Injuries, inadequate experience, and a lack of elite talent plagued the Alabama cornerbacks all season in 2013.
Deion Belue was the starting field corner in 2013 (and in 2012) and was solid, but lingering injuries made sure that he never had the chance to become the elite cover corner that some were predicting. Belue’s smallish frame prevented him from bringing much to the table in run support, but polished technique and impressive speed helped make him a reliable coverage player. Unfortunately injuries kept him out of the lineup at times during the season, and even when he did play, it was clear that he was operating at less than one hundred percent. On the whole, I think we’re all sad to see Deion Belue go, but unlike some other departing members of the 2013 defense, he is replaceable.
Opposite Belue, the boundary corner position was a mess for most of the season. John Fulton opened the season as the starter, but it was obvious against Virginia Tech that, while Fulton was capable in run support, he was a liability in coverage. Truth be told, he probably never should have been allowed to start against Texas A&M two weeks later, but he did. By the time the first few series of the game were over, Fulton was on the bench due to ineffectiveness. An injury to Belue in the second quarter of that game forced Fulton back into the lineup, but after that game Fulton never again saw the field for another meaningful snap the rest of the season.
Cyrus Jones first saw action against Texas A&M, a game in which he struggled except for one easy interception on a poorly thrown ball by Johnny Manziel. Shortly thereafter he lost his job to true freshman Eddie Jackson, who, after a solid performance against Ole Miss, was thought to be the full time starter. But in the following weeks Jackson, mysteriously, played very little – and we’ve later to come understand that it was likely due to off the field issues.
With Jackson out of the lineup, Bradley Sylve, the player Dee Milliner once identified as the next great Alabama corner, became the starter and performed well, albeit against teams without strong passing attacks. Unfortunately, a high ankle sprain forced Sylve out of the lineup, and Cyrus Jones was reinserted. Jones didn’t play particularly well, although he was often made out to be a truly awful player, an unfair exaggeration. There’s no question that the converted wide receiver had some bad moments, particularly in the Auburn game when he made a handful of poor plays, some more costly than others. In the Sugar Bowl, following what were, by all accounts, strong bowl practices, Eddie Jackson was reinserted as the starting boundary corner (supposedly with his off the field issues a thing of the past). Jackson, along with the rest of the defense, except for HaHa Clinton-Dix, had an uneven game, but it would be a mistake to make too much out of one performance – whether it be a good one or a bad one.
So going into the 2014 season, Alabama must find a new field corner to replace Belue and must settle on a full time boundary corner after a season of uncertainty and inconsistency. As a brief aside, the field position and the boundary position are distinct in their responsibilities. More balls are thrown to the short side of the field, so the boundary player is usually the superior player, but he also is usually the better run defender and blitzer. The field player, who sees less throws and is further away from the play, is more of a pure cover player. But unlike the two safety positions – where the coaching staff will likely identify the best free safety and the best strong safety – when assessing the corners, the staff will probably identify the two best players and then decide which one plays to the boundary and which one plays to field. So from our perspective, as fans, we should just focus on which two corners are superior to the rest, above all else.
Alabama isn’t short on options, nor are they short on talent, but they are short on experience. Cyrus Jones is the most experienced, returning player, but he only has a handful of starts under his belt, which probably isn’t enough to give him any sort of meaningful advantage over the competition. With all that in mind, a discussion of the options at cornerback for 2014 has to start with Eddie Jackson. Jackson is an immensely talented player, who was initially under-recruited only because of non-football issues. So it should come as little surprise that what kept him off the field for much of 2013 were also non-football issues. There’s no way to know for sure, but here’s to hoping that his ascension up the depth chart last December signals that he has arrived, from a maturity standpoint. If that is indeed the case, assuming he continues to progress at a reasonable rate, he should have an edge for one of the two cornerback positions.
Even if Jackson is able to secure one of the starting spots, that still leaves a wide open race, with no clear favorite, for the spot opposite him. Cyrus Jones, as mentioned earlier, has the most experience, which may not count for much but it shouldn’t be completely ignored. I’m sure most Alabama fans want no part of Jones seeing the field in 2014, but that’s an unfair position to take. He was recruited as a wide receiver and made the switch, just last Spring, to cornerback, and was forced into extensive duty only because of injuries (Sylve), ineffectiveness (Fulton), and other issues (Jackson). There is a steep learning curve when it comes to playing cornerback in major D1 college football, and some early struggles should have been expected. Last year Jones certainly lacked excellent technique, but all the physical tools were there. As his familiarity with the position increases, improvement may come, and if it does, Jones will be in the mix for a starting job in 2014.
Bradley Sylve is another player to keep an eye on. He was practicing at corner in 2012, and was ahead of Jones on the depth chart before his injury. Sylve was also recruited as wide receiver, so again, the steepness of the learning curve comes into play. Had his injury healed up quicker than it did, I think he would have challenged Jones for playing time late in the season. But high ankle sprains are notoriously tricky and Sylve never saw another meaningful snap following his injury. Unfortunately, with the bulk of his playing time coming against Georgia State, Kentucky, and Arkansas – three teams that don’t throw the ball well – it’s tough to make any meaningful evaluations about his abilities. Even more unfortunate is that, after him, the picture is only murkier.
Rising sophomore Maurice Smith barely played, and when he did, it was usually in garbage time. Tony Brown, one of their prized recruits and an early enrollee, is as physically gifted as they come. His elite speed will give him a chance to earn early playing time, but his inexperience – and by some accounts, his lack of polish – makes him a question mark. The more polished prized recruit is Marlon Humphrey, but he won’t arrive on campus until the Fall. Nevertheless, with the position wide open, and corner being a spot that lends itself to early playing time for freshmen, Humphrey will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact.
Aside from the boundary and field positions, there’s also the matter of finding two slot corners. Due to the rise of spread offenses in the SEC, the Star (the nickel defender) has essentially become an every down player. And because so many of those spread offenses run the ball often, the Star needs to be as adept against the run as he is against the pass – as he’s often given gap responsibilities, given that he’s lined up close to, or in the box. Following Geno Smith’s legal trouble, Jarrick Williams became the Star, and performed well. He’ll have the inside track at the starting job in 2014, unless the coaching staff chooses to move him to safety or they feel his man coverage skills are insufficient. If either is the case, my guess is that Geno Smith would be next in line.
The other slot corner, the Money, is the dime defender. This player, for the most part, only enters on passing downs and needn’t be as strong against the run as the Star. Landon Collins opened the 2013 season at the Money, and performed well until he was moved to safety after Clinton-Dix’s suspension and Vinnie Sunseri’s injury. After his departure, Geno Smith and Maurice Smith saw the lion’s share of the time at the Money. If Williams stays at the Star, Geno Smith would probably be first in line to start at the Money, unless he moves to safety (as we discussed yesterday). On the other hand, if Williams moves to safety and Smith goes to the Star, Maurice Smith would probably be next in line at the Money. Other players, such as Jonathan Cook, Anthony Averett, and Jai Miller, could also be options at these spots.
It’s also possible that Alabama could try Geno Smith at either boundary or field corner. There’s no way to know whether or not they’re considering this, but the fact that they never tried it last year, given the struggles at the field position, leads me to believe that they’d prefer to go in a different direction. Still, it’s something to watch for as practice opens.
As with the safeties, keep on eye on who is getting reps where, and who makes first team defense and second team defense for the A-Day game. Those players will have the inside track to start against West Virginia.
* Check back tomorrow for the next installment of this series as J-Tad previews linebackers.