With standout safety Eddie Jackson out for the year due to a broken leg, the spotlight will shine brighter on Alabama’s secondary.
Jackson was the one and only senior among the starters in the Crimson Tide’s talented defensive backfield. Fellow safety Ronnie Harrison is just a sophomore, as are cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
If ‘Bama has a weakness on defense, it could be defending the pass. While the Tide rank third in the SEC in fewest yards allowed per game through the air (204.4), they’re third from the bottom — ahead of only Mississippi State and Missouri — in giving up passing plays of 20-plus yards (28).
But even if Alabama might surrender the occasional big gain, its DBs know how to make a mistake hurt in the worst way.
Much has been made of the Crimson Tide scoring a non-offensive touchdown in 10 consecutive games going back to the 2015 campaign. Jackson, Harrison, Humphrey and Fitzpatrick have all found the end zone this season.
Jackson led the way with three of said TDs — two were on special teams as a punt returner, though. Corners Humphrey and Fitzpatrick have scored once each on an interception, but Harrison has hit paydirt twice from his safety position. He had a 55-yard fumble return against Kentucky and a 58-yard INT return against Tennessee.
A natural with the ball in his hands, Harrison was primarily a quarterback during the latter stages of his prep career.
Originally a four-star recruit out of Tallahassee (Fla.) Florida State University School — yes, that’s the magnet school for FSU — Harrison played more offense and less defense the closer he got to graduation.
Nevertheless, he caught the eye of ‘Bama coach Nick Saban on the camp circuit. A 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, Harrison runs somewhere in the 4.4 range and can really pack a punch when he’s called upon to make a stop. He’s third on the team in tackles with 38 and tied for second with 2 picked-off passes.
It’s not unusual for a high school quarterback to play receiver in college. QB to safety isn’t as common of a switch, though.
“I think the first thing is you look at a guy athletically and say this guy is a good enough athlete to play someplace,” Saban said Wednesday on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference, “and we were fortunate enough to get Ronnie to come to our camp early in his career and got to see him do some things as a defensive back.
“That really convinced us that he could be a really, really good player, and he’s certainly turned out that way.”
Harrison’s physical gifts are impossible to ignore. That being said, the mental aspect of the game is where he has truly excelled. His understanding of coverage concepts and route trees has carried over from offense to defense.
“I do think that guys that played quarterback, most of the time, have a bigger-picture understanding of the game because of what they have to do as a quarterback,” Saban said, “whether it’s what the offensive team is trying to do or what the defensive team is trying to do.
“In most cases, in my experience, the guys that played quarterback that have the physical characteristics and meet the critical factors to play another position are fairly instinctive guys that have a pretty good understanding of the overall game.”
Even if Harrison already appears to have an NFL future at safety, it can be a difficult decision to give up throwing passes in favor of defending them. Today’s passers are light-years more athletic than they were a generation ago. As you’d expect, several reputable programs wanted him to continue lining up under center.
“He probably had about six or seven serious schools wanting him to come play QB,” Harrison’s high school coach, Jarrod Hickman, told Saturday Down South. “UNC offered early as a safety. They got to know him better and started recruiting him as a QB. USF, N.C. State, Memphis and plenty of mid-majors did, too.”
Despite the prestige of playing defense for Saban in Tuscaloosa, Harrison considered sticking at the game’s most important position.
“He gave UNC a very serious look because they were the first to offer, and he loved having the ball in his hands,” Hickman said. “When we would talk about going to ‘Bama, LSU, Texas as a DB versus going to one of the other schools as a QB, he would be torn sometimes because he loved how he could affect the game every snap.”
In the end, Harrison clearly made the right choice. He contributed on defense and special teams last season as a true freshman — including a blocked punt — and won a national title. A second this year is in his grasp.
“Everything about playing QB helped him, I think,” Hickman said. “Reading coverages and understanding how they work and where the holes are in them, how important communicating to everyone was and being on the same page. Playing safety is like being the QB of the D.”
It’s not like he’s just lining up in centerfield for the Tide and flying to the football. Saban runs as complicated a defensive scheme as any coach at the collegiate level, perhaps even more so than some pro franchises. Fortunately, Harrison didn’t have much of a learning curve based on his high school habits.
“To play QB you must be a student of the game, which brings in film study,” Hickman said. “Ronnie would be ready each week with all his checks and breakdowns on Mondays when he played QB. He was a great study in the film room.”
He’s been an even greater study in the Alabama secondary. Now that Jackson is sidelined, Harrison is sort of playing quarterback again.