The talent is there, and now so is the coaching, to make the Alabama secondary as fearsome as its front-seven.
Alabama defensive backs coach Mel Tucker is no stranger to working with head coach Nick Saban. Tucker's coaching career started in 1997 as a graduate assistant at Michigan State working on Saban's staff. Coach Tucker would later follow Saban to Louisiana State University in 2000, where he joined the Tigers staff as a defensive backs coach.
Tucker's work at LSU, and his knowledge of the Big Ten landscape, landed Tucker a promotion at Ohio State University, where he would achieve success as the Bucks' co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach from 2001-04. Mel Tucker was a member of Jim Tressel's staff during the Buckeyes' 2002 National Championship season, a team with an exceptionally talented defense that was able to win a toe-to-toe fist fight against the high flying Miami Hurricanes.
During Tucker's tenure at OSU, he saw six Buckeyes DBs drafted by the NFL, including cornerback Chris Gamble, a starter on the 2002 team. Under Coach Tucker, several Bucks would earn honors and recognition for their play, including Chris Gamble (All-Big Ten,) Donte Whitner (All-Big Ten, All-American,) Michael Doss (two-time All-American, two-time All-Big Ten.) He was also instrumental in the recruitment of Malcom Jenkins to Columbus, where the latter would earn All-conference and All-American honors.
Tucker is now back in college football, after spending nine seasons in the National Football League with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears. Tucker, 43, was hired on to Saban's staff to bring energy, enthusiasm, and better play to an Alabama secondary which has grown somewhat stagnant in the face of increasingly faster-paced aerial attacks.
The past two seasons, and last season especially, Alabama had a difficult time playing physical and facing the ball. Junior cornerback Eddie Jackson was inconsistent with his footwork. He and teammate Bradley Sylve both struggled with playing the ball in the air. Cyrus Jones, a senior and the luminary amongst the cornerbacks, was the consistent bright spot last season. He totaled 46 tackles, 13 pass breakups and three interceptions.
One cannot replace the leadership and production that Landon Collins and Nick Perry brought to the secondary, but Geno Smith and Maurice Smith look to fill that gap. Geno Smith seems to have to the easiest transition as an every-down starter, finishing with 56 tackles in 2014. Five-star cornerbacks Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey look to have more field time as well, with Brown expected to compete for or win the starter spot opposite Cyrus Jones
Tucker's offseason focus has been on getting the secondary back to basics, particularly working on form tackling, pursuit angles and creating turnovers.The lack of turnovers have been of special concern to the Alabama staff the past several season. In the recent A-Day game, the secondary provided flashes of what we could see in the fall. The defense forced six turnovers, five of which were caused by its secondary. Anthony Averett, Marlon Humphrey, Maurice Smith, Ronnie Harrison and Jabriel Washington all recorded an interception. Harrison, an early enrollee true freshman, already looks the part at strong safety. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Harrison has exceptional ball skills and is a sound player. He along with Laurence "Hootie" Jones will be the tandem to watch in the future.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has worked with Alabama's secondary since 2008. He's done a decent job, but Smart is a linebackers coach at heart. Saban moved Smart to inside linebackers coach in the offseason. He's now working with Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Keith Holcombe. Alabama's front seven is poised to be the scariest bunch in the Southeastern Conference in 2015. This can only help to make Tucker's unit just as potent when the season kicks off.