To discuss Alabama safeties is have a tomAYto/tomAHto discussion -- beyond the four "traditional" starters in Saban's defensive backfield, corners and safeties are almost interchangeable, aside from varying degrees of hatefulness to receivers and height/weight charts.
This will be a bit long. so I apologize in advance.
Safeties -- What, did you think I was going to pick anything else?
All offseason I have been exceptionally high on the safety rotation, no matter how the depth chart was couched, and, there are several reasons to be bullish on the Tide this year. If there is one unit that Alabama has consistently produced star after star after star, it's at safety, where Kirby Smart and Nick Saban develop them second-to-none.
Under the Saban regime, Alabama has recruited and/or developed a ridiculous amount of talent.
Rashad Johnson: Two-time All-SEC First Team Selection, starter Arizona Cardinals
Mark Barron: Two-time unanimous All-American, three-time First Team All-SEC, starter St. Louis Rams
Robert Lester: Two-time All-SEC, starter Carolina Panthers
Nick Perry, UDFA safety, Baltimore Ravens
Vinnie Sunseri: Safety New Orleans Saints
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: All-SEC, Consensus All-American, starter Green Bay Packers
Landon Collins: All-SEC, unanimous All-American, starter New York Giants.
Note, the above list does not include pre-season All-SEC Robby Green, whose NCAA issues forced him out, nor does it include the athletic and hard-hitting Justin Woodall, a man who would be All-SEC had he not had the misfortune to play when Eric Reid and Mark Barron were roaming SEC defensive backfields.
The moral here? If you're a safety, you will develop, be recognized, and make bank if you come to Alabama. As deep as the 2009-2012 classes were, Alabama in 2015 has the potential to be the deepest at the position in school history, even if no one player can be singled out as "the best."
What was lost?
In a passing defense that was much-maligned and gave up far to0 many explosive passing plays, the unit is in as good as shape as ever.
Nick Perry, a three-year starter and/or contributor is now trying to make the roster in New England. Never the most heralded player, Perry was always around the ball, was a very smart player, and simply did not get lost in his assignments very often.
Landon Collins' loss, however, is a bit tougher to weather. A three-year player at the Capstone, Collins was undoubtedly the defensive heart and soul last year, a mantle that appears to have been taken up by Reggie Ragland in 2015. A traditional vicious-hitting strong safety in every sense of the word, Collins also had the coverage skills to play dime corner, and was a special teams ace earlier in his career. What will be missed the most is his leadership, however. A replay of any of last season's games will show that Landon more often than not had to signal the defense to Trey DePriest, and, in a few notable cases, actually correct the assignments.
Not to mention, the best reserve in the deep backfield was lost with Jarrick Williams' graduation. It is not easy to replace the top-three on the depth chart.
What was gained?
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Alabama is really good at recruiting.
Minkah Fitzpatrick was an ESPN-100 recruit, an unanimous 5* cornerback, rated 5th at his position and 30th overall in the 247 Composites. Standing 6'1" and at just about 200 pounds, with tons of room to put weight on his frame, there seems little doubt that Fitzpatrick will be moved to safety for this season, even though his athleticism and size hearken to players like Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner.
Like many Tide DBs of the past, you can absolutely see him playing at two positions early. Since he stepped foot on campus, Minkah has been consistently praised by coaches for his athleticism, understanding of scheme, playmaking ability, as well as his special teams skills. Fitzpatrick is certain to see time this season, both on special teams and in the defensive backfield, where he will provide safety depth and can play dime corner.
Four-star Ronnie Harrison has exactly the frame to replace guys like Landon Collins. The 6'3", 220 pound heavy-hitter from Tallahassee is going to shine. The confident Harrison was an early enrollee, playing in the A-Day game, where he was all over receivers. Harrison is a sure tackler, a punishing hitter, has exceptional athleticism and range for his size, and plays well with the ball in the air. This will be the next roving Crimson Tide headhunter. Given the two camps, his A-Day game experience, and ability to provide quality depth, Harrison will likely be active this season.
Deionte Thompson, the No. 2 safety prospect in the nation, enrolled in the fall. The 5-star, top-100 player out of Garland, Texas has had a relatively quite fall camp. He is, however, an exceptional free safety and excels with the ball in the air. His rangy frame and speed (6'2", 190) and raw talent in purely coverage terms are up there with Mark Barron, although he still needs some work in run support and with his physicality. Thompson is probably looking at a redshirt season while he packs on some weight.
I realize Thompson has practiced with the WR unit this fall. I'm not sure if anyone knows whether the move is permanent or not. The above addressed only his contributions and skills as a DB. Those very hands that are so praised may move him to wide out. My suspicion still is that even if it is a permanent move, Thompson is facing a redshirt season. Alabama is loaded at WR.
Kendall Sheffield is a true wildcard. There has been almost no reporting out of camp from the ESPN Top-20 CB prospect. He was brought in and recruited as a safety, though size may be an issue in the SEC, as he tops out at just six-feet, 185 pounds. The two-sport star will almost certainly redshirt this year in football while he learns the defense. A move to corner cannot be ruled out either, as Alabama is attempting to get faster and lighter to combat run/pass option, HUNHS offenses.
Nate Staskelunas looks to redshirt and be a reserve player for the foreseeable future.
Shaw Burgess-Becker is another highly-touted player with the ability and versatility and size to play both spots. What has been heard of him from camp largely relates to his special teams skills, where by all accounts he is doing an excellent job. Given that Alabama was 75th in return coverage, for this reason alone you would expect him to make the active roster.
Eddie Jackson returns to the Alabama defensive backfield, this time to safety. We forget, but in 2013, Jackson was one of the Tide's most dependable corners. He is a rangy player with a great wing-span, has the ability to fight for the ball, is a good tackler, and at one time had serviceable speed. Then, last season, Bradley Sylve's struggles, coupled with Brown and Humphrey's youth, pressed an injured Jackson into service at CB opposite Cyrus Jones. Few things could have been as bad, as he was repeatedly targeted all season. The vestiges of his speed were gone, his injuries plainly lingered, and - in short - he was lit up like a Christmas tree with every fly route thrown by nearly any QB with a live arm.
This year, however, he is a different player and looks to import some of his corner-mobility, range and ball skills into a position where plays will be kept in front of him. This will be a redemption season for an unfairly-maligned player, and most expect him to succeed.
Geno Smith seems to have finally kicked his penchant for drinking-related offenses and is now out of the doghouse. He has waited his turn, learning from some of the best in the school's history, and he can bring his physicality and above-average coverage skills to the strong safety spot. Smith has so much promise, but for disciplinary reasons and depth charts, has been overlooked except in relief or spot-starts.
Jabriel Washington figures to be the first off the bench in situational play. Washington has seen action the last two seasons as a defensive reserve, and, like unheralded players before him, is a "glue guy" - that quality depth you have to have to win ball games as the SEC season lingers. While he'll never start in this defense, the heady veteran doesn't make too many poor plays either, and is actually a very good hitter for a guy who can play both dime corner and spot-safety
Laurence "Hootie" Jones, like Geno Smith, is another player that the Tide have looked for to develop and fulfill his promise. The Louisiana product has everything you want to see, and can play both positions. He's a big, physical, fast kid with good range, great vertical ability, and good ball skills. Putting it all together and playing assignment ball seems to have been his problem. Jones will see the field a lot this season, one would expect. Like a head cold, defensive back woes in Saban's defense are cured by two things -- death or the passage of time.
Predicted Depth Chart:
FS: Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jabriel Washington
SS: Geno Smith, Hootie Jones, Ronnie Harrison
Dime: Hootie Jones, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jabriel Washington
Reserves: Shawn Burgess-Becker, Ronnie Harrison, Jabriel Washington
Redshirts: Dieonte Thompson, Kendall Sheffield, Nate Staskelunas