SI All-American Watch List: Nickel Rankings

A loaded year for prospects in the secondary, SI Al-American looks at the nation's best nickel defensive back projections
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As the 2021 football season draws near, SI All-American continues to evaluate the nation's top prospects at every position for the college football recruiting class of 2022. The first wave of the evaluations are the 'Watch List' selections, also known as SI All-American candidates, to be released throughout the month of July.

It precedes the SI99 rankings, our preseason mark of America's top college football prospects regardless of position, to be released the first week of August.

Naturally, the quarterback watch list was up first, rolled out in several releases last week. This week moved to the secondary, with cornerbacks broken down from the top 10 and beyond. Wednesday's release centers on a position ranking exclusive to SIAA since the inception of he SI99 -- the nickel position. Nickel prospects are versatile secondary standouts with the ability to cover different types of pass catchers in space and work as a sub defender near the box. 

1. Terrance Brooks

Vitals: 5'11", 190 pounds

School: Little Elm (Texas) High School

Recruiting: Committed to Ohio State

The Buckeye commitment is one of the most physically gifted secondary prospects in the class. His tape is littered with plays on the football in tight quarters, often downhill and/or laterally, through contact. It amounts to an elite nickel projection by our staff, near the top of the board thanks to advanced technique in coverage along the way. Brooks has the patience and hands to play at the line of scrimmage, grit to help enforce the edge and long speed to run with pass catchers inside and out down the field. His natural instincts in working through traffic, not to mention disciplined outside-in approach, en route to the ball carrier reinforce the position projection. 

2. Kendrick Law

Vitals: 5'11", 195 pounds

School: Shreveport (La.) Captain Shreve

Recruiting: Considering LSU, Alabama, Florida State, TCU, others

While Law lines up all over the football field on Friday nights, with success at running back, wide receiver, return man and on defense, it's his physical traits and intellect that combine for the nickel nod. Also a track standout with a 10.48-second 100 meter dash time to his name, the Louisianan is among the nation's most explosive prospects and the strength is only improving. Whether on tape or this offseason at various events, his play-making and football IQ are often on display from breaking on the ball to getting his teammates lined up. Law has linebacker physicality and cornerback speed, with ball skills, plus technique and a certain savvy about him at the same time. 

3. Trequon Fegans

Vitals: 6'2", 180 pounds

School: Alabaster (Ala.) Thompson

Recruiting: Considering Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Miami

A big cornerback well known in recruiting circles for several years, Fegans has backed up the hype at just about every turn. Though a bit more finesse than others on this list, it doesn't dampen the uncommitted Alabamian's play-making ability on offense or defense, with extreme body control and a smooth approach. He can hold his own in the boundary against a bigger target, play the football at the high point and most importantly turn you over. Whether via interception, forcing a fumble or initiating a tip drill, Fegans has a knack for making the big play. As his wiry frame fills out in college, his game will round out regardless of where he lines up. The combination of length, cover skill and sheer play-making ability make Fegans a hybrid on our board. 

4. Jaeden Gould

Vitals: 6'2", 190 pounds

School: Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic

Recruiting: Committed to USC

A bigger cornerback from New Jersey, Gould flashes all over his tape as a projectable safety or nickel based on consistent play making ability, physicality and ball skills. Throw the frame in and this is the type of sub defender that can combat a smaller running back or slot to a flex tight end or traditional wideout -- the essence of the nickel projection. Gould is experienced and disciplined at the line of scrimmage with press and bail traits and he runs well relative to his size. Few finish through contact like he has shown on tape and his game has grown to strong heights as a four-year varsity talent. The coverage technique is relatively polished, the instincts are among the elite and he changes direction better than one would expect at his size.

5. JaDarian Rhym

Vitals: 6'1", 180 pounds

School: Valdosta (Ga.) High School

Recruiting: Committed to LSU

Another big corner type with experience and plenty of physicality, this top 10 projection was an easy call to make. The frame and length projects anywhere in the secondary, but the bravado and pop Rhym comes downhill with warrants reps near the box. When he is challenged down the field, though, he looks like a natural in stride, phase and especially when playing the ball. He makes a similar impact while working as a free defender for Valdosta, and a case for traditional safety responsibility and fit can be made. Rhym appears to have no issue with top end speed relative to his size, so the secondary positional responsibilities could change throughout his college career.  

6. Marcus Allen

Vitals: 6'2", 175 pounds

School: Marietta (Ga.) Walton

Recruiting: Committed to North Carolina

Another prospect with two-way ability and ball skills built in, Allen's overall skill shines on tape. He is in command when the football is in flight, swift enough to undercut the target legally and jump an intermediate pass yet fast enough to stack a wideout attempting to do the same on a vertical route. The Tar Heel pledge has a tall and lengthy build with plenty of room for added muscle mass, theoretically emphasizing his strengths at the point of attack and while working downhill in run support. A more than willing tackler, he already has experience working against the slot and coming off the edge as a free rusher, easy-to-see nickel traits even in the wide open ACC.

7. Devin Moore

Vitals: 6'2", 170 pounds

School: Naples (Fla.) High School

Recruiting: Committed to Notre Dame

Nickel projections aren't the conventional shorter, quicker slot cornerbacks of yesteryear. Bigger prospects with physicality and range are crashing the nickel party at all levels and the Notre Dame commitment is a strong example as to why. Moore stands 6'2" plus, and can satisfy stereotypical traits for a taller prospect like length and ball skills, but there is true comfort around the box at play here as well. He lines up all over the field for Naples High, but his re-routing, underneath drops, control and range in run support stands out. Moore can redirect and play the alley like a true safety and his intellect shines on tape with his play diagnostics, angles and timing on when to come out of his break. If high floors were the most important element of the evaluation, the Floridian would be higher on this list. 

8. Nikai Martinez

Vitals: 5'11", 175 pounds

School: Apopka (Fla.) High School

Recruiting: Committed to UCF

Gus Malzahn's biggest in-state win to date, Martinez shows why on tape at every turn. To the naked eye he is just a football player who happens to play in the secondary, seemingly affecting as many plays on defense as a player closer to the line of scrimmage would. Martinez is a magnet to the football, causing six turnovers and getting his hands on another eight passes in 2020 while rarely being thrown at in man coverage. The UCF commitment has a compact build but plays much bigger, a classic nickel projection trope. It shows up deep down the field as he hits high points just as much as its prevalence underneath while working downhill with success. Martinez is strong in his technique and converts speed to power as a willing run supporter. 

9. Jacolby Spells

Vitals: 5'11", 180 pounds

School: Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage

Recruiting: Committed to West Virginia

Another Floridian to highlight, Spells brings a lot to the table for a prospect who relatively recently switched from wide receiver to defensive back. One wouldn't know it based on his 2020 tape, as he made plays at every level for one of America's top defenses and state champions. Spells is a smooth athlete in coverage with easy twitch and verified long speed, but it translates to short-area explosion he uses at the catch point and as a tackler. Despite inexperience at the position, he was asked to move around some in 2020 and excelled on the island as well as inside against prime competition. The future Mountaineer's game will only polish up with more reps and he has some room to fill out his frame as well. 

10. AJ Brown

Vitals: 6', 180 pounds

School: Marietta (Ga.) Walton

Recruiting: Committed to UAB

Brown is an explosive and physical competitor in the back end for Walton High School. The UAB commit is a constant presence as an alley defender in the run game and his time spent covering in the slot both on the high school level and in the 7on7 circuit in the Atlanta area provides a promising future as cover corner out of the slot in the traditional sense. Brown plays smart football with a decisive style that translates to the demands of the nickel spot, complete with experience at the position and some of the best run support samples seen on tape in 2020 from a design or reaction standpoint. 

11. Trevell Mullen

Vitals: 5'11", 170 pounds

School: Coconut Creek (Fla.) High School

Recruiting: Committed to Indiana

Another Mullen brother means more cover skills, finesse and pure athleticism coming out of south Florida. Trevell is lighter than his brothers at the same stage, but the frame is the only potential knock on his game at this point. He runs well, competes with physicality through the catch point and has the feel of a cover corner when it comes to timing, stacking and ball tracking. Mullen's quickness, though, helps him work inside better than most whether working off a block or breaking on the football. Don't mistake the slight build for a lack of pop, either, as the Indiana commitment plays unafraid as an explosive tackler. 

12. Chris Graves

Vitals: 6'1", 175 pounds

School: Fort Myers (Fla.) Bishop Verot

Recruiting: Committed to Miami

A speedy Miami commitment with more experience on offense as a wide receiver at this stage, the secondary traits still show up on tape. Graves of course displays great ball skills and has that long speed, but the instincts on when to come off of his assignment in pursuit of something bigger is evident. Great nickels are twitchy, edgy, confident prospects who can play the ball and attack underneath and Graves flashes that type of potential with his overall game. As he gains experience on defense, more polish and comfort will help him ascend on any list. Strong evaluation from Miami on its latest secondary pickup. 

13. Jarell Stinson

Vitals: 5'10", 170 pounds

School: Opelika (Ala.) High School

Recruiting: Decommitted from Auburn 7/14. Considering Florida, UCF, others

Speaking of speed, how about the state champion sprinter from Alabama? Stinson is a blur on offense and defense at the prep level, but he sees himself as a football player first -- something the tape backs up. The former Auburn pledge from nearby Opelika is just as quick as he is fast, something that shows up on offense and certainly as a return man, and he seems ahead of the game as he mirrors wide receivers off the line of scrimmage. There is room for technical growth while working on the outside, but he has experience at safety and on the inside already, with that makeup speed on full display. Stinson is technical as a tackler and his ball skills are encouraging enough to pair with that physicality. 

14. Brian Dilworth

Vitals: 6', 180 pounds

School: Hollywood (Fla.) Chaminade-Madonna

Recruiting: Considering Auburn, Penn State, UCF, others

Bigger and more compact than his listed frame suggests, Dilworth is an interesting nickel projection based on tape. He isn't the most fleet of foot cover man when it comes to long speed, but he is ultra physical at the line of scrimmage and will challenge pass catchers through their catch point more times than not. Strong instincts and aggression allow him to work well in zone and trail position, glaring connections to the nickel projection itself. We could see a traditional safety spot occupied by the former Auburn commitment at the next level, too. 

15. JQ Hardaway 

Vitals: 6'3", 185 pounds

School: Phenix City (Ala.) Central

Recruiting: Considering Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Oregon, others

The longest prospect on the list, Hardaway has vast cornerback experience, with good instincts and ball skills also to his name. He is rangy enough to fulfill underneath coverage responsibility and as he fills out his frame, will be better equipped to provide run support from the third level. The uncommitted prospect could develop into a 'Monsterback,' the newer term in football circles designated for bigger hybrid players who could occupy multiple roles in the back-seven. Hardaway's strong football IQ and versatile build could lead to plenty of moving around a college secondary, with the length to live near the line of scrimmage as a nickel as well.