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Alabama 2018 Spring Football Preview: Safeties

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Who will fill in the shoes of the departed seniors at the back end of the defense?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Just like the cornerbacks, the safety group lost both starters from the 2017 season. As is always the case with a Nick Saban-led defense, the secondary is the most difficult position to break into with early playing time, as the mental responsibilities required to run his coverage schemes are quite high and the stakes are higher than any other position with a mistake.

The Departed

Minkah Fitzpatrick

Though really more of a cornerback in his senior year, Minkah was one of the best players in the Nick Saban era and will be a top-10 if not top-5 draft pick next month. He played safety sometimes and corner sometimes. He really just played defensive back, and moved to where he could make the most impact on any given play. His specific role probably won’t be replicated in the next iteration of the defense.

Ronnie Harrison

The junior was a multi-year starter and fierce, emotional player who brought a lot of fire to the defense. A big-bodied safety with some big-hitting ability, his tone-setting playstyle will definitely be missed.

Hootie Jones

The senior seemed like he was in the program for a decade. We kept expecting him to live up to the potential of his high school ranking, but he was solidly entrenched as a role player up until his senior year. He was a smart player with big-hitting ability, but had just enough coverage lapses to keep the fans constantly miffed at his play.

Returners

Deionte Thompson

Once a highly rated, lanky freshman who split his time with the receivers, the rising junior has filled out to become a confident, rangey safety who doubles as a heat-seeking missile in run support. After Hootie Jones missed the two playoff games to injury, Thompson stepped in and performed admirably.

Xavier McKinney

Wearing #25, the rising sophomore got a good bit of playing time in mop up duty as a true freshman. He’s a lengthy, solid player with imposing size for a safety to go along with impressive athleticism. He had some issues with form tackling as a freshman, but is in line to be at the top of the list this year.

Keaton Anderson

The junior came to Alabama as an undersized linebacker with a specialization in special teams. After being one of the top testers last spring in the team vertical and broad jumps, he dropped a few pounds and moved to safety, where he could use his athleticism and not be limited by his smaller stature.

Daniel Wright

Wright came in last year with McKinney as a skinny freshman from Florida. Despite his thin frame, he made a reputation for being a big-hitter with speed to boot on special teams. The younger brother of NFL safety Major Wright, he comes from a football family and wears #3. If he can put on a little weight to his frame, he’ll be right in the thick of the competition for the starting role.

The Pecking Order

This is purely my prediction, not a fact. Feel free to flame away in the comments. I may or may not respond.

Free Safety: Deionte Thompson, Daniel Wright

Strong Safety: Xavier McKinney, Keaton Anderson

The strong and free safety monikers are a bit nebulous here, as Nick Saban has always used his safeties more as a left and right than a true strong and free. There aren’t any newcomers coming in early, though Slade Bolden— a receiver/running back— has been spotted practicing some with the safeties. I think Deionte Thompson is about as close to a lock to be a starter as one can be. Saban had some glowing praises for his performance at the end of the season, and I see no reason to believe he won’t be at the top of the chart.

After that, I think that McKinney and Wright will be in a tight battle for the other safety spot, but ultimately McKinney wins out with the more prototypical size and well-rounded skills. Wright and Anderson will be the second grouping.

Despite the losses from last year’s starters, I think this year’s players have more potential to be an elite, playmaking unit than Harrison and Jones were.