Added versatility has Alabama coaches feeling better about secondary
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ On paper, it doesn’t add up, at least not the way most football fans look at the University of Alabama secondary.
The Crimson Tide lost safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri and cornerback Deion Belue off last year’s team, all to the NFL, and essentially has only one returning starter in junior safety Landon Collins.
Yet the Crimson Tide coaches appear to be a lot more comfortable with this collection of players than this time a year ago.
“Really excited about the group we got,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said at the beginning of training camp. “Really good attitude, good work habits.”
It’s also, believe it or not, a more veteran group, and to truly understand why one has to look at the secondary as not just having four starters, but six.
In addition to the two base cornerbacks and safeties, the Crimson Tide also has the positions known as star and money, who enter the game when extra defensive backs are necessary. In Nick Saban’s system when an additional defensive back is used to counter the offensive formation he’s called the “star,” and the sixth man for a dime package is known as “money.”
The names got back to when Saban used to be on Bill Belichick’s coaching staff with the Cleveland Browns, the star replaces the strongside linebacker and middle linebacker comes out for the money (s for s and m for m).
Senior Jarrick Williams is Alabama’s primary player at star, and backed up by sophomore Maurice Smith. After taking a medical redshirt last season senior Nick Perry has been the free safety, while converted cornerback Geno Smith, a junior who is out for a few days with a sprained knee, is the other key coverage man.
Meanwhile, at cornerback juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are still working with the first unit in training camp, while true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey form the second unit. Despite having knee surgery four months ago sophomore Eddie Jackson is rapidly getting close to where he could be in the mix as well.
Because Alabama’s coaches have sort of learned the hard way not to overload first-year players by having them try to initially absorb more than one of the six positions, Humphrey is only working the left cornerback spot behind Sylve, while Brown has been following Jones on the right.
Go back 12 months and the majority of the defensive backs were in that first-year window. Jones and Sylve were converted wide receivers, Smith had gone from cornerback to safety and Jackson was in his first year, so all of them were essentially learning how to play the position at the collegiate level.
Consequently, the lack of flexibility handcuffed the coaches to a certain degree while the unit’s only veterans struggled. John Fulton didn’t make it through his second start before being pulled and Belue’s turf-toe issues were so bad his pro career might now be in jeopardy.
The result was a mishmash at the position with Jones making five starts, ahead of Jackson (four), Sylve (three), and Maurice Smith (one).
“Maurice Smith and Cyrus Jones, we play them in multiple roles. We taught Eddie in the spring to play multiple roles,” Saban said. “Geno’s now playing safety and making good progress. He can still play star. Jarrick can play safety, star, money. Landon can play safety and money. Nick Perry can play about every place.
“When you have experienced players that have gotten a lot of turns and really understand the concepts, it helps your flexibility.”
Thus the favorable long-term prognosis for Alabama’s defensive backs, with the young talented corners coming on strong.