pounds

Committed to Texas

Watch three different plays on Bowman's tape and you may see the Texas commitment making plays at three different positions. Not only does he flash as a return man and on offense, but he's especially at home in the secondary versus both the pass and the run. There are steady examples of his ability in the box, setting the edge and attacking from depth. He is comfortable deep or in the slot with strong football IQ and instincts with the ball in the air thanks to the offensive familiarity. Bowman already attacks the offense from inside with success pursuing or retreating at this stage. More polish in his backpedal to carry a slot or tight end up the seam would serve him well before college, but aggression, speed, vision, instincts and versatility all scream Power 5 nickel.

3. Steven Ortiz, Goodyear (Ariz.) Desert Edge

5-foot-10, 170 pounds

Committed to Minnesota

We’ve had Ortiz on our radar since he was a freshman and was a star during the week of the FBU Freshman All-American Bowl practices. In fact, Ortiz impressed coaches so much that week, that he came in as a safety and finished as one of the top cornerbacks between both rosters. He’s not going to impress many on the hoof, but pop on the tape and he quickly shows ideal Nickel traits. Confident, tough, scrappy and productive are among Ortiz’s top traits. He possesses a solid feel for routes, recovery quickness and can make plays on the ball at catch points. Ortiz has good eye discipline and awareness in zone concepts. His toughness comes into play when you see him consistently squeeze from the perimeter and from depth to challenge the run. He should develop into a reliable defender to help fit the C-gap in a Nickel role at Minnesota, plus he has the versatility to play several other positions on the back end.

4. Sage Ryan, Lafayette (Calif.) Christian Academy

5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Considering Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Clemson and others

Ryan is a versatile player whom we can see playing running back, wide receiver, slot receiver, safety and, of course, nickel at the next level. He can offer a defensive coordinator flexibility in various packages to combat varied personnel groupings on Saturdays by playing in base, nickel, dime and dollar as a bump/over-hang defender walked out over slots. Ryan has the short-area quickness to work in underneath coverage, and his speed will allow him to play with range. His thick frame also allows him to factor as a C-gap defender in run fits, as he will run alleys and challenge runners at collision points. Finally, Ryan’s quickness, speed and toughness present as ideal traits to be exploited in blitz packages.

5. Avantae Dickerson, Omaha (Neb.) Westside

6-foot, 170 pounds

Committed to Minnesota

The future Gopher has that rare combination of length, quickness and savvy in the secondary. Dickerson lines up primarily on the outside at the prep level in Nebraska, executing with great technique out of his stance along with great anticipation and use of his frame when breaking on the ball. The suddenness he plays with in space is also apparent in run support, where he is efficient and fundamental in attacking outside in. The length and awareness helps with disengaging against edge blockers and he can win with speed there, too, tailor made to play inside early on. Dickerson moonlights as a very good wide receiver and ball carrier Friday nights, speaking to his ball skills, showcasing the long stride and long speed, more elements that will help him see the field that much sooner in the Big Ten.

6. Deuce Harmon, Denton (Texas) Guyer

5-foot-9, 185 pounds

Committed to Texas A&M

Harmon is a cover-man we feel can be effective as a field corner, yet we like his traits as a Nickel. The Texas native isn’t the longest prospect on this list, however, he has good hips and quick feet to mirror receivers in man coverage. Harmon can bail and stay tucked in phase at the hip of his man on crossers, plus he can carry receivers downfield. Another aspect of his game we like is his ability to drive hard downhill on underneath routes. He uses good eye discipline in zone coverage concepts and can sniff out smokes and bubbles for stops. A Texas A&M commit, Harmon also is willing to challenge in the run game and will run an alley from the perimeter when needed, showing ideal toughness for a nickel prospect.

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7. Jaylin Davies, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei

6 feet-1, 175 pounds

Committed to Oregon

Possessing solid length, Davies is a quicker than fast athlete who can be disruptive in press-man coverage, while showing route-recognition ability and awareness in zone concepts. He fights to stay square at the line as long as he can when pressing and refuses to be bullied and out-muscled by receivers at catch-points. Not only does the Oregon pledge have experience working inside over slot receivers, he’s played against elite high school competition in the Trinity League in So-Cal. Davies, who can be used as a wall-player in coverage concepts, relate to 2 and 3 underneath and he also flashes some mid-pointing instincts as well. Davies is more than capable of fitting the run the edges of the box, which is another quality Oregon secondary coaches Keith Heyward and Rod Chance will like.

8. Dakota Mitchell, Winter Park (Fla.) High School

6-foot, 184 pounds

Committed to Florida

The one-time LSU commitment is now headed to Florida to remain in state for his college ball. Mitchell is just a football player, in either the new school, versatile, sense or in the old school, line-him-up-anywhere sense. He makes a lot of plays on offense but flashes another gear on defense in attacking from depth and playing the ball. He has enough speed to run stride for stride with wideouts along with a quickness in a moment's notice that makes for a great defender regardless of alignment. Mitchell is another DB on this list comfortable deep or in the box, inside or out, with easy pursuit flexibility and even some finishing power. There is a 'rover' or 'robber' feel with him given the instincts and production as the free defender, perhaps the biggest reason he's a nickel for SIAA.

9. Markevious Brown, Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy

6-foot, 170 pounds

Considering Auburn, Miami, Virginia Tech, Ole Miss and Arkansas

One of the most polished defensive backs on the list, Brown has ability to play outside or inside with effectiveness against the national programs IMG Academy faces. From footwork to one-hand jams, bail and phase consistency in man or zone, the floor here is one of the strongest on the list. With the depth of IMG, he has experience at the nickel spot already under his belt. Brown can support the run and out-flank blockers but he's at his best in coverage at this stage of his development. While working outside he has a lot of translatable characteristics that make sense at nickel, from great feel and eye discipline along with an understanding of route concepts and depth. Still uncommitted, Brown's technique, as he's comfortable at the line of scrimmage and at different depth, pairs with a great frame and ball skills to disrupt at the catch point. 

10. Keuan Parker, Tulsa (Okla.) Booker T. Washington

5-foot-11, 175 pounds

Committed to Arkansas

Another future SEC secondary member on the list, Parker just gets the job done on tape. It may not be as head-turning or flashy as some others within the SIAA top 10, but being effective comes in many forms. The future Razorback is quite comfortable in tight quarters, combating opponents at the line of scrimmage and even showing effectiveness when showing a press and backing off. It speaks to Parker's leverage consistency, quickness and long speed on tape. He is strong in late-phase decision making with an apparent balance of aggression and timing on his side. A long and lean frame with room to fill out bodes well for his prospects inside, where his strengths will only be enhanced in an SEC strength and conditioning program. Parker plays fluid enough to play outside on Saturdays as needed, too. 

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Top 10 Slot Receivers | Slots on the Bubble

Top 10 Offensive Tackles | OTs on the Bubble

Top 10 Interior OL | Interior OL on the Bubble

Top 10 Quarterbacks | QBs on the Top 10 Bubble

SIAA Candidates by State | by College Program

John Garcia, Jr. contributed to this feature.

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