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Building the Ultimate Alabama Team: Safeties

Unsurprisingly, the rise of the Alabama safety has been a relatively new occurrence.

I liked this one better ANYWAY
I liked this one better ANYWAY

The safety position is perhaps one of the most difficult to evaluate in terms of an historic ranking. Chief among the reasons is that, for the better part of a century, college football was a run-oriented sport punctuated by the occasional brilliant passer or transcendent receiver (here is your Don Hutson shout-out, ingrates.)

That said, in terms of fairness (especially in a post-Pardee, Mouse Davis, run-and-shoot era, etc), I think it is prudent to evaluate safeties in terms of modern production. Thus an apples-to-apples comparison can truly only be relevant in the modern age. And, in fact, Alabama only had its first All-American in the secondary in 1965, when Bobby Johns made the cut...and he was a corner. For the math-impaired, that means Alabama had played football fully 72 years before the Tide had a defensive back that earned such accolades. And, given the nature of some of these older defenses vs. modern packages, accordingly, we will be picking THREE (3) guys here: two safeties, and (if you wish) a flex corner-safety.

Javier Arenas (Flex Corner/Safety)

Javy is largely thought of as a corner. However, when Nick Saban arrived on campus, and the system was largely in place, magical things happened: Arenas moved all over the place: star, money, safety, either corner, punt returner, kick-off specialist. His contributions cannot be over-emphasized. His accolades, in terms of national recognition, may not be eye-popping 2009 all-SEC; 2009 consensus all-American; 2009 SEC Special Teams P.O.Y. But consider the numbers: SEC's all-time punt-returner; NCAA's second all-time punt-returner (thanks, Texas...assholes); 1,752 punt return yards; and 2,166 kick return yards; holder of SEC's all-time PR TD record (7). On defense, in three years as a starter, Javy had 19 PBUs, 154 tackles (104 of which were solo), 7 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, 6 INTs, a pick-6, and the 2009 Thorpe Trophy finalist. There have been few as versatile and as good as Javy, and Alabama has been looking for this kind of multifaceted threat the past several seasons.

Tommy Wilcox:

Tommy, and you may know him better now as an outdoorsman and televised turkey-hunting guru, is not an Alabamian: like many great Tide defensive products, we stole him from Louisiana. Wilcox was noted for exceptional ball-skills, big play ability, as well as being a nasty hitter on par with Jeremiah Castille. The two-time consensus All-American (1981, 1982) is particularly looked upon fondly by older Tide fans for a game-changing interception in the 1980 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas – a pick that would seal Coach Paul Bryant's final national title. He finished a sterling four-year career with 10 interceptions, 243 tackles and 25 PBUs.

Kermit Kendrick (Flex Corner/Safety)

We tend to try and ignore those Perkins and Curry years, but, some damned fine players suited up for the Crimson Tide in the 80s. Among those was Kendrick, a two-time all-SEC performer ('86, '88) and a consensus all-American at safety in 1988. His first three seasons, Kendrick played the corner. However, with the advent of the Curry regime, Kendrick moved to safety where he excelled. Kermit finished his exceptional career with 22 PBUs, 156 tackles, and 14 INTs. Unfortunately, with Perkins' final Iron Bowl, and the notable Curry v. Auburn record, Kendrick ended his time at Alabama without beating Auburn (#FAU, btw.)

Roman Harper

Like the Curry years, the Dubose/Shula years are painfully easy to ignore. Yet, Roman Harper was a stud. Harper was not necessarily as dominant guy with the ball in the air (like, say, George Teague or Rashad Johnson), but he was your hard-hitting, prototype ball-hawk. In his four years at Alabama, Harper made 302, had 5 picks to go with his 15 PBUs, 5 FFs, 4 FRs. A Thorpe finalist, Harper was criminally disregarded by the league and national media -only earning one all-SEC selection (2007.)

George Teague

Which brings us to George Teague. Stallings, moreso than any previous Alabama coach, set the standard for Alabama's secondary in the years to come: Shade, Mangum, Teague, Langham, Townsend etc. Of the many excellent players to roam the deep field, perhaps none played as frenetically as George Teague. Teague's numbers, as impressive as they were, do not do justice to the way he played; producing two iconic Alabama memories in one game alone -the 1993 National Title tilt against the Hurricanes. His 14 interceptions rank third all-time at Alabama. Stunningly, Teague was never an All-American. (And, yes, I know I left Sam Shade off. Hate me.)

90% of these plays would be nullified or flagged by modern NCAA celebration rules :(

Mark Barron

Ignore the numbers for a second, and ponder these two questions: Was there a better defensive secondary leader than Mark Barron? And, when Barron was injured, was there ever a more debilitating injury to a Saban defense? I'd argue no on both counts. From the one-armed attempt to play corner on Alshon Jeffrey, to the missed coverage/tackle on Randle –when Barron missed time or missed plays, Alabama suffered. Not to bring up the negatives here, but I would make the case that is the guy of the many excellent Saban safeties, and maybe the best ever at his position in crimson. The two-time consensus All-American, three-time all-SEC star was as prolific as he was valuable: 237 tackles, 15 INTs, 22 PBUs, 5 sacks, 13 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR, a fumble recovery – and the kid could hit. There's also that little matter of spearheading two of the most dominant defensive teams of the modern era: 2009 and 2011's national title runs.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Ha Ha doesn't have the pure numbers of some of the other guys on this list (including what I've listed as honorable mentions below), but that's largely because he didn't have to. Rarely has a safety performed a shut-down corner role: absolutely making a third of the field a no-fly zone because of his incredible range, ball-skills, and cover ability. But, what sets Ha Ha apart from the others on this list, is that he was terrifying. You did not want to catch the ball in front of Ha Ha – a physical guy with a mean streak as wide as the Black Warrior, and who played on the edge of ejection every down. In that respect, he is reminiscent of so many of the great LSU safeties under Les Miles. The intangibles aside, Ha Ha was only a two-year starter, but still finished his career with 99 tackles, 7 INTs and 10 PBUs en route to earning all-sec and all-american honors in 2013. The Ha Ha – Sunseri tandem is easily the most physical Alabama pair in the modern era.

Hon. Mentions: Rashad Johnson (the feel-good walk-on that still has Jarrett Lee waking in cold sweats, and an all-SEC, All-American), Sam Shade (a poor man's George Teague), Vinnie Sunseri (a meaner Roman Harper.)