Going into Fall 2016, OWB had this to say about the loss of Maurice Smith and Shawn Burgess-Becker
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.
That words would be prophetic: Eddie Jackson was lost for the season’s stretch run, and Minkah filled his starting FS spot, moving up from Star to captain the secondary. Shawn Burgess-Becker would not have been starting with the eventual All-American Fitzpatrick on the same field.
Now, in Spring 2017, there are questions as always about the two-deep, and what players will shake out at what position, but this is not an area of concern: The talent and depth and experience are there, as are promising young players. Next year may be a different story as a youth movement emerges, but for today this is a great core group of veterans.
Eddie Jackson (FS)
What can be said about Eddie Jackson that hasn’t already been written? He was the captain of the secondary, an All-American in 2015, was on an All-American campaign in 2016 at both safety and punt returner. Still, his loss affected communication more than performance by the defense. While Alabama was able to escape the back third of its schedule without facing an elite passing game, when the rubber hit the road, his loss was very much felt in Tampa on a night when the secondary played far too many downs, gave up far too many plays, and were generally out of sync and suffered from communication breakdowns. Jackson doesn’t have the physical skills of Minkah, but his leadership was missed that evening.
Hootie Jones (Sr. SS)
Hootie is the enforcer in the secondary. Like Landon Collins, he is a bigger DB with a nose for making tackles in the running game. He doesn’t have the best instincts of the safeties in the passing game, but he makes up for it with physicality and above-average coverage ability which put him in position to make a play. He participate in all 15 games last season, recording 20 tackles (16 solo) and 5 PBUs.
Ronnie Harrison (Jr. SS)
Ronnie Harrison epitomizes a risk-reward defensive back and was almost the forgotten man last season with just how good Fitzpatrick. Harrison nevertheless had a season was almost as good, or better, than Minkah’s. He recorded 85 tackles (56 solo;) 7 PBUs; forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and then returned it 55 yards for a score; had 2 INTs (returning one for a TD;) 1.5 TFLs; 2 QB hurries; and blocked a punt for good measure. He hits like a safety should hit and is just always around the play. That said, he does have coverage lapses and his ball skills could be better, having dropped several sure-picks the last two years. Harrison is somewhat vulnerable when put in man coverage against the slot, but that is an acceptable tradeoff for his big play potential. Harrison’s ceiling is still rising as he learns to play more consistently.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jr. FS)
Talk about earning your honors, Fitzpatrick (2nd Team All-American) did it all at Alabama last season, and he did it well: 6 interceptions for 186 yards; 2 TDs (including a surreal 109-yarder against Arkansas;) 1 FF; 5 TFLs; 66 Tackles (41 solo) and 7 PBUs. Minkah is the smartest and most athletic player on the field. His skills are so sui generis that you’d have to combine the best of several Alabama safeties to find his combination of guttiness, instinct, playmaking ability, physicality, ball skills and leadership. He will captain the secondary and very likely the entire defense. Enjoy him this final year in Tuscaloosa, folks: He’s already being touted as a high First Rounder in next year’s NFL draft.
Deionte Thompson (RS-Jr. FS)
Some players in the Alabama system require a little seasoning before they are field-ready. More often than not, we see it in the secondary, where Alabama runs a complicated defense that requires the development of a lot of press-man skills and football IQ that takes years to truly master. Deionte is one such player who is easing into a larger role as he is learning the defense. He has the physical and mental skills to succeed, or is at least progressing well in developing them. Coaches have singled out his growth this Spring. At this point is he just lacking the reps to be an integral contributor. But, Thompson should get those reps this season. He appeared in 14 games last season, recording 9 tackles.
Jared Mayden (So. CB/Money/Safety)
Mayden showed Alabama fans a lot of promise despite his meager stat line (1 tackle, 1 PBU). Like Fitzpatrick and Tony Brown, he is a true utility DB. Though a corner in high school, he was recruited as a safety at Alabama. He saw time at nearly every position in the secondary before settling in at Money rover and Star CB on the defensive rotation. He played in 11 games last season, mostly in mop-up duty, but he also played a good bit against Chattanooga and Mississippi State. Mayden has very good coverage skills and equally competent tackling for a player this early in his development. He has a future in the defense, but it probably at corner rather than safety. He was covered in-depth last week with the corners.
Chadarius Townsend: He was a running back in high school, and was thought to project as a safety. However, he but will most likely eventually land as a roving corner when it’s all said and done. We covered Chadarius with the corners, because who knows where to put a guy with this many skills. I don’t think he’s a safety this season. This year he will most likely practice with the special teams and as a scout team extra corner.
Xavier McKinney (early enrollee)
The 4-star out of Roswell, Georgia is known as a play-making enforcer in the defensive backfield, a la Mark Barron and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Given his skills set, he projects well at either safety spot, maybe even corner given his balls skills and speed (verified 4.59.) McKinney is also a competent return man, especially in kickoff returns. I think reserve Free Safety or Money is the most likely place for McKinney and probably where he sees time on the field this year.
Daniel Wright (early enrollee)
Like McKinney, Wright is a hitter with excellent ball skills. He does an excellent job tracking the ball and making plays. He is not the fastest DB out there (4.71 actual,) but Daniel makes up for it with his coverage skills, good closing speed, excellent footwork and fluid hips. He does not very often look as though he’s trying to find the ball — he knows where it is. He may see time on special teams, but, like McKinney, he will vie for some mop up duty this year.
Projected Depth Chart
FS: Minkah Fitzpatrick / Deionte Thompson / Xavier McKinney
SS: Ronnie Harrison / Hootie Jones / Daniel Wright
Money Safety/Corner: Deionte Thompson / Xavier McKinney
First off the bench: Hootie Jones / Deionte Thompson
Freshman most likely to see the field: Xavier McKinney