Win the Masters, you get a green jacket. Make the Hall of Fame, you don a yellow blazer. And when you go from LSU‘s elite secondary to an NFL roster, you earn a T-shirt and admittance as an official member of Defensive Back University, or “DBU.” For Eric Reid, his official swag didn’t arrive until he was already in the pros.
That’s a key distinction, Reid said. He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was an LSU fan, educated in the school’s history, long before he played for the Tigers. He knew there was no place like LSU for a great defensive back to play, but the chest thumping didn’t start until after he became a first-round NFL draft pick. That’s how it works.
“We didn’t have to advertise it,” Reid said. “What’s understood doesn’t have to be explained.”
Go 600 miles east to Gainesville, Florida, however, and folks might like an explanation. Do the math, look at the NFL rosters, name-check the stars who’ve donned a Gators jersey the past few years. LSU can give out all the T-shirts it likes, but that doesn’t make it DBU. Florida is the real DBU.
“We let them other guys do that nonsense,” former Gators star Vernon Hargreaves said. “We didn’t feed into it — didn’t tweet nothing, didn’t get on Instagram. If you’re DBU, they’ll figure it out. And if you look at NFL rosters right now, you’ll see Gators all around. We’re not talking. We’re just reaping the benefits.”
The 2019 season is only adding to the “real DBU” debate, with LSU’s Grant Delpit and Derek Stingley Jr. anchoring one elite secondary and CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson vying for All-America status at the other.
Both programs posted videos in the offseason claiming the DBU moniker.
Do you really have to ask?
DBU ✖️No Fly Zone pic.twitter.com/VOSnEB0kV4
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 16, 2019
Build upon the legacy.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) March 10, 2019
The two elite units are on a crash course for a head-to-head showdown Saturday in Death Valley (8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN App). Even though the outcome isn’t likely to end the debate about which school provides the best incubator for DB talent in the country, it could be a massive step toward a College Football Playoff berth for the winner.
“I know, regardless of what the truth is, people will always say their side of the deal,” Wilson said. “I just want to go play a game and win.”
A FEW WEEKS before Texas played host to LSU in one of September’s massive showdowns of college football blue bloods, the Longhorns’ secondary took to the field for warm-ups wearing long-sleeved, white T-shirts with orange script on the back proclaiming “There’s only one DBU.”
LSU fans might agree that, indeed, there is only one. But Texas? Come on.
“It was not any shot at any other team out there.” pic.twitter.com/S3OjPT3OH3
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) September 3, 2019
The result was something of a mini-controversy, a little bulletin-board material that made for a great lead-in to the game but didn’t exactly ruffle feathers at LSU. Claiming the throne and sitting on it are two different things.
“We kind of figure people will steal our slogan and want to be a part of something we created,” former LSU star Greedy Williams said. “We just let them rock with it. But at the end of the day, they all know who started it. Everybody knows who the real DBU is.”
Well, that’s not necessarily true. Take a look at the numbers.
LSU has three of the top 15 corners in the 2020 recruiting cycle already committed, including the top committed prospect, Elias Ricks. And the Tigers landed last year’s top corner, Stingley, who’s off to a spectacular start this season, having allowed just six of 22 targets to be completed while breaking up an SEC-best eight passes.
— LSU Football Recruiting (@recruiting_lsu) October 1, 2019
On the other hand, Florida has the edge in players drafted since 2000 (23 to 22) and blue-chip corners and safeties signed since 2010 (26 to 20).
Since the start of the BCS era in 1998, Florida has an edge in All-SEC performers (15 to 13), but LSU has the edge in All-Americans (eight to four).
Then there’s the anecdotal evidence. Hargreaves still talks to recruits, let’s them know Florida is the hot spot for great DB talent, and he likes to point out that of the seven defensive backs the Gators signed in the 2013 and 2014 recruiting cycles — Hargreaves’ era with the team — every one landed an NFL contract, six are still in the league, and four are starters.
“I always bring that up when I’m talking to young guys,” Hargreaves said. “That’s big, talking about the history and how we came up and how close we were.”
When ESPN did the math on the best producers of talent at each position in the BCS era, however, neither team took the crown. It was Ohio State at No. 1, with LSU coming in a close second and Florida landing at No. 4.
Emmanuel Acho believes LSU is the top defensive back factory, while Jonathan Vilma sides with the Ohio State secondary.
Don’t expect those results to be considered official, however. The definition of the real DBU is fluid, and the formula is always reverse engineered from a final solution that says your school is No. 1 and everyone else is left wanting.
“We chuckle about it because we know what the truth is,” Reid said. “There’s only ever been one, and that’s LSU.”
WILSON IS a DBU legacy. His older brother, Quincy, starred alongside Hargreaves for the Gators and now plays for the Indianapolis Colts. For Marco Wilson, the tradition at Florida looms large, and he thinks about it every time he puts on the jersey.
“Every day, I go out for practice or a game — just walking into the stadium — and I remind myself I’m blessed to be in this position,” he said.
If there’s a common refrain among DBU members — regardless of just where DBU might be — it’s an almost religious respect for the guys who came before them. Wilson watched his brother, and he still texts with Hargreaves and Teez Tabor routinely. Reid came up watching LaRon Landry and Ryan Clark, modeling his game after theirs. Henderson is a Joe Haden acolyte. Delpit and Stingley learned from watching Williams shut down the SEC.
More than the moniker, it’s about tradition.
“It’s a lot of pride, keeping the tradition alive,” said Williams, now a starting corner for the Cleveland Browns. “We got young guys stepping in and us older guys just supporting them from where we’re at. It’s a lot of pride.”
Two members of DBU need not have ever shared the field to share in the tradition. LSU’s Delpit said he routinely gets texts and tweets from former Tigers greats such as Tyrann Mathieu and Jamal Adams just passing along tips and advice.
“They always look out for us,” Delpit said. “We try to keep it in the family and show respect to those guys.”
Hargreaves said it starts on the recruiting trail. Coming up in high school, going to camps and talking to other players, word gets around. If you’re a star DB in the South, there’s a good chance you’re talking about Florida or LSU.
“Everybody’s getting the same information, talking about the same things, talking about the same schools,” Hargreaves said. “For me, going through the recruiting process, it’s Florida and LSU. If you’re a DB and you want to be a guy, you go to one of those schools. That’s just how it is.”
The legacy has an impact, Reid said. It’s not pressure, exactly, although there’s an understanding that each new class has a reputation to uphold. It’s more a standard, a knowledge that coming here gets you the best coaching, the biggest stage, the best opportunity, and what you do with all that is up to you.
To be accepted among the greats at DBU — whether it be Florida, LSU or elsewhere — requires both talent and a little swagger. It’s a statement about a player’s appreciation of tradition and confidence that he, too, can walk among the greats.
“That’s part of the reason I came here,” Henderson said. “I saw Florida knew how to develop defensive backs, and I thought I was just as good as them. There’s a standard we are held up to, and I want to continue that tradition. But I also want to make a name for myself.”
AS OHIO STATE annihilated Nebraska in prime time a few weeks ago, one of the Buckeyes’ most famous fans weighed in on the DBU debate. “It’s about time we start saying Ohio State is ‘Cornerback U,'” LeBron James tweeted.
That’s the type of public forum that’s bound to spark some conversations, of course, so beneath the tweet came a slew of replies, some agreeing with James’ selection but most suggesting that his hometown fandom blinded him to reality. The responses included a video from Mike the Tiger, LSU’s mascot, giving James a thumbs down and another from Florida’s Gator mascot, casually sipping tea.
– Mike the Tiger (@LSUmiketiger) September 29, 2019
— FLORIDA (@UF) September 29, 2019
This, of course, is just the latest in a long history of jabs back and forth, and the social media outlets have offered up more opportunity to take a swipe at the competition. Look no further than the video wars between Florida and LSU back in 2015 that turned YouTube into a prime DBU battleground.
The truth, though, is there’s no real answer here because the story continues to be written.
“It’s a blessing and an honor to represent LSU and DBU,” Delpit said. “It’s a tradition that we have to uphold and make sure it doesn’t die, play every week like it’s our last.”
This week’s game won’t be the last in the back-and-forth, but it could shape the debate for the foreseeable future. Not only are both secondaries built around potential All-Americans such as Henderson and Wilson or Stingley and Delpit, but the opposing quarterbacks come in red hot, too. Joe Burrow is blazing a Heisman campaign, and Kyle Trask came off the bench to ignite Florida’s offense a few weeks ago.
That, Wilson said, is the DBU equivalent of sending out the Bat-Signal.
“I love when quarterbacks are playing great before games and making plays all over other defenses,” Wilson said, “and when they go play against us and don’t do it, it really shines a light on us.”
So who’s DBU?
The answer is LSU or Florida. Or maybe Texas. Or possibly Ohio State. Heck, add a few other schools to the mix, too.
The real thing fans need to understand, Wilson said, is that the game is the ultimate arbiter, and all the T-shirts and social media chatter just set the stage.
“A lot of teams try to do that, and they’re doing too much,” Wilson said. “I feel like me and CJ are the best corners in the country, but at the same time, we don’t walk around acting like it or talking about it. It’s really about handling business, going out there and getting the win.”