The only real safe bet to be a regular starter in the secondary, barring injury, is #27 Curtis Taylor, the senior returning free safety. Taylor, the leader of the Fighting Taylor Brothers, will be the lone returning experienced starter in the secondary, having replaced Laron Landry in the lineup last year. He had a very nice junior campaign, registering 3 interceptions, 54 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and a fumble recovery (he was the man on the spot to recover John Parker Wilson's fumble late in the Bama game).
Curtis Taylor is a big, physical player at 6'3" and over 200#. Last year, despite his interception numbers, he struggled at times to cover receivers, but the extra year of experience could help that. Last year, he was playing with 3 experienced seniors. This year, he is the lone experienced senior and he needs to take on a leadership role.
Opposite Curtis Taylor will be one of the above three players. From left to right, we have #24 Harry Coleman, a junior, #3 Chad Jones, a sophomore, and #44 Danny McCray, a junior.
Coleman appears to have a leg up on the competition entering Fall Practice. He was the backup to Craig Steltz last year, and came into the game against Ohio State after Steltz got hurt and performed very well. One caveat to that is that with Coleman in the game, Pelini frequently called for him to blitz on passing downs, protecting Coleman from being caught in pass coverage. It worked, but at this point Coleman is an unknown quantity as a cover man.
Coleman first made a name for himself as a redshirt freshman when he was outstanding covering kicks, recording 12 special teams tackles. This is his first real shot to win a job in the regular defense.
Chad Jones is an outstanding athlete who appears destined to be a superstar for us at safety. Last year, he excelled on special teams and played extensively in nickel and dime packages. He recorded 34 tackles in a limited role, picked off a pass, a recorded a huge forced fumble to set up a winning touchdown against Alabama. In case you don't remember it, here it is:
Chad Jones will see a lot of field. He's both our biggest safety at over 220 pounds, and our fastest safety, and possibly one of the 2 or 3 fastest players on the team. If he's not a starter at safety, he'll be in the nickel and dime packages, and he'll play special teams. More on special teams later.
Danny McCray got a lot of heat last year for missing a lot of coverages. He was our regular nickel back and played a lot in obvious passing downs. He started the season strong, but seemed to tail off at the end. On his blitzes, it even looked like he wasn't getting into the backfield as fast as he should. His statistics were surprisingly good, as he registered 64 tackles, more than starter Curtis Taylor, and 2 interceptions. It is definitely true that he got burned a fair bit, and everyone noticed when he got beat.
I think this is probably a battle between Jones and Coleman, and McCray will be battling to keep his spot as the nickel back. Between Coleman and Jones, I don't really know who will win that job. Jones clearly is a phenomenal athlete, but he may be more of a free safety, while Coleman is your prototypical hard-hitting strong safety that more cleanly replaces Steltz. Both figure to see a lot of playing time.
A key reserve who figures to get playing time on special teams and at the end of blowout games is redshirt freshman Stefoin Francois, #23. Francois was a highly touted recruit in the 2007 class who is developing and waiting his turn. He's a very good athlete and an aggressive player. He hasn't played yet for the Tigers, having redshirted his first season, but he was a very impressive player in high school and a standout on the All-Star circuit. He reportedly struggled to keep his assignments in the Spring Game, but he is still young and very talented. There's plenty of time for him to develop before he will be counted on to perform. Look for him to get some much needed experience in low-pressure situations this season.