Though the Tide is experiencing a near-mythical talent level in its current secondary, it would be folly to think that the unexpected departures of seasoned senior Maurice Smith and promising sophomore second-string safety Shawn Burgess-Becker hadn’t put a dent in Alabama’s secondary depth for the upcoming season.
After all, though Smith had never cracked the starting rotation per se, he was a veteran, a routine option at nickel who offered a versatile option at either corner, nickel or safety. While Burgess-Becker was still climbing the depth ladder, there’s no reason to believe that he would have been a steady contributor to the safety rotation in 2016, even barring injury to the presumed start Eddie Jackson.
Despite the attrition, however, Alabama is in decent shape in regard to its safety rotation. Sure, depth is never a bad thing, but with the starting tandem Alabama will field this fall, the heart of the secondary will be in able hands.
Eddie Jackson (Sr) – Free Safety
2015 stats: 6 interceptions (2 returned for TDs), 46 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Eddie Jackson’s career at the Capstone has been a true journey. After being thrown into the fray at corner as a true freshman, Jackson (6-0, 194 pounds) flashed brilliance against pass happy teams (Texas A&M comes to mind) while making typical mistakes associated with youth and inexperience (again, the Texas A&M game comes to mind). After weathering the storm of his first year, which saw him in and out of Nick Saban’s dog house, Jackson was projected as a starting corner in his sophomore campaign. That, however, was not to be, as Jackson suffered a devastating knee injury that limited his impact in his second year in Tuscaloosa.
The injury proved a catalyst for the move that led to Jackson’s big break, however. Because of issues with depth, Saban made it clear that Jackson would be making the move to safety. And fresh off of his injury, the defensive back made the most of the new beginning. If the 2014 season was a setback for Jackson, 2015 marked the season he unfurled his banner, reeling in six interceptions (7th nationally) and returning two of them for scores. Jackson was not just a master of the big play, as he evolved into a steady presence in the heart of the Tide’s defense, registering 46 tackles with a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
After helping to lead a historically good Tide defense to the National Championship last season, Jackson elected to stick around…and it’s a good thing for Alabama that he did. Jackson is the senior leader of a Tide secondary that could prove to be the best of the Saban era, and the All-SEC, All-American performer will play a big role in the Tide’s defensive fortunes this season.
Ronnie Harrison (So) – Strong Safety
2015 stats: 2 interceptions, 17 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hurry, 1 forced fumble, 6 passes broken up
Ronnie Harrison was once a three-star safety prospect who spurned his hometown Florida State Seminoles to join Nick Saban at Alabama. But after a year of work as the Tide’s reserve free safety, the heavy-hitting Harrison (6-3, 216 pounds) is ready to step into the starting role in a secondary loaded with talent.
Harrison played often in 2015 en route to a National Championship, and after turning in steady performances throughout his freshman year, the lumber-laying safety should have a break-out season. Last year, as a reserve, Harrison accounted for 17 tackles and two interceptions, including high-profile PBUs against Michigan State and Clemson in the College Football Playoffs. Harrison has fantastic size for the position, and excellent coverage skill for a player of his height and thickness. Woe be it to any slot receiver who lazily stretches out across the middle, as Harrison has a penchant for the de-cleating hard hit. Under the tutelage of Jackson and secondary gurus Saban and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, expect Harrison to fully come into his own and evolve into the next in a long line of Tide greats at safety.
Laurence "Hootie" Jones (Jr.) – Strong Safety
2015 stats: 2 tackles
Despite his unfortunate legal trouble over the summer, Hootie Jones appears to be doing the things he needs to do to earn his way back into Saban’s good graces. And it’s a good thing too, as behind Jackson and Harrison, Alabama would have shockingly little depth without Jones on the roster.
Jones (6-2, 214 pounds) is another prototypical, physical safety. The head-hunter has played sparingly in his two previous years at Alabama, but when he has gotten in the game on defense and special teams, he has made his presence felt with jarring hits and an aggressive (sometimes overly so) style of play. Jones played in nine games in 2015, and though his stat line is rather meager, his on-field experience will be critical to Alabama’s depth at the position moving into the season.
Deionte Thompson (R-Fr) – Free Safety
Redshirted in 2015
Thompson sat for the entirety of last season after the four-star signed with Alabama in the class of 2015. But the 3rd-ranked safety prospect (ESPN) in his class should be a good fit as a back-up after learning Saban’s complicated system for a year. Thompson definitely looks the part of a safety at 6-2, 190 pounds, though he could definitely stand to add a little good weight.
Though he has no college stats at the moment, it is interesting to note that he recorded five interceptions as a safety at West Orange – Stark High School in Texas. Thompson is fast and has a high football IQ, so adapting to the Alabama system should not be overly-challenging for him. A year in the football study hall should also be a source of confidence as he looks to take on more of an active role on the defense. Alabama will need him to step up in a big way to shore up the rotation, as the off-season departures left the Tide a little too thin for comfort.
Tony Brown (Jr.) – Corner/ Nickel/ Safety
2015 stats: 16 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble
While he’s typically been used as a corner or nickel defensive back in his time at Alabama, the depth situation at safety after the departure of Smith and Burgess-Becker may warrant the use of Brown as a safety in the event of injury to one of the two starters.
Brown (6-0, 195 pounds) has the size and physicality to play the position, as he has demonstrated on both special teams and limited defensive opportunities. He’s certainly been around enough to know the defense. He has the added quality of world-class speed that could make him an interesting addition to the four-deep safety rotation if needed (that is, after he serves out his reduced four game suspension as amended by the NCAA).
Jared Mayden (Fr) – Cornerback
In another shocking development, the Tide signed no dedicated safety prospects in the class of 2016. Alabama has four incoming freshman defensive backs, but all are listed as corners.
That said, at least one of the new corners has the frame and skill set to move over to the safety position if asked. Jared Mayden (6-1, 198 pounds) has spent most of his playing days as a corner, but given his size and physicality, he would be the most likely freshman to make the move to safety in the event he is needed to further prop up depth at the position. Mayden is not quite as speedy as the typical corner (he runs a 4.58/ 40), but given his size, Saban and company may have intended this evolution for Mayden all along. Regardless of where the freshman ends up, he will be a nice four-star addition to an already loaded listing of defensive backs.
Depth Chart Projection
Free safety – Eddie Jackson, Deionte Thompson, Jared Mayden
Strong safety – Ronnie Harrison, Hootie Jones, (maybe) Tony Brown