If San Diego State's secondary was an army, its would consist of rock-solid flanks surrounding an inexperienced interior. In football terms, SDSU's highly skilled cornerbacks will help mask potential errors from an inexperienced safety corps. These cornerbacks will limit their man's production, disrupt cross-route patterns and help safeties in deep coverage when they can.
Coach Rocky Long will start senior cornerback J.J. Whittaker at left cornerback--that's for sure. And as of now, it appears that junior cornerback Pierre Romain will back him up. At right cornerback, Long will start last year's breakout freshman Damontae Kazee. Currently, redshirt freshman Billy Vaughn, Jr. is projected to be his backup.
Left cornerback: senior J.J. Whittaker (5'10", 180 pounds) and junior Pierre Romain (5'8", 165 pounds)
I can't begin to put into words how wonderful Whittaker must have felt last year.
Whittaker was a highly recruited athlete out of Oceanside High in 2010, but he tore his ACL before fall camp and redshirted his freshman year. Then, in 2011, he injured his knee and missed all of that season, as well. The horrors didn't end there: the unlucky cornerback broke his scapula in SDSU's team scrimmage for the 2012 season and missed his third consecutive season at SDSU.
Finally, in 2013 Whittaker was able to suit up and play his heart out week in and week out for SDSU--and boy did he play well. He recorded 32 tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss, picked off a team-high three passes (including a pick-six against Boise State) and forced one fumble. He also broke up 11 of the 14 passes he defended. Combining his 11 pass-breakups and his three interceptions, Whittaker averaged 1.08 passes successfully defended per game--good for fifth in the conference.
Whittaker played so well that the MWC media selected him to the preseason All-MWC First Team at the 2014 MWC media days. The senior cornerback was also one of 39 players selected for the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list (the Jim Thorpe Award goes to the country's best defensive back).
And entering his second season as starter, Whittaker is poised for an even bigger year. At 5'10", Whittaker's not going to out-jump or out-reach many receivers. But his incredibly quick hands and feet and his uncanny ability to read offenses and jump lanes give him an advantage over most receivers he lined up against. And his one-and-one skills come in handy, as SDSU sends a lot of blitzes.
Romain is currently listed as Whittaker's backup. He has two letters of experience, mostly on special teams. He's recorded 13 tackles at SDSU, three last year and 10 the year before. His output levels at cornerback are unknown, but he'll learn from and play with the best in Whittaker.
Right cornerback: sophomore Damontae Kazee (5'11", 180 pounds) and redshirt freshman Billy Vaughn, Jr. (6'1", 180 pounds)
Kazee epitomizes versatility at the cornerback position. He's an explosive tackler, recording 41 last year while forcing four fumbles--good for first in the MWC and 10th (first among freshman) in the country. He's an active pass defender, recording two pass breakups and an interception. And he's a playmaker, recording 3.0 tackles for loss, one sack and one blocked kick.
Don't expect any sophomore slump from Kazee, as he played some of his best football at the end of last season. In his last five games after missing the New Mexico game with concussion-like symptoms, Kazee recorded his blocked kick, both his pass breakups, one forced fumble, one tackle for loss and 12 tackles.
Both starting cornerbacks defend passes and tackle well, but Kazee would be the more likely of the two to sack a quarterback and come up with a huge tackle, and Whittaker is more likely to make an acrobatic play on a pass.
Like I wrote earlier, Vaughn, Jr. is projected to backup Kazee at right cornerback. SDSU fans were excited to see Vaughn, Jr. play as a freshman last year after he received three stars and a scout grade of 79 from ESPN. And he began the season very well against Eastern Illinois, recording two tackles and blocking a point-after attempt. Unfortunately, Vaughn, Jr. injured his shoulder and missed the rest of the season--he wound up redshirting his freshman year. The Aztecs might see Vaughn's potential become production this year on the field.