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2017 Alabama Football Unit Previews: Safeties

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Unlike some other subsets of Alabama’s defense, the Tide has experienced, versatile safety talent to spare. Given the injury luck of the last several seasons, that can’t be underestimated.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida
Minkah Fitzpatrick is arguably the best free safety in America.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Alabama Crimson Tide may have a few thin positions on their always-formidable defense this season. Along the defensive line and at outside linebacker, the Tide will have a solid first-string with tons of inexperienced talent waiting in the wings behind them.

But when it comes to the secondary, and in particular, the safety rotation, Bama will be well-stocked with veteran, elite play-makers who can buoy the overall quality of their defensive brethren.

Few teams can claim the kind of talent Alabama will field this year at free safety and strong safety. Wave after wave of top-flight recruiting classes have left the Tide loaded at the position. Not to mention, the players upon which Nick Saban and Jeremy Pruitt will count this season are versatile in their skill sets and can transition from one role/ responsibility to another in-game. That diversity in talent makes the Alabama safety corps likely the best unit on the field at all times, especially when one considers the Tide’s best player at any position, Minkah Fitzpatrick, will be the foundation upon which the defense is built.

But the safety corps isn’t just Minkah and everyone else. Ronnie Harrison is a legitimate NFL prospect who, with a more consistent (and level-headed) season, could elevate himself to a first- or second-round NFL Draft selection. Fitzpatrick is a given as a first-round candidate, but even Hootie Jones may well be taken before the smoke clears on the first day at next year’s Draft. The top three Bama safeties are all potential NFL selections, and with that kind of talent at the head of the class, the Tide’s safety corps will undoubtedly be the strongest one in the SEC (and likely, the nation).

Fortunately, the Tide saw little attrition from the 2016 season, with Eddie Jackson the most prominent departing safety. While the impact of Jackson’s loss was tremendous, it also must be considered that he missed the bulk of the previous season, leaving the current starting rotation to man the trenches for much of 2016. While the Tide defense would have been undoubtedly better with Jackson in the line-up, the product that finished the season in the secondary for the Tide was nothing short of spectacular.

The safeties (and corners) will need to be steady, and at times explosive, to compensate for the aforementioned growing pains the defense will experience as the newcomers in the front seven round into shape. If Alabama gets high-level play in the defensive back ranks, it could help shield the exposed flank of the men up front in the early part of the season.

Key Returning Players

Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jr) – Free Safety

2016 stats – 66 tackles, 41 solo tackles, 6 interceptions (2 returned for TDs), 1 forced fumble, 5 tackles for loss, 7 passes broken up

If a college coach was drawing up the perfect defensive back, there’s a good chance he’d look a little something like Fitzpatrick. The junior from New Jersey is the total package, with innate instincts, explosive physicality, great speed, stellar technique, an incredible work ethic, and natural leadership. There’s a good reason that 6-1, 202-pound Fitzpatrick is one of the few players (as in, can be counted on one hand) that Nick Saban has profusely praised throughout the duration of his time at the Capstone. This past week, Saban even went so far as to put Fitzpatrick in the top-five players he has coached in the college ranks, which speaks highly of the junior’s ability and character given the success Saban players have enjoyed.

Fitzpatrick is not only the best player in the secondary or on the defense…he’s the best player on the Tide roster, and it’s not even close. He will be counted on to captain the always-tenacious Tide defense, and he will play as versatile role as can be imagined for a defensive back. He can adeptly play any position in Saban’s complex secondary. He will spend most of his time at free safety, but if Trevon Diggs struggles at corner, he could easily flip to the edge opposite Anthony Averett. He can step up and play Star, or Money, or any combination of positions, which can’t be underestimated given the aggressiveness and complexity of the Tide defense.

While the Tide is loaded at safety, the defense will depend on Fitzpatrick as its keystone. Fortunately, the pre-season All-American is up to the task, and will likely have the type of season that springboards him into the top-five picks in the first round of the NFL Draft next spring.

Ronnie Harrison (Jr) – Strong Safety

2016 stats: 85 tackles, 56 solo tackles, 7 passes broken up, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery (returned for a TD), 2 interceptions (one returned for a TD), 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 blocked punt

If any player in the Crimson Tide secondary had as good a 2016 season as Fitzpatrick, it would have to be Ronnie Harrison. The 6-3, 214-pound bruiser out of Tallahassee has always had the talent and aggressiveness, but with an extra year of seasoning, the junior could see his draft stock rise dramatically in 2017.

Harrison is a head-hunter, in no uncertain terms. While he has lapses in concentration in pass coverage at times, he more than makes up for it with his big play ability and sheer explosiveness. He has a nose for the ball, as evidenced by his turnovers, and when he finds the ball-carrier, he delivers a heavy dose of gut-wrenching punishment. Harrison is tall for a safety, but at just under 220 pounds, he brings a world of hurt to any offensive player who tries to enter his zone of responsibility.

Harrison is a little rawer than Fitzpatrick, as he is unpolished at times in coverage and has fumble-fingers that has robbed the Tide of turnover opportunities in the last two years. Sometimes, he lets his emotions become a distraction, which is not something that makes Saban nor his teammates smile. Also, teams that can isolate him in coverage in the slot can take advantage of Harrison.

But his upside is absolutely tremendous. At the end of the day, Harrison is a heartbreaker in the heart of the Alabama defense, and his naked aggression will give the Tide defense a physical mean streak like the one departed linebacker Ryan Anderson contributed to the Tide’s swagger.

Hootie Jones (Sr) – Strong Safety

2016 stats: 20 tackles, 15 solo tackles, 5 passes broken up

Hootie Jones is on the field for one reason: laying the lumber. In run support, he is an absolutely beast, attacking downhill with velocity and blowing up opposing running backs in a way they are sure to remember after the game.

As good as Jones has been as a bit player and run supporter, he has been, at times, a liability in pass defense. That’s not a good look for a safety in Saban’s defense, as the system depends on versatile safeties who can manage all responsibilities at a high level. But the 6-2, 215-pound junior’s upside has made him an integral part of the Tide’s run-stopping juggernaut, as he simply blows up opposing running games with ferocity and velocity. While not expected to be a starter at strong safety (Harrison commands that role), Jones can fit in any number of other positions aside from spelling Harrison: he should be the starter at Money when Bama goes with six defensive backs, and even star if the Tide wants a heavier Nickel package.

Regardless of where he fits in, Jones will be counted upon as a salty veteran who brings an unquestionably physical presence to the Tide’s elite safety corps. As Bama’s primary enforcer at safety, Jones will need to continue to terrorize opposing running backs if Alabama is to remain the league’s best defense.

The Reserves

Deionte Thompson (RS Jr) – Free Safety

2016 stats: 9 tackles

Most fans of Alabama football aren’t yet familiar with Deionte Thompson, but this season may see his star finally rise as a major contributor as a reserve free safety. The 6-1, 194-pound junior has always had the physical skills to play the position in Tuscaloosa. However, as is often the case, it took time for him to learn the nuances and responsibilities inherent in Saban’s complex system. Throughout Saban’s tenure in T-town, it has been characteristic for even the most highly-touted defensive backs to learn for two years before seeing the bulk of their playing time. Thompson falls into that category, but the time for him to grow into his role is upon him.

While maybe not an athletic freak like the first-stringer Fitzpatrick, Thompson can hold his own against SEC competition physically. He has good speed and quickness, strong ball awareness, and with another year in the system, should have an increased knowledge of how the system works. He’s not a bulky thudder of a safety like Fitzpatrick, Harrison, or Jones, but is rather agile and fleet of foot in transitioning with streaking receivers. Thompson, despite his limited role, did see playing time in 14 games last season, which speaks to his resiliency and ability given the starters ahead of him.

Thompson will get a chance to have an increased role as the top reserve free safety in the rotation, and the Tide will need him to be steady enough to handle the responsibility of such.

Jared Mayden (So) – Safety/ Money/ Corner

2016 stats: 1 tackle, 1 pbu

Jared Mayden was part of a banner year for defensive back recruiting in Tuscaloosa during the 2016 cycle. While he was primarily a corner in high school, Alabama recruited the big, speedy defensive back as a safety from Day 1. Fortunately, Mayden is the kind of “tweener” who can play any role in the secondary, much like Fitzpatrick. He has the size and run awareness to play safety, he has the coverage skills to play corner, and he is good enough at both that he can play any of the hybrid roles in Saban’s and Pruitt’s complex defensive scheme.

The 6-0, 197-pound banger spent most of his on-field time during his freshman season in mop-up duty, but even still, his diversity of talent was evident. He saw time both at Money rover and Star corner in Alabama’s nickel and dime packages, and he handled both with equal aplomb. Expect to see more of the same from Mayden, as Alabama needs, and fully utilizes, players who can play a variety of secondary roles, as it helps to further complicate quarterback reads of the Tide defense. Mayden will contribute this season when a fifth or sixth defensive back is needed, and in doing so, he will season himself for a future role ala Fitzpatrick.

Keaton Anderson (RS So) - Free Safety

2016 stats: 4 tackles, 1 fumble recovery

Though not as highly touted as some of Alabama’s other recent recruits, former linebacker prospect Keaton Anderson does offer a little hard-hitting depth at free safety to an Alabama secondary that is well-stocked at the position.

Anderson has the frame and aggressiveness of a linebacker, but he has leaned down to just over 200 pounds to improve his agility and speed. While still not a threat to unseat Fitzpatrick or Thompson at the head of the depth chart,the 6-1, 201-pound sophomore earned his stripes for his naked aggression as a special teams stalwart during the 2016 season. He hasn’t had a huge role on the Tide defense in his limited time on campus (he redshirted in 2015 and was strictly a special teamer last season), he does offer solid run support as a thumper. His coverage skills are something of a concern, as he has routinely been torched by the Tide’s incredible receiving corps this August. That said, the Tide is so loaded at receiver that Anderson’s struggles aren’t necessarily a damning indictment of his coverage skills.

Newcomers

Xavier McKinney (Fr) – Free Safety

2016 stats: none

Probably the most likely Tide newcomer to see on-field reps this season is Xavier McKinney, a 6-1, 197-pound strong safety. McKinney, a four-star recruit from Georgia, was highly-touted coming out of high school, and as an early enrollee at the Capstone, he has leveraged the opportunity to grab the attention of the coaching staff with his ability and work ethic.

McKinney has a familiar skill set: he has 4.59 speed in the 40, he hits like a ton of bricks over the middle, and he’s as sure a tackler as one is likely to see in a true freshman. His style of play is reminiscent of two former Tide greats in Mark Barron and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. Not just anybody can earn a comparison to those current NFL stalwarts, but McKinney deserves the hype. He will be the Tide free safety of the future, and he has everything the coaching staff looks for in evaluating talent for the position. Because of his speed, he will stick at free safety. But he hits hard enough and is a sure enough tackler to play at strong if the need should ever arise.

McKinney is one of those rare freshman defensive backs who will see the field despite his relative inexperience simply because he’s too talented to sit. Expect big things from him as he begins what will be an illustrious career in crimson and white.

Daniel Wright (Fr) – Strong Safety

2016 stats: non

With the hype dished towards McKinney, and to a lesser extent Townsend, Daniel Wright is sometimes forgotten in the hubbub. But don’t sleep on the 6-1, 185-pound Wright. While he is currently playing in a corner’s body (Scott Cochran will surely change that), don’t let that fool you: Wright is a head-thumper from the get-go. Though he’s a good 20 pounds lighter than the average SEC safety, that hasn’t stopped him from earning a reputation as a hitter on the practice field, as the young defensive back doesn’t shy away from contact.

Another early enrollee, Wright has all the measurables on looks for in a Saban safety: he has great ball skills which allow him to make explosive plays, he has workable (if not sizzling) speed (4.71 in the 40), has great closing speed, and has the technical components to work his way into an eventually larger role in the Tide defense. Specifically, Wright has demonstrated very solid footwork for a freshman, good natural hip fluidity, and great playmaking intuition.

Like many great defensive backs before him, Wright will need time to learn the system before he can flourish in it. Don’t expect to see a great deal from the freshman in 2017, barring injury apocalypse. But in time, he will be a strong candidate to contribute, and possibly start, for Nick Saban at strong safety.

Chadarius Townsend (Fr) – Strong Safety/ Wide Receiver

2016 stats: none

Chadarius Townsend is a bit of a mystery: he came to the Tide as one of the top-ranked athletes in the Class of 2017, though many labeled him a jack of all trades, master of none. That assessment, however, underestimates the pure, raw physical attributes of Townsend, as he is a superior athlete who needs only to find his role on the Tide roster to become a breakout star.

The 6-0, 191-pound Townsend was a high school running back primarily, but as Saban often does, he set his sights in the spring on turning the uber-talented Townsend into a defensive back. As a former running back, Townsend isn’t afraid of contact. In fact, he seems to embrace it. He has extremely quick feet, and has demonstrated good awareness for a player only now learning the finer points of defensive back play. Townsend is currently listed as a wide receiver on the Tide depth chart, but given the glut of talent ahead of him, it’s not totally out of the questions to expect him to begin to see time as a defensive back once several other young receivers get reps and cement their respective claims to playing time .

While it may be a stretch to think Townsend will be a steady contributor at strong safety this year, especially considering the similarity of his still-raw game to players like Harrison and Jones who are above him on the non-existent depth chart, Townsend will start his trajectory along the same path those starters followed as freshman.

In a perfect world, Townsend would take a redshirt in 2017 while he learns the finer points of the safety position in Saban’s system, then emerge at a time when the side defensive backfield will be particularly young and inexperienced. That would mark his best route to playing time, as the logjam at receiver will be difficult for him to break through early in his career. If he wants to make an impact early, safety may be the best position for him. He has the frame to pack on another 20 pounds of good weight, and once Scott Cochran get done with him, he has the opportunity to be another in a line of physical, hard-nosed safeties dating back to Mark Barron.

While a lack of depth is never a positive thing for a team running the rigors of the SEC schedule, Alabama faithful can take comfort in knowing that at least the safety ranks are well-stocked with talented, veteran returning stars and a passel of hungry upstarts. Alabama has probably the top starting safety tandem in the country in Fitzpatrick and Harrison, and the versatility of the safety corps allows Saban and Pruitt to alternate personnel to get the absolute best combination of defensive backs on the field in any given situation.

Fitzpatrick and Harrison could finish the season as All-Americans and early-round NFL Draft picks. But behind them is a talented, hungry group of reserves who make the safety rotation the deepest single unit on the Tide defense. With that benefit to build upon, Saban’s relatively new starters in the front seven will have the benefit of excellent support while they learn the ropes.

Projected Depth Chart

Free Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Deionte Thompson, Jared Mayden, Xavier McKinney, Keaton Anderson

Strong Safety: Ronnie Harrison, Hootie Jones, Daniel Wright

Money: Deionte Thompson, Jared Mayden, Xavier McKinney