Sac-Joaquin Section’s Top-Flight Defensive Backs Live With Thrills, Perils Of Big-Play Microscope •
The spotlight on defensive backs shines bright. It can be used to illuminate greatness and showcase style and personality. And it can expose glaring mistakes and wilt confidence and poise. For every Deion Sanders high-stepping pick-six and postgame celebrity moment, there is a scapegoat who has to face the heat of bright TV camera lights and angry fans.
“It’s hard to see if a defensive lineman missed an assignment or a linebacker took a bad angle. But you always see the cornerback if a guy beats him deep,” said Capital Christian-Sacramento coach Casey Taylor, who has seen his share of big plays. “As the last line of defense, the secondary is a spotlight position, whether the criticism or blame is fair or not.”
The biggest factor determining flash or flameout at the defensive back position is what is above the neck and between the ears. Mental toughness and focus are key to becoming a great DB and remaining the brightest light shining in the secondary.
Defensive backs with skills, size and smarts are in high demand in both college and the NFL, and the Sac-Joaquin Section has its share of cover men who are attracting the attention of recruiters. Highlight reels abound on the internet, but the top defensive backs understand that it’s just as important to study film to learn from mistakes and improve their technique and the team defense.
“We watch film every day at practice and I watch more film every night,” said D’Marcus Ross, a four-year two-way starter at Capital Christian. “I critique myself and look to see what I can improve, then I use myself as an example to go over the film so that we can all see how we can improve to make the team better.”
Ross is a solid 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds that has punished opponents as a running back and linebacker in his first years for the Cougars. Last year, he moved to an outside linebacker position with more responsibility for coverage, and has gained recruiting momentum as a defensive back and hybrid linebacker. His speed and versatility may remind some locals of Grant-Sacramento’s Shaq Thompson, a fierce runner who made his way to the NFL as a linebacker able to drop into coverage.
The Capital Christian defender has seen his tackles decrease from 109 as a middle linebacker his freshman season to 46 as a roaming OLB and DB last season. What has not wavered is his ability to find the ball on defense and make plays. Ross had four interceptions each of his first two years before nabbing just one last year after opposing offenses looked to the other side of the field when throwing the ball. Of those nine interceptions in three years, he has returned an astounding seven of them for touchdowns.
“You expect the offense to score, so it’s a huge boost to the whole team and the stadium when you can get points on defense,” he said. “It makes things easier for the team if you can put points on the board as a defense.”
Jesuit-Carmichael’s Isaiah Rutherford knows the value of scoring on either side of the ball as one of the area’s top two-way talents. He rushed for 1,468 yards and scored 17 total TDs for the Marauders as a junior, but his 6-foot-2 frame and coverage ability are what has landed him more than 20 offers from the likes of Alabama, USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Florida. He also understands that mental strength is more important at the defensive back position than for any offensive duties.
“I think you have to be more mentally aware at DB than any other position,” Rutherford said. “If you take one play off, it’s an easy six for the opponent, so you have to be focused on every play.”
Rutherford’s father, Reynard, helps his son with film study, technique and overall mentorship and stresses the mental and physical aspects of the game. Reynard Rutherford, who rushed for more than 2,200 yards as a running back at Cal, landed on several NFL practice squads, and played a season for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe. He has provided recruiting and playing advice and will be right beside Isaiah in his final high school season up until the end of the recruiting process.
“He knows the ins and outs of the game and is always there for me with feedback,” Isaiah added.
Family is also a primary foundation for the rise of Del Oro-Loomis’ Dawson Hurst among the section’s sought-after defensive backs. The last of three brothers to play for the Golden Eagles, Dawson uses the knowledge shared by his older brothers, Logan and Mason, and lessons learned playing against them and other older athletes.
“I always played with my brothers and played up a level a lot as a kid,” Hurst said. “They picked on me, but that made me stronger and taught me how to fight back.”
As a sophomore, Dawson was moved up to varsity and also made the transition from safety to cornerback, facing the potent Sierra Foothill offenses of Folsom and Oak Ridge-El Dorado Hills, among others. Having his brother, Mason, in the secondary and on the sidelines with him made the transition easier and helped him develop into one of the area’s best at his position.
Hurst had three interceptions as a sophomore, and established his physical style of play at the line where he likes to jam and press receivers to get them out of their rhythm and routes. A fan of Tyrann Mathieu, now a Houston Texan, Hurst likes to mix it up like the Honey Badger, but the Del Oro DB knows that not every play will be a win by force.
“One play you get a pick, but the next it’s a touchdown for the other team,” Hurst said. “You have to have a short memory and go get the next one.”
Central Catholic-Modesto’s Dawaiian McNeely combines the physicality of Hurst with the length of Rutherford for the ideal mix of size and strength that Division I colleges are looking for. As a junior, McNeely had one interception and a single pass defense — due in part to the run-heavy offenses of the Valley Oak League, and the trepidation of quarterbacks to test his measurable talent with throws in his direction.
Tyler Green, a senior at Christian Brothers-Sacramento, received the same treatment — or lack thereof — last season as opponents rarely threw his way. After hauling in an impressive 12 interceptions as a sophomore, Green became a known entity among the section’s defensive backs. Coupled with the graduation of fellow DB Jamarri Jackson, he saw a large dropoff in chances to put up big INT numbers. Green still had a pair of picks and three pass defenses, but had to play a different game than the year before.
“Even if they are not throwing my way, I know that I have to stay focused and do everything right,” Green said. “You have to be ready for anything because the one time that you think they are not coming at you is when they beat you with a long pass.”
Cordova-Rancho Cordova senior Alvin Banks can expect to see a similar change in game plans that Green experienced last season. In 2017, Banks intercepted eight passes, more than any other returning player in the SJS. So, when the Lancers line up on defense, Banks will likely see less action and far fewer opportunities to make momentum-changing plays on defense. As a junior, Banks had 61 catches on offense for more than 1,200 yards, so he will get his hands on plenty of footballs this season, but with a larger skew toward receptions.
Highlight-reel catches and big runs will still dominate the headlines and often place the defensive secondary on the wrong end of the spotlight, yet the top defensive backs in the section embrace the challenge of stealing the spotlight.
“There are a lot of plays in a game and you can’t win every one of them,” Green said, “but you just try to win as many as you can.”