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XFL 2023 Rookie Draft – 5 Defensive Backs Looking to Build on Their 2nd Chances

This year’s crop of remaining defensive backs is fairly slim for the XFL Draft. While quite few put up decent numbers in their last year, very few have a sustained collegiate career of dominance. For this list, we have the cornerbacks with the greatest ability to build on their best year and a history of patience to make the best of the opportunities they get.

Wildcard) Justin Ford, Montana

Of all these lists, it’s probably the most unfair to put Justin Ford in the wildcard spot. He’s had an atypical but impressive college career that has hampered by his own success.

After attending the less than dominant Cox Mill High School in North Carolina, Justin took the JuCo route at Golden West College. He collected 41 tackles and 3 interceptions in his two years with the Rustlers, which earned him a 3-star JuCo transfer recruit rating. This kicked off a massive offer war between nine FBS universities. When the dust settled, he committed with Kansas…for two months. In February of 2019, Justin decommited and re-opened himself to offers. Six more schools made an offer and included amongst them was one of Justin’s dream schools, Louisville.

From here, it should have all been gravy for Justin, but before the season even began, he suffered an injury that would knock him out for the year. This seemed to remove confidence the coaching staff had in him so, once again, Justin entered the transfer portal. This time around, he chose to move to Montana.

As Justin said:

“When I committed to Montana, I wasn’t that excited to be honest. I was in a point in my life where I just came off the injury for the first time ever, and just some self-doubt, just being out of the game for a couple months or whatever, and just signing…and now I sign with Montana, a school I really didn’t know too much about, and I tell people all the time that was my best decision I’ve made in my life so far and it’s just been a blessing and how it worked out.”

His first season in Montana was, in a word, astounding. He defended 20 passes, snagged 9 interceptions, and returned 2 of them for touchdowns. He won Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, made 1st-Team All-America, and led the FBS & FCS in interceptions. It’s the kind of season that is both amazing and hard to replicate.

In his senior year, Justin’s stats would fall across the board. He would drop down to 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions, and no touchdowns. He would still be named for a second year to the 1st Team All-America, but a drop in stats can make any scout or team a little nervous about using a draft pick. 

Justin would be drafted, but in the USFL Draft. The Houston Gamblers selected Ford in the 2nd Round. With only one week to go in the season and no guarantee of Houston making the playoffs, Justin is still unsigned. Admittedly, his huge statistical drop is worrisome, but his 2021 year does prove he is capable of being an excellent cornerback.

5) Cyrus Fagan, North Carolina State

In 2017, Cyrus Fagan was one of the most sought after safety recruits in the nation. The various ranking sites all considered Cyrus to be in the top 15 of available safeties, with ESPN goes as far to call him the 5th best. He get offers from Tennessee, Ohio State, and Alabama. However, Cyrus would choose to stay closer to home and signed with Florida State.

His time with the ‘Noles can only be described as a disappointment. For his first three years he would appear in special team or reserve roles. In his junior year he would get his first five starts, but would get knocked out for part of the season with an injury. He would return for the final game of his junior year. His senior year he was back in the reserves. Then after three games, he was injured again, this time for the whole season.

Cyrus, like so many others, would use his extra years of redshirting and Covid eligibility to enter the transfer portal. He would choose to stay within the ACC and signed on with North Carolina State. Entering his first super senior season, Cyrus would be set to show Florida State what they missed out on and, two games into the season, Cyrus tore his pec. Once again, he was done for the year. 

With one final ultra senior grad year, Cyrus would need to prove he still had the 4-star recruit talent in him and, at least, finish the season. He ended up doing both. Not only did Cyrus start and play for a full season, but he grabbed 3 interceptions, defended 9 passes, and got 2.5 tackles for a loss. 

It’s understandable that the NFL would pass on a player that is prone to season ending injuries, but it oddly makes Cyrus a good fit for the XFL. A year or two in the XFL could help prove he is more unlucky than prone to injury. All else fails, taking a risk to get a reliable d-back in spring football would be a sensible decision.

4) RJ Hubert, Utah

RJ Hubert played his high school ball in Nevada at the tiny Moapa Valley High School. Usually attending a school with a graduating class of 120 students is a huge hurdle to catch FBS attention, but RJ’s play at defensive back caught the eye of 247sports. By the end of his senior year, they had ranked him as the best defensive back in the whole state and named him a 4-star recruit. 

However, there were two issues that ensured a bidding war didn’t begin. First, RJ was fully committed to going to Jackson, Mississippi for two years for his Mormon mission. Second, he had already committed to attend Utah, primarily because they were completely fine with waiting for him to complete his mission.

In 2018, RJ joined the team and mostly helped out with special teams. For his first four seasons, he would start 3 games and almost entirely be relegated to reserve work. During that time he would get 24 tackles, defend 1 pass, and force 1 fumble. He also got a pair of late-season ending knee injuries

When he finally got the chance to start in his super senior year, RJ broke out. He notched 78 tackles (the 2nd most of the team) , defended 5 passes, grabbed 3 interceptions (1 of which was for a pick-6), forced 2 fumbles, and recovered 2 fumbles. 

He was a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy (aka the Academic Heisman), but his best season fell under the radar of a lot of teams. His Pro Day was decently impressive with a 39” vertical and a 10’8” broad jump. Both of which would have been top five scores if he had been invited to the NFL Combine. RJ is currently nursing a hamstring tweak, but assuming he bounces back from that injury, he could be a good mid-round pick for some quietly reliable production.

3) Hunter Reynolds, Utah State

Hunter Reynolds has had some amazing opportunities in the world of high school football. From his freshman to junior years, he played for the scary good Don Bosco Preparatory High School. In his senior year, he would move from New Jersey to Connecticut to attend the Yale of High Schools, Choate Rosemary Hall. The Choate football team was so good that they won the New England Championship every year from 2007 to 2016. Hunter’s tenure with the championship team ended with him named 1st Team All-New England.

The great thing about a degree from Choate is you can pretty much pick any college you want. As for Hunter, he chose Michigan and switched from wide receiver to safety. He would play on the Scout Team for his first two years, culminating in winning Scout Team Player of the Year in 2018. He would move into the playing roster, but finished out his final years playing predominantly special teams.

His chances of starting at Michigan were gone, so he entered the transfer portal. Hunter moved on to Utah State and become an instant starter in their secondary. Hunter’s first season with the Aggies ended with him notching the second most tackles on the team (83), his first collegiate interception, and 4 tackles for a loss. This was a springboard for his final season.

In 2022, Hunter finished 2nd on the team not just in tackles (93), but also interceptions (3) and pass breakups (10). He also tied for first with the most fumble recoveries with 1. That 1 recovery also led to a 55-yard touchdown.

Hunter found himself on the PFF Midseason All-American team and was invited to the College Gridiron Showcase. That said, Hunter is best suited for zone defense than having to go one-on-one. He does have a load of special teams experience and I would be curious to see how he adapts to the XFL kick return rules. All in all, he does have the intangibles to be worth the risk in this particular draft.

2) Morgan Vest, Northern Arizona

Morgan Vest probably has the best bit of trivia of all the available players. When he was a baby, his very first word was ‘ball.’ Which makes sense, seeing as he lived in Texas and comes from a football family. His breakout season came in his sophomore year of high school when, as a defensive back, he racked up 82 tackles and four interceptions. This performance was awarded with runner-up for the Central Texas Newcomer of the Year and then a ton of collegiate interest. Then, in his junior year, he got injured. Morgan was able to bounce back his senior year, but by then all the offers were gone.

Morgan chose to walk-on at South Carolina. He would make the team, redshirt, and work entirely on the scout team. He would say:

“At Carolina, waking up at 5 a.m. every morning just to go get beat up on the scout team, it makes you sit back and think, is this what you want to do?”

After a year away, Morgan made the decision to return closer to home. He transferred to JuCo Kilgore College where he could start immediately. After two seasons, Morgan put together 139 tackles and 3 interceptions. He’d enter the portal, but not many offers came in. He would get an offer from FBS Alabama-Birmingham, Incarnate Word, Ft. Lewis College, and Texas-Permian Basin, but ultimately he chose to sign on with the alma mater of Case Cookus, Northern Arizona. 

Then, in the midst of summer workouts, Morgan tore his meniscus in three places. After surgery and a long recovery, Morgan returned for the 2020 season. From that point on, the faith placed on him panned out. For three straight seasons, Vest led the team in tackles and was named 1st or 2nd Team All-Big Sky. In 2021, he was 6th in the entire FCS with 5 interceptions. That being said, he didn’t get any interceptions his senior year, but did have a career best 11 passes defended.

After the draft, he was invited to the Bills and Giants minicamp, but has yet to sign on anywhere. Which is wild, seeing as his Pro Day was ridiculous. He reached a vertical jump of 38” (5th best of NFL Combine for safeties), got a broad jump of 11’ (2nd), and ran a 4.43 40-yard dash (tied for 1st). Morgan would be vital with that kind of speed and after years of adversity, the dude would be a blast to watch stalking the field.

1) Bentlee Sanders, Nevada

Coming out of high school with Tampa Catholic, Bentlee Sanders was a somewhat coveted recruit. Over a third of the Mid-American Conference were trying to win the Florida defensive back to their side. Toledo would be the initial winner of that fight, but a month and a half later, the entire MAC would be sniped by an offer from South Florida.

Bentlee’s four years at South Florida would have a few ups, but mostly downs. He primarily played safety, but in 2018 he made the 2nd Team All-AAC as a kick returner. His 26.8 average yards per return was the 13th best in the FBS. The rest of his time spent at South Florida was spent on special teams and mostly backing up the starters.

With his redshirt and Covid eligibility still remaining, he entered the transfer portal and committed to Nevada. Bentlee’s first season would be more of the same. He’d appear in every game, but would only register stats at kick and punt return. He finally got a chance to start on defense in his final year and became one the only bright spots on the team. Bentlee led the team in tackles (82), forced fumbles (1), and interceptions (5). This got him on the AP Midseason All-America Team, 1st Team All-Mountain West, and semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.

Again, we have someone with a year of great stats after a long period of being a backup. That alone can make NFL scouts anxious, but Bentlee is also an undersized 5’9”. The thing though is I don’t think expected heights for positions really matters for the XFL. If Bentlee has the skills, then the league is here to disprove that height is an immediate disqualifier. Also, he has experience as a kick returner and that alone will be valuable.

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