When fans and analysts tried to figure out what went wrong after Alabama failed to secure their third straight National Championship, much of the focus turned to the defensive backfield. There was a good reason for this – in games when the defense struggled (namely Texas A&M and Oklahoma) they gave up a ton of yards through the air. On top of that, a bust in the secondary allowed Auburn to tie the Iron Bowl late in the fourth quarter. When teams found success through the air against Alabama, it was largely due to poor cornerback play (more on that tomorrow). On the other hand, the safeties, for the most part, always did a fine job.
So as Alabama looks to improve their defense heading into the 2014 season, one of the priorities has to be finding a way to maintain quality play at the safety position. Unfortunately, in order to maintain that level of play, they’re going to have to find new players capable of doing the job.
HaHa Clinton-Dix’s early departure to the NFL means that Alabama is losing not only their starting free safety, but also one of the best (if not the best) safeties in the country and probably the best cover safety of the Saban era. As I’ve discussed previously, Clinton-Dix is the total package. He’s an outstanding coverage player, excelling both in zone coverage (as a half field safety and a deep middle safety) and man coverage, even against speedy slot receivers. He’s also tremendous in run support, a sure tackler who frequently made plays in the opponent’s backfield, especially on the edges. But what brings it all together is his ability to play quarters coverage, a skill that separates him from many of his peers and made him an indispensable piece of the 2012 and 2013 Alabama defenses.
On the other side of the field, Alabama is losing their starting strong safety, Vinnie Sunseri. There is no question that, after Sunseri’s injury, Landon Collins filled in admirably. As I’ll discuss later in this post, we should expect more of the same in the coming season. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Alabama was at their best when both Sunseri and Collins were on the field at the same time, a luxury that Alabama will not be able to enjoy moving forward. In addition to his physical tools, Sunseri’s greatest attribute was that of the signal caller, always making sure that the secondary understood the checks and were positioned properly. They’ll miss that in 2014, along with his strong play against the run and solid, although unspectacular, zone coverage ability.
Going into spring practice, the situations at strong safety and free safety could not be more different. Landon Collins is firmly entrenched as the starting strong safety, and it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be the best defensive player on the 2014 team. Collins, one of the highest rated recruits two years ago, was a monster on special teams during his true freshman season. This past year, Collins started the season at first string at the Money position (the 6th DB, when the defense goes into their dime package). He played well there, particularly in run support. After Clinton-Dix was suspended prior to the Georgia State game, Collins took over as the starting free safety (not his natural position) and performed well both in that game and against Kentucky. With Clinton-Dix returning for the Arkansas game, Collins looked to be headed back to the Money position, but that move was short lived, as Sunseri’s injury forced Collins into the starting strong safety role. In his first game starting at that position, against Tennessee, Collins returned an interception for a touchdown. From there he performed well through the end of the season. With a full Spring and Summer to prepare, we should only expect improvements in 2014.
Collins is tremendous against the run. He’s a great tackler who can move downhill and also sideline to sideline, frequently making plays in space without any help from his teammates. Run defense and tackling are areas of his game that needs little improvement. If he does the same thing in 2014 as he did in 2013, that will be just fine. Where Collins separates himself from other strong safeties, at least in terms of potential, is his ability to defend the pass. He’s competent in both man and zone coverage, and very rangy, which makes him quite versatile. If there’s one area that he needs to improve on, it’s his angles while in zone coverage. When Collins fails to make a play on the ball it’s usually because he took a poor angle, something that, with more and more experience, he should improve on. The physical tools are all there, which, for right now, is the important thing. Collins won’t have the same impact that Clinton-Dix had, if only because he’s not as rangy nor is he as instinctual in pass defense, but my early guess is that he’ll play well enough to make his junior year his final year at the Capstone.
While there’s not much to see at strong safety, in terms of competition, free safety will be one of the most interesting position battles to watch in the Spring (and Fall). There are many options but no obvious answer. So let's go through them one by one, so we know what to look for when practice begins.
After playing sparingly during his first two seasons, Nick Perry saw a great deal of playing time during the 2012 season. With Robert Lester holding down one of the safety positions, the Alabama coaching staff spent much of the season trying to find the answer opposite Lester. For most of the season, the position was a three man rotation of Perry, Sunseri, and Clinton-Dix. In total, Perry started four games. It wasn’t until the Texas A&M game that Clinton-Dix had established himself as an every down player. After the LSU game, a game where Alabama struggled mightily to defend the pass, Perry played sparingly (including getting beat on Georgia’s first TD in the SECCG) and was completely out of the rotation by the time the BCSNCG rolled around. Going into his senior year (2013), Perry was expected to be the number three safety, and back up both Clinton-Dix and Sunseri. But an early season shoulder injury and a subsequent decision to have surgery ended his season prematurely, while preserving his eligibility for the 2014 campaign. As a fifth year senior with more experience than all his competition combined, Perry has an excellent shot to compete for a starting role this year. He’s decent in all areas, but doesn’t excel anywhere, and so he’ll need to show substantial improvement in pass coverage in order to see the lion’s share of the time at free safety.
One of the more intriguing options is Geno Smith. Smith didn’t see much playing time during the bulk of his freshman campaign (2012), but the team’s late season struggles to defend the pass, along with an injury to John Fulton, forced the coaching staff to make some abrupt changes to the depth chart. One of these changes was starting Geno Smith at the Star position, where he played well at the end of the season, particularly against Georgia and Notre Dame. Expectations were high for Smith heading into 2013, but after being arrested for a DUI in August, Smith was suspended for the season opener and subsequently fell out of the rotation. Making matters worse for Smith was the strong play of his replacement, Jarrick Williams, which left him with a minimal role for much of the season.
After Clinton-Dix’s suspension, Smith began to see a great deal of practice time at free safety, leading to speculation that he might be an option to take over at that position, full time. Whether or not this happens depends on a few factors. The first is whether or not Alabama is comfortable with Williams at the Star. I’ll discuss this in more detail tomorrow, but while Williams is strong against the run and competent against the pass, he doesn’t excel in man coverage, and the coaching staff may wish to put a stronger cover player there. If they choose to go this route – and I have no idea whether they will – Smith would presumably be one of the first options. Second, it remains to be seen whether Smith has the skill set required by the free safety position. While we know that he’s decent in run support and strong in man coverage, the primary responsibility of a free safety is deep, zone coverage. Considering we’ve only seen him play slot corner in games, it’s impossible to tell whether or not he can hold up in that sort of zone coverage. And lastly, Alabama has him listed at only 186 pounds, and he’ll need to put on more weight – without sacrificing any of his agility – in order to play safety.
If the coaching staff decides to put Smith back at the Star position, Jarrick Williams would be an option at free safety. Like Smith, Williams clearly has ability, but having never seen substantial time at safety it’s hard to make any meaningful judgments. Although, unlike Smith, Alabama signed Williams as a safety. The one piece of analysis I will offer is that, from what I saw last year, if Williams was to play safety, I think he profiles more as a strong safety than a free safety, only because I’m not sure he’s rangy enough to play the latter. But that’s based on limited observation at a totally different position, so my opinion can easily be changed.
In terms of what to watch for during spring practice, the number one thing is to look out for who is getting reps at free safety. That should give us an early indication as to who is even competing for that role because, as we’ve discussed, aside from Nick Perry it’s unclear who else is even fighting for that spot. And once A-Day rolls around, keep an eye on who starts opposite Collins on the first team defense. Many of us thought that, last year, Collins had a chance to be the starting strong safety when the season began, but Sunseri started on A-Day and went on to start during the season. Whoever starts on A-Day isn’t a lock to start during the season, by any means, but it’ll give us an early hint at who has the inside track.
* Check back tomorrow for the next installment of this series – a preview of the cornerbacks.