It's become sort of a running joke now that I always, no matter the roster losses, consider safeties to be the one can't-miss unit on the team. Monster recruits have rolled into the Saban hate factory, and All-American after All-American have rolled off the assembly line, each as good as another, even though they are all very different players, with different skills sets.
This season is no different, save one caveat: This could grow into one of the best group of safeties that Alabama has ever fielded, and they certainly are the most athletic roster Saban has had at the position.
Geno Matias-Smith (SS)
Geno was an interesting player throughout his career. In high school, the hard hitter played safety, but in Alabama's scheme he had the height that Saban covets and was moved to corner for most of his career. It is a testament to how unsteady the corners were for several seasons that Matias-Smith was pressed into action on the outside (that is, when he wasn't in Coach Saban's doghouse for DUIs and other issues.) While Geno is a hard hitter, and an outstanding open field tackler, he lacked the speed necessary to play press-man corner in the Tide's scheme.
With an influx of talented, young DBs last season, Matias-Smith was able to move back to his safety position. It was a move that benefited both himself and Alabama. In 2015, he was the Tide's third-leading tackler (72) and had an interception and a PBU. Tasked with mainly run support and underneath coverage, he wasn't asked to help over the top very often, and Alabama's recent propensity to give up the deep route was largely nullified.
Matias-Smith wasn't a traditional "in the box" strong safety in the mold of a Landon Collins, nor was he as effective with the ball in the air as he needed be to play the FS position. Yet, at various times over four seasons, the versatile Matias-Smith played boundary CB, Star, Money, FS and SS. His Alabama career can best be described as "a classic 'tweener that eventually grew into his position." His field awareness, tackling, and experience will be missed -- though perhaps not to the extent one would expect.
Sr. Eddie Jackson (FS)
What can you say about Eddie Jackson? The senior, coming off a series of injuries and having lost a step, was moved from CB to Free Safety with outstanding results. Jackson, who is at his best with the ball in the air, also made great strides in becoming the leader of the secondary, calling the formations and getting Alabama's DBs aligned properly.
Those intangibles, which are shamefully overlooked, pale in comparison beside his production in 2015: 46 tackles, led the team and the SEC with 6 INTs (7th nationally,) 2 INT return TDs, FF, FR, First-Team All-SEC, Second-Team All-American....all this from a guy who was the goat, and burned repeatedly, in 2014 when pressed to play corner against the Sammie Coates of the SEC. As frustrating as 2014 was for Jackson, 2015 was just as satisfying a vindication.
So. Ronnie Harrison (SS)
Ronnie Harrison played FS in high school, though he is custom-built as a SS in the Saban defense. It is at SS where he spelled Matias-Smith last season, as well as playing a hybrid safety/corner position in some Money packages.
Harrison's impact was immediately felt. He tied the team lead in interceptions (2,) made 17 solo tackles, a FF, FR, 6 PBUs, and was a contributor on special teams: He was starting on special teams from game one, and by Texas A&M had earned his first start. Harrison is
Harrison has locked down the SS spot for the next two seasons, and is athletic enough to move to FS should he need to when Jackson departs after this season.
RS Fr. Deionte Thompson (FS)
Thompson redshirted last season, and he saw practice time at WR during the season. He is still listed as a DB on the 2016 Alabama roster, so the move to wideout, a position of considerable depth, may not be permanent. Thompson may have the best pure speed of the group, and has excellent hands. His tackling and physicality aren't quite where they need to be, but he has the size to get there (6'2", 190 as an entering freshman.)
Jr. Laurence Hootie Jones (SS)
Jones came out of Louisiana the No. 1 strong safety prospect in the nation (no. 3 overall,) but in his three years on campus has seen action only as a reserve. He played in seven games as a true freshman in 2014, and played in 14 of the Tide's games last season. To say that his development is coming along slowly is an understatement. Many expected the physical Jones to press Matias-Smith for playing time, only to then see him passed by for Harrison. The switch may still turn on for Jones at some point this season or next -- it takes a lot guys a lot of time to master the defense, and hopefully Ansley's aggressive style will be of benefit to his progression. Jones nevertheless will likely be first off the bench to spell Harrison.
So. Shawn Burgess-Becker (S/Athlete)
Like Thompson, he is one of those two-way athletes that could play multiple positions, although he reminds you of Ha-Ha Clinton Dix. He has great technique, is a very hard hitter, and has the frame you want to see in the defensive backfield. He will not sit on the bench this season: with losses on Alabama's special teams, he will almost certainly see time there, as well as work his way into the DB rotation at some point this season. He is a future can't-miss guy.
Would you believe that Alabama signed four DBs in NSD '16 and only one was what you'd call a true safety? That makes sense, with Marlon Humphrey draft-eligible at the end of the season, and losing Maurice Smith, Eddie Jackson to graduation, the Tide are going to be thin on experienced corners. Couple that with talented youth on the roster at safety and CB was the position of emphasis this Signing Day.
Shawn Jennings out of Dadeville, the No. 1 FS in the country, may very well see some time this season on special teams and in the FS rotation with Hootie Jones. He's already a big kid, and is easily the nastiest hitting DB the Tide signed in 2016. At 6'1", 219, and running a 4.58, he's got speed to move around too. Jennings is simply too good of a prospect to sit on the bench for any extended period of time.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at what to expect in the defensive secondary from new DC Jeremy Pruitt and incoming DB Coach, Derrick Ansley.