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2016 Alabama Unit Previews: Cornerback

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There’s some experienced talent to be sure, but Alabama will need some newcomers to step up.

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson
Marlon Humphrey is Alabama’s premier corner, but who else will step up?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Before last year, the perception was that Alabama struggled in the secondary, especially at corner. Though Cyrus Jones solidified into one of the SEC’s best cover corner in 2016, and young, talented players like Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown were entrenched on the roster, the cornerbacks were the weak link in an otherwise stellar Alabama defense prior to 2015.

My, how things have changed. The Tide now boasts an elite assortment of defensive backs, including safeties Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison along with Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick at corner. A traditional defense would be content with such talent in the defensive backfield, but Nick Saban’s system demands more from his corners. With the addition of former defensive back Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, one can expect the load will grow even greater for Alabama’s key secondary players.

While all appears rosy in the defensive backfield, there are some jigsaw puzzle pieces that must be hewn together in the weeks before the season begins. The potential departure of senior Maurice Smith has created some opportunities to tinker with secondary personnel, and that will undoubtedly allow for new role players to see the field.

Let’s take a closer look...

The Superstars

Marlon Humphrey (R-So) – Cornerback

2015 stats: 45 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 INT, 8 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

The 2015 season saw the emergence of Alabama’s next great lockdown corner in Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey (6-1, 198 pounds) came in as an elite five-star defensive back recruit, and after redshirting his first season, has done nothing but rise to those expectations. Sure, he’s made rookie mistakes along the way, as is to be expected for a player learning Saban’s complex system. But when he’s operating at a high level, he is quite simply one of the best cover corners in the country.

With track-star speed and a body that allows him to play the required physical style in Saban’s defense, Humphrey is not only excellent in coverage, but he has an innate ability to play the run (as evidenced by his 3.5 tackles for loss last season). He has a nose for the ball, which he uses to sniff out misdirection and play action, and he pursues like a lion tracking springbok on the savanna. He is so quick and flexible that blockers find it difficult to keep him squared, which results in easy penetration when he is called upon to play the run or blitz from the corner. If one were to pick a corner tailor made for Pruitt’s preferred style of aggressive defensive back play, Humphrey would fit the mold to the letter.

Alabama couldn’t ask for a better boundary corner, as it’s expected that Humphrey will take on that role with the departure of Jones (though last season, the corners were dedicated to the right or left regardless of alignment.) He’s ferocious, physical and fast, which is exactly what Alabama needs at the position. Add in his ability to defend the run, and it’s hard to imagine Alabama could be in better shape at the position.

Minkah Fitzpatrick (So) – Cornerback/ Star

2015 stats – 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two INT, two pick-sixes, 10 passes defended

Alabama recruits five-star defensive backs for a reason, and rising sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick (6-1, 200 pounds) proved the value of that focus with his initial 2015 campaign. The rare freshman who can step into a Saban secondary and contribute, Fitzpatrick was electric in his role as the Star defensive back in nickel and dime configurations. Filling out a corner rotation that already featured All-SEC performer Cyrus Jones and Humphrey, Fitzpatrick used his role as the third corner to rob opposing defenses in the passing game, while contributing as a pass rusher and run-stopper as well.

Fitzpatrick not only recorded two interception returns for touchdowns in 2015, but he also ended the season with two sacks. His size and athleticism make him an extremely versatile asset in the Tide secondary, as he can do anything that’s he’s called upon to do, whether it’s defending slot receivers, helping out over the top, sliding into running lanes or blitzing. Though still young, Fitzpatrick plays with veteran awareness, which is the reason he was a featured part of Alabama’s defensive backfield last season.

Many assumed Fitzpatrick would step into the second corner position opposite Humphrey this season, but that may not ultimately be in the cards. First, Fitzpatrick’s measurables and ability make him a tailor-made Star as utilized in Saban’s defense. There’s no doubt he would make an excellent cover corner, but at Star, he is freed up to be a little more versatile and aggressive. Secondly, if none of the younger players (who we’ll discuss momentarily) can step up and learn the complex Star role, it may make more sense for Fitzpatrick to play at Star, while putting one of the newcomers at field corner, where there is more margin for error. There is enough talent in the secondary to move parts around to get the best fit, and Fitzpatrick makes that possible with his versatility and ability to adapt to what the Tide defense needs him to do for the good of the team.

The Reserves

Anthony Averett (Jr) – Cornerback/ Star

2015 stats – 2 tackles

Anthony Averett is a player who got a good bit of up-talk from Saban during the spring, and those positive accolades have materialized into a possible starting role as the third corner in the Tide defense this season. Whether that means Averett takes over for Fitzpatrick at Star, or he takes the field corner role opposite Humphrey with Fitzpatrick remaining at Star, there’s no doubt that Tide fans will come to know the 6 foot, 180 pound junior this season.

Averett has good size, good speed and an excellent understanding of what’s expected of him in the Tide secondary. Though his playing time has been fairly sparse in his three years at the Capstone, he has reportedly developed into a steady, if not spectacular, option in the defensive backfield. Surrounded by the likes of Humphrey, Fitzpatrick, Jackson and Harrison, Averett could fly under the radar and emerge as a key role player in the Alabama defense this season.

Kendall Sheffield (So) – Cornerback/ Star

(No 2015 stats; redshirt in 2015)

Kendall Sheffield came to Alabama as a five-star recruit in the same class as Fitzpatrick. Though he didn’t have the ground-breaking season of his fellow elite corner, he is primed to become a fixture in a Tide secondary rotation that has more raw talent in place than at any point in recent memory. Sheffield (6-0, 188 pounds) isn’t quite as big as Fitzpatrick, but he’s equally as fast and heady, something that will endear him to DB-centric Saban and Pruitt.

There will be quite a battle for the third corner spot, whether it’s the Star or field corner position that is open. Expect Sheffield to be in the thick of it, as after a year in the classroom, he has the physical talent to step in and make an impact in his sophomore campaign. He has good size, elite speed and excellent hips, and with a year already spent learning the system, expect to see Sheffield on the field a good bit, whether he wins the "starting" position as the third corner or not.

Tony Brown (Jr) – Cornerback/ Star

2015 stats – 16 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

Tony Brown came to Alabama in the same class as Humphrey, with the same five-star pedigree. In fact, it was Brown who saw the early playing time as a true freshman after making a name for himself as a head-hunter on Tide special teams. However, just as quickly as he emerged as a freshman, Brown faded from the starting ranks, not because of a lack of talent, but because of his frequent forays onto Nick Saban’s sh!t list.

Brown is a world-class track athlete with world-class speed and agility. He has excellent football sense, and hits like few other defensive backs on the Tide roster can. When he drops his shoulder and explodes through a tackle, one could mistake him for teammate Reuben Foster (aside from the obvious size difference). However, that propensity for physical play has led him to chronic shoulder injuries, which alongside his run-ins with authority, have left him on the outside looking in more often than not.

It’s do-or-die time for the now-junior Brown, as he’s running out of time to prove himself worthy of an NFL Draft pick. His uphill climb is made tougher this season, as he’ll sit the first four games of 2016 due to an undisclosed infraction. However, Brown’s skill set and aggressiveness will be prized in Pruitt’s secondary, so once his four games in Pigskin Purgatory are up, Brown may inject himself into the third corner competition, especially if it is unsettled at that point in the season. He is versatile enough to play Star or corner, and it’ll be interesting to see how he figures into the defense when his suspension is concluded.

The Newcomers

Shyheim Carter (Fr) – Cornerback

Freshmen have not often fared well in Saban’s secondary in their first years. Eventual NFL first-rounder Dee Milliner was as lost as Hogan’s Goat as a freshman, and after his initial campaign, some doubted he’d ever amount to elite defensive back many had projected him to become. Last season, Fitzpatrick broke that mold, stepping in when called upon and excelling in his first season in Tuscaloosa.

Is Shyheim Carter poised to do the same in 2016? Veteran safety Eddie Jackson thinks so. Through the spring, Jackson heaped effusive praise on the young corner, going so far as to project he’ll figure into the race for the third corner position against the likes of Averett and Sheffield. Carter (5-10, 181 pounds) was an elite two-way player in high school, and was ranked a four-star recruit in the 2016 class. Though somewhat smaller than the typical Tide corner (though similar in size and build to the departed Cyrus Jones), Carter has caught the eyes of many with his fast-twitch shiftiness and football intelligence after joining the Tide in January. Carter may very well have a small role in this year’s Tide secondary if the upper classmen step up and seize their opportunity. But if they don’t, it’s entirely possible Alabama could field a true freshman at corner for the second consecutive year.

Nigel Knott (Fr) – Cornerback

Alabama had an embarrassment of cornerback riches in the 2016 class, reeling in four outstanding recruits who will eventually battle for the three corner positions in the future. While Carter has grabbed early accolades from his teammates, it could be Nigel Knott who has the most raw talent and ability at corner. While Carter has an advantage as an early enrollee, Knott may be the best natural corner signed in the 2016 class.

Knott (6-0, 175 pounds), is on the smaller side of the defensive back spectrum at Alabama, but don’t let that fool you. He is electric, with quick feet, excellent hip swivel and burner speed. Knott only played eight games as a high school senior, but in those games he accounted for 51 tackles, three INTs, four passes defended and a blocked field goal. He also played quarterback and receiver during his high school career, which is a tribute to his pure athleticism. While Knott may not see much playing time as a freshman in a crowded rotation, he is undoubtedly the corner of the future at Alabama.

Jared Mayden (Fr) – Cornerback

Though Jared Mayden’s size (6-2, 190 pounds) may eventually lead to a move to free safety, he is joining Alabama as a corner. Mayden may not be the fastest corner in the 2016 class, but he is a high-quality recruit nonetheless with great size, good natural awareness and a solid grasp of defensive back fundamentals.

Mayden was limited as a high school senior, seeing action in only six games. During that time, he notched 13 tackles and three passes defended. While those stats aren’t mind-blowing, one must take into account Mayden’s measurables and established skill when projecting his ability as a defensive back for Alabama. Because of the volume of options at corner, 2016 could be a redshirt season for Mayden. However, if injuries press him into service, he could see the field in 2016 at safety, corner or nickel.

Aaron Robinson (Fr) – Cornerback

Aaron Robinson (6-1, 180 pounds) has all of the physical traits to be a great cover corner at Alabama. He’s tall with a frame that could easily pack on 200 pounds in Scott Cochran’s weight room. He’s as fast as lightning. He has good instincts, and while still raw, with a little coaching he could be an opposing offensive coordinator’s nightmare.

Will he see the field in 2016? It’s entirely possible, though it’s a longshot. If any freshman is well-couched to see the field in 2016, it’s probably Carter, but Robinson will figure into the future of the corner competition for years to come. He had a stellar senior campaign in high school, with 41 tackles, four interceptions and four passes defended, and one can expect that kind of performance to forecast a bright future for the freshman defensive back.

While the pieces haven’t been assembled into the final picture just yet, there’s no doubt that the Tide secondary is loaded, particularly at corner. There’s no doubt Hump and Fitz have locked down their respective starting roles, and any number of four players could eventually grab playing time at the third corner slot. Expect to see this puzzle shake out through camp, as it’s anyone’s guess which player will emerge with the third starting role.

Projected Depth Chart – Corner

Boundary Cornerback – Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett,

Field Cornerback – Anthony Averett, Kendall Sheffield, Shyheim Carter, Nigel Knott, Aaron Robinson

Star – Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tony Brown, Antony Averett, Jared Mayden, Aaron Robinson