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2018 Alabama Football Unit Previews: Cornerbacks

How will Alabama replace so many lost starters?

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the 2017 season, Alabama saw starting corners Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace, and Tony Brown all graduate and head to the pros. Going into the 2018 season with a totally green secondary is enough to give any watcher of the 2014 season a little bit of PTSD.

However, this year looks to be a little different, with a wealth of talent and even solid game experience vying to become the next wave of elite Alabama secondaries.

The STAR of the summer

Shyheim Carter

The junior cornerback was considered an athlete who was just as likely to play receiver in college as he was defensive back. An athletic playmaker with the ball in his hands and a compact body type, coupled with his exceptional footwork ability, Carter quickly locked into the role of STAR as a true freshman and was generally one of the first off the bench in blowout games.

As a sophomore, he didn’t really get any more media attention, but he slowly got rotated in more and more often, sometimes appearing with the starter in a 6-defensive back set. After senior Tony Brown was burned for an 80-yard touchdown in the second half of the national championship game, Carter was quietly subbed in as the Tide’s STAR (the announcers never even noticed) and finished out the game without allowing any big plays.

Even as late as this spring, he was largely a forgotten name as transfer Saivion Smith and Trevon Diggs got most of the scrutiny to become new starters while fans also waited for freshman Pat Surtain to show up in the summer.

Then, over the course of summer and the start of fall camp, Carter has really broken out into the scene, drawing significant praise from Nick Saban. At this point, it’s pretty much set in stone that he’ll be a starter at outside corner, and will move inside to STAR in nickel packages.

The next up

In the modern era of offense, your top three cornerbacks are all going to be considered starters, if not totally in name.

Trevon Diggs

The junior from Maryland is the younger brother of one of the top receivers in the NFL, Stefon Diggs. Trevon actually started out as wide receiver at Alabama as well, and got quite a bit of playing time as a freshman backup while also becoming the starting punt returner. While he didn’t make much of an impact, his sizable role as a freshman demonstrated just how much Nick Saban trusted him.

Last season, he swapped over to defensive back. He opened 2017 as the starter at outside corner, but quickly learned he had not yet mastered the position and was benched in favor of senior Levi Wallace.

In year three, the athletic and versatile junior is looking to reclaim his starting role with an extra year of experience in the transition under his belt.

Saivion Smith

Smith was a top recruit out of IMG Academy before enrolling at LSU and becoming a starter as a true freshman. He wound up having to leave the team for a year at junior college, and is now at Alabama. He’s a big, physical corner who excels at press coverage and has starting experience in the SEC already. We haven’t seen much of him yet, but most expect him to lock up the third cornerback spot.

The contenders

Jared Mayden

The junior out of Oklahoma was part of the same class as Carter. I hesitate to mention him here, as he’s been playing safety all spring and summer and seems to have locked down a back-up role there. However, notes from those who have watched the Tide’s practices say that he’s playing a similar role as Minkah Fitzpatrick did last year: safety in base formations and then moving up to STAR in nickel packages.

He’s a rangey, long-armed, and fast athlete who’s shown exceptional ball skills, both deep down the field and around the sidelines. He’s added weight over the last year and is now built more solidly to be able to tackle like a safety. There’s a good chance he’s the 6th defensive back in Dime, regardless of what position he lines up in.

Nigel Knott

Rounding out the trio of defensive backs to commit within a few days of each other 2 and a half years ago, Knott joins Mayden and Carter, but had to take a redshirt year his first year on campus. He made a name for himself with some RIDICULOUS SPARQ numbers, such as a sub 4.4 forty, and 47-inch vertical, and a sub 4.0s shuttle. However, he came in as a freshman under 170 pounds, and has been slowly bulking up since. He’s up to 183, according to the media guide, but is still a small guy, and always will be.

His athleticism is undeniable, but thus far it hasn’t been enough to overcome his size limitations and polish as a defensive back. He was solidly on the second team during the A-Day game, but definitely had his fair share of struggles, including getting absolutely trucked by a running back at one point.

As of now, he looks like a depth option, but he has both athleticism and experience in the program, if he can get a lightbulb to come on.

The Reinforcements

Eddie Smith

The small, underrated freshman out of Louisiana was one of the last additions to the 2018 class. He was considered an “athlete”, and most of his high school highlights were at receiver, running back, and kick returner. He’s extremely fast and absolutely electric with the ball in his hands. Like Knott, he’s a little on the light side and will likely need to bulk up his freshman year.

Jalyn Armour-Davis

The freshman out of Mobile is a long-armed, speedy type who’s at his best on the outside in bump-n-run coverage. He was a little on the light side in high school, but came in over 180 pounds this summer, which was better than I expected. He’s not the most polished, but he’s got the athleticism and aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage to be a nightmare for opposing receivers in press coverage. He’s been seen taking reps with the second team outside corners already this summer.

Patrick Surtain, Jr.

And the real wild card of this group is the top-10, five-star freshman, who’s the legacy of NFL Hall of Fame cornerback, Patrick Surtain. At 6’2” 200, he’s a massive physical specimen of a cornerback with out-the-charts speed and athleticism. Mix that in with a dad that taught him many of the tricks of the trade of cornerback, and you’ve got one of the top prospects in the nation with no discernible weaknesses to his game.

If he manages to adapt to a new scheme and the college game quick enough while also displaying the consistency to gain Nick Saban’s trust, then he just may well wind up forcing his way into the starting lineup somehow or another.

Cornerbacks depth chart prediciton:

Left cornerback: Shyheim Carter, Saivion Smith, Nigel Knott

Right cornerback: Trevon Diggs, Patrick Surtain Jr., Jalyn Armour-Davis

STAR: Shyheim Carter, Jared Mayden, Eddie Smith

On one hand, you can be nervous about the total inexperience at such an integral position, but on the other, this year’s group has a combination of talent, athleticism, and experience that we just didn’t see in the 2013 and 2014 years.