Marcus Alford does not hesitate when asked who the best cornerback in the Big Sky Conference is.
“I think I can be the best cornerback in the country,” the Northern Arizona All-America said in July at the Big Sky Kickoff media gathering. “That’s my goal and I have to believe that. I can’t just say it. I have to build off of what I’ve done in the past. It’s going to be a breakout year for me.”
Alford earned first-team All-Big Sky honors alongside Montana State senior Deonte Flowers a year ago. The speedy Alford has been one of the league’s best corners for three years running for an NAU defense that is the best in the Big Sky against the pass. In other words, Alford’s high opinion of himself is not unwarranted.
Aaron Sibley does not hesitate when asked who the best cornerback in the Big Sky Conference is.
“I feel like, to be honest, I’m the best corner in this conference right now,” the Portland State senior said. “My work ethic I have, especially this summer, we’ve been going through summer workouts has helped me build that confidence. I know my ability and it’s really just about going out there and having some fun now.”
Sibley earned second-team All-Big Sky honors last season alongside Montana senior Josh Dennard, his second all-league nod. The smooth Sibley is arguably the best man-to-man cornerback in the league. He’s made 27 straight starts. He’s got 110 tackles, 11 pass breakups and two interceptions in his career. In other words, Sibley’s high opinion of himself is not unwarranted.
LeShaun Sims does not hesitate when asked who the best cornerback in the Big Sky Conference is.
“Anyone can say whatever they want but I know I’m the best corner in the league,” the Southern Utah senior said. “It’s all confidence. You have to have confidence on every play that you are going to win your one on one. Every single time.”
Sims earned third-team All-Big Sky honors last fall alongside Northern Colorado senior Courtney Hall. Sims was a tackling machine, notching close to 50 solo tackles and breaking up nine passes. In his career, he’s started 35 straight games and he’s picked off eight passes. He enters his senior season as the preseason All-Big Sky cornerback alongside Alford. In other words, Sims’ high opinion of himself is not unwarranted.
Of all the positions in team sports, perhaps the one where cockiness is the least detrimental is cornerback. You are out on an island all by yourself. If you get beat, it can cost your team a touchdown or a game. Short memory is key. Confidence is even more crucial.
“If you are out there on the edge and you don’t have confidence, if you don’t have a short memory out there and think you’re the best, the freakin’ man, then you are in serious trouble,” Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum said. “Especially in this conference. You have some gazelles running by you. And they are going to beat you. Someone is going to run by you.”
“But of course Aaron said that. That’s Sibley. He’s that confident. And he better be.”
Alford, three-year starter who’s intercepted four passes over the last two seasons, is a threat every time he can get his hands on the ball. He claims to run a 4.30-second 40-yard dash and it shows when he snares the ball. He has a pair of returns for 96-yard touchdowns in his career. He returned a fumble for a score in a signature win over Montana two years ago (NAU’s first in 17 tries under longtime head coach Jerome Souers) and he took two of his three interceptions to the house last fall.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Alford likens playing corner to entering the ring for a fight. Belief is the only thing that matters above the shoulders.
“Confidence is the main thing about playing cornerback,” Alford said. “If you get beat on a play and you let that affect you, you are done. No matter who you are playing, you have to be confident. You are going against top guys in the Big Sky and you have to know you can compete against them or else you’ve already lost before it started.”
Sims, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder who’s been a standout alongside Buck Buchanan candidate defensive end James Cowser on an otherwise porous SUU defense, agrees.
“You have to bring it every play,” Sims said. “You can’t take any plays off. If you mess up, that’s a touchdown. That’s the hardest part: the focus it takes.”
Under former head coach Nigel Burton, Portland State ran an aggressive man coverage on the outside, leaving the cornerbacks on islands almost exclusively. With Barnum at the helm, PSU is sure to employ more zone schemes. Sibley said he prefers man and thinks it’s his man skills that will help him reach the next level, but he also said the mentality is the same.
“The biggest challenge is confidence because you are out there by yourself,” Sibley said. “You are on an island. I call it my jungle. People know they are throwing to ‘Sibley Jungle’ and that’s what it is. It’s all about confidence. We have great competition in this conference and competition brings the best out of people.”
NAU’s swarming, multiple defense is bolstered by a secondary that aggressively makes plays on the football. NAU has been one of the league leaders in defensive touchdowns since defensive coordinator Andy Thompson took over seven years ago. The Lumberjacks are also able to put a tremendous amount of pressure on opponents with a variety of blitzes because Alford can lock down one side of the field.
“Any time you are able to circle the receiver and the corner and say you can cover that guy, it lets you gang up at another position and if you don’t have that at corner, it really makes it tough,” Souers said. “Sometimes for us to play better run defense, we have to put numbers in the box which means sometimes your corners have to play on an island by themselves. The more you do that, the better you are going to be.”
Sims didn’t get a chance to attend the Big Sky Kickoff — Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb brought Cowser — so he couldn’t participate mixing it up in the bragging rights arena. But Sibley and Alford definitely spent time together in Park City and each displayed the confidence they hope to carry onto the field this fall.
“We’ve been talking trash about who’s the best guy in the Big Sky,” Alford said. “I told him a little bit about what we did against his team. I had an interception against them so that’s good trash talk. But it’s all friendly. Pushing each other, motivating each other.”
“We’ve joked already about who is going to get the most picks this season,” Sibley added. “He’s a great guy to be around. He’s a fifth-year senior and I’ve started all four years. So we are both vets in the game. It should be a good season for both of us and we will see who ends up the best.”
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