The 2016 season has come and gone, with all of its ups and one down, and, like clockwork, Nick Saban signed the best recruiting class in the nation. If you’re anything like me, as soon as the season ends, you go into withdrawals and start updating Alabama rosters, scholarship counts, recruit data, and predicted depth charts on your rolling spreadsheets. Or maybe I’m just a nerd.
Fortunately for you guys though (or maybe unfortunately), that ridiculous offseason roster tracking is what got me started spewing out my bad opinions and #HotTakes here on Roll Bama Roll.
My biggest data project has come in the form of SPARQ, which is a method that Nike developed to quantify just how “athletic” a high school recruit is. I took that a step further and created a statistical approach of viewing SPARQ in the form of a Z-score, which basically quantifies how well an individual player compares to others of his position.
This year, I’m also adding two ratings for a player’s “immediate impact” and “potential.” Both are on a scale of 0-10 and purely my opinion/projection. A 0 immediate impact would be a redshirt, while a 10 would be a Jalen Hurts as a freshman. A 0 potential would be a Duron Carter (never plays) while a 10 would be a Derrick Henry (all the Heismans).
Today, we’ll be looking at the four incoming members of the secondary in this class. The current secondary lost safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, but returns Tony Brown, Anthony Averett, and Ronnie Harrison as starters, plus Hootie Jones as the senior and experienced back up.
The secondary has been maligned in the past, and with the ever increasing prominence of the spread, numbers and depth are becoming more and more important. Nick Saban made it clear that he would have liked to add another couple of pure cornerbacks in this class, but sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.
And without further rambling on my part, it’s time to meet the new guys of 2017!
As many of you know, every year, I end up picking one recruit from the class as my favorite and then tout him all year around RBR. I won’t choose for sure until I finish up this series, but Xavier McKinney is my early favorite.
One of the few that Saban managed to poach from under Kirby Smart’s refortified boundaries in the state of Georgia, McKinney is an elite safety, and probably the best pure safety prospect for the Tide since Landon Collins.
At 6’1” 196, he’s already grown into a prototypical safety size that will even have NFL scouts awaiting his arrival. His forty yard dash and twenty yard shuttle is around the lower end of average for safeties in the NFL combine, while his vertical jump and powerball toss indicate exceptional explosiveness. This is reflected in his 1.36 Z-score, putting him in the 90th percentile of college athletes.
Though not the quickest or fastest player out there, McKinney has long limbs and as such has great speed over really long distances. He’s as smooth as flowing honey and never looks out of control on the field.
He’s exceptional in zone coverage, showing the anticipation and reaction time to break on throws before the QB even completes his throwing motion. When transitioning from a backpedal to exploding forward—whether to blow up a screen, cover a curl, or intercept a quick out/slant— he has shown exceptional footwork to do so seamlessly, allowing him to get into the action, rather than trying to chase it after a completed pass.
Despite his aggressiveness in jumping routes, I saw many instances of him correctly anticipating a double move, double pass, or fake WR screen-deep ball and staying a step ahead of the receiver all the way down the sidelines.
He also showed a consistent and tremendous ability to blow up screens and fight through any perimeter blocks to either make a tackle or let a teammate into the backfield to get the tackle.
Lastly, he has experience as a punt returner and gunner. He’s not the most elusive guy out there, but displayed good vision and awareness on his returns.
There aren’t many cons to McKinney’s game, to tell you the truth. Most of his tackles were good wraps, but I did notice more than a couple where he went too high and almost flew past the runner, bringing him down with a single arm around the shoulder pads. That won’t work in college, and he’ll have to be more consistent in that regard.
He also spent most of his time in high school playing zone. In the few instances of playing man, I did see signs of a good backpedal and hip-turn, but there wasn’t enough video out there to really get a feel for his ability in that regard.
I don’t think he’ll take a redshirt this year. Most likely, he’ll be solidly entrenched on the second team by season start, and may even be in the mix for being on of the key back-ups in real-time rotation at safety in dime packages. He might get a look as a gunner on special teams too, but I don’t think he’ll be one of the top 10 there.
Like McKinney, Daniel Wright is another pure safety (for those of you that haven’t already heard, he is the younger brother of former Florida Gator safety, Major Wright).
He’s a bit undersized at only 170 pounds, but he has enough height and hopefully some time with Scott Cochran will boost him up to a good playing weight.
Athletically, he’s a bit on the underwhelming side for an Alabama defensive back, with a Z-score of 0.63 (but he’s still well above average for a collegiate safety). What he lacks in speed—4.74 forty-- he makes up for with an exceptional powerball toss for someone that’s only 170 pounds. With some weight to add behind his powerful explosiveness, he could develop into a deadly hitting weapon.
To complement his aforementioned strength, Wright is extremely aggressive in his run support. He doesn’t just tackle people, he strikes them. And that doesn’t come at the expense of proper technique like many big hitters, as he usually will wrap up his opponent even while striking them. Add all of that to him having a full-speed-ahead, high-energy attitude on the field, and you have a perfect special teams player.
And, as you’d expect, he’s got quite a collection of highlights as a gunner on special teams. My guess is that this is going to be the main role that Nick Saban recruited him for. He also showed some ability as punt/kick returner, too.
He’s a little underdeveloped as coverage man. His zone game is decent, but he relies solely on anticipation rather than being able to get his body to react quick enough to break up balls.
I saw almost no highlights from him in man-coverage, so I have to assume that he isn’t very proficient at it. That could be wrong, but I don’t think he has the speed or footwork to be able to truly be effective in man coverage.
He also doesn’t have the greatest of hands, as I saw him drop or bobble quite a few easy picks or mistimed jumps.
More than likely, Wright will redshirt this year. If he doesn’t, it will be because he broke into the mix as a gunner on the kickoff team.
McDonald, unlike the two above, fits best as a slot corner. He’s played all the spots in the secondary, but his size and skill set mean he’ll likely end up as a “STAR” in Nick Saban’s defense.
Though very short at only 5’10”, he has a solid and muscular build at nearly 200 pounds. In fact, he’s built more like a running back than your usual cornerback. He’s got very impressive speed and can get to his top speed very quickly, as evidenced by his 4.43 forty. He unfortunately opted out of testing his shuttle, so I don’t have a SPARQ score for him.
However, based off of his tests and some eye tests, I would guess he ends up somewhere in the 0.7-0.8 range for his Z-score.
Like Wright above, McDonald is an exceptional tackler. His technique is not always perfect, but his effort and power are enough to put most any high school ball player on the ground almost immediately. Even more so than his pure tackling ability, McDonald is just all-around excellent in run support. He’s very good at fighting off blocks at the line of scrimmage and acting almost as a defacto outside linebacker on any outside runs. He can set the edge against lead blockers and contain the running back or shed receiver blocks with ease to blow up a screen.
Surprisingly, he’s also really good in his coverage of deep passes down the sideline. He can use his speed to stay in phase with a receiver and is adept at getting his eyes up and body positioned so that a receiver will have to go over his back to attempt to make a catch. If he doesn’t get the pick, he’ll have a good shot at drawing an offensive pass interference.
He’s a better return man than either of the two above him, and shows excellent cut-and-go speed and vision to blast upfield and slip through blocks and creases in the coverage.
As a final bonus, I’m not sure if it’s luck or some innate skill, but he’s blocked nearly 10 kicks in the last two years, and has returned 5 blocks for touchdowns.
He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in coverage. His role was more often run support than it was pass coverage, and he’s been given a lot of freedom to be a roving playmaker, rather than a disciplined cover guy. He also has a bit of an awkward backpedal that will need to be worked on this offseason by his college coaches.
Admittedly, McDonald reminds me a lot of Tyrann Matthieu (as a player... I can’t speak for attitude) when he was at LSU. He was more of a pocket-sized linebacker than an actual defensive back.
I think McDonald will end up getting a little bit of playing time in mop-up duty this year as a STAR, and may get a look as the team’s punt returner too. I don’t expect him to have much impact as a freshman, but I don’t think he’ll redshirt, either.
While McKinney, Wright, and McDonald are purely defensive backs, Chadarius Townsend is actually a bit of a mystery. He mostly played quarterback for his high school, only spending a little time as a defensive back. Realistically, he could project as a running back, receiver, corner, or safety. He doesn’t have the arm to play quarterback for Alabama, but he definitely has the speed to play pretty much anywhere on the field.
He didn’t test with Nike, but is reported to have run a 4.33 forty, and I believe that’s pretty close to accurate. The guy can absolutely fly.
Speed. Speed. Speed. Townsend has that rare second gear that you hear announcer talk about all the time. You’ll see him running at calm pace (actually about the same speed as everyone else out there) as he sifts through traffic, and once he sees green field, he enters a whole new realm of speed. I found myself laughing and shaking my head every time he turned a corner and left every one else 15 yards behind him in a matter of seconds.
He only had a few plays as a defensive back, but he did show impressive ability in man coverage, both in his press and in gluing to his receiver step-for-step down the field.
The biggest thing is that he’s untrained at doing much other than designed runs as the quarterback.
I did see a couple of times where he reacted very late in zone coverage, but still managed to nab an interception or break-up due to his ridiculous recovery speed. That won’t always work in college, and he’ll have to learn to be an actual defensive back.
It’s unlikely that Townsend will play this year, as he’ll likely need a year to develop his skills and technique, but his athleticism and speed will make it difficult to keep him off the field in the future. I think he’ll project best as an outside corner back, and may develop into a kick returner too.
As a final note, all player ratings and stars are pulled directly from the 247sports composite. I don’t think they’re perfect, but they are a good representation of the general media thoughts on a player.
All sizes and testing data come from ESPN’s recruiting database, which pulls verified info from Nike combines.