It’s hard to argue that of all the positions where Nick Saban has had an impact, none have loomed as large than those players at safety. Since 2007, every year a Nick Saban safety has been either an All-SEC pick, an All-American pick, or both.
It’s a group that has given you Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Xavier McKinney, Eddie Jackson, and Minkah Fitzpatrick just to name a few. But what about those guys who were outstanding in their own right and would be legendary — or at least fan favorites — at any other program in any other era?
These are our picks.
Robert Lester, Strong Safety
Before there was Eddie Jackson, there was Robert Lester — the original all-motor athlete that just seemed to always be near the play...or making them.
The 6’2”, 200-pound Lester was just a 3-star out of Foley. Most of his offers came from coastal programs, mid-majors, and down-on-their luck P5 teams. However, three schools came sniffing around Foley that really elevated his stock in the eyes of recruiting services: Oklahoma, Clemson, and Alabama. There was no serious question as to where Lester would land, however. And, as a true freshman, Lester played in 8 games for UA in both the defensive backfield and special teams, including the BCS National Championship game.
In 2010, his first year as a starter, Alabama fans had to be wondering why this guy wasn’t starting alongside Mark Barron earlier. That season, Lester racked up 52 tackles (3.5 TFL), a sack, recovered a fumble, and was second in the nation with a jaw-dropping 8 interceptions. That tied Harry Gilmer for second-most in Alabama history. Despite that production, he did not sniff an All-American team, and only earned a second-team All-SEC nod.
The following season, Lester again was a producer and started all 13 games. He broke up 3 passes, picked off another two, blocked a field goal, had 39 tackles (1.5 TFL), and forced a fumble. Again, Lester took home no hardware.
In 2012, as a senior playing in all 14 games, Lester was again a monster. He recorded another 48 tackles (1.5 TFL), broke up four passes, and picked off four more passes. Once again, Lester was overlooked. He earned no AA nods, and just like 2010 was just a second-team All-SEC pick.
Lester was remarkably healthy, and played in all but four-games in a four-year career. He was even more productive, finishing his career with 7.5 TFL, 147 total tackles, had 7 PBUs, a FF, a FR, a sack, a blocked field goal, and had 14 total interceptions. Those 14 picks place him 5th in Alabama history, tied with Kermit Kendrick and George Teague.
What a beast.
Runner Up: Vinnie Sunseri
So, you say you like in-the-box big hitters with a nose for the ball, ones who take glee in punishing ball carriers? Then friends, look no further than the Honky Badger, Vinnie Sunseri. Though his career was derailed by injuries that made him leap to the NFL before he was ready, during his two years as a starter Sunseri was a terror both in the defensive backfield and on special teams. He recorded 105 tackles, picked off four passes, notched 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 5 PBUs, recovered a fumble, and took two ducks to the house.
What a fun player.
Rashad Johnson, Free Safety
See what we said above about Robert Lester? Well, before there was even a Robert Lester, there was a Rashad Johnson.
The 5’11, 180-pound kid out of Sulligent is the definition of a diamond in the rough. Only two teams had interest in him, Tennessee and Alabama....and only one offered, that probation-saddled, sad Crimson Tide team. Fortunately, his lack of options, coupled with elite coaching, would work out well for everyone.
Rashad Johnson became the model as to what every Alabama free safety thereafter would look like: a player with cornerback skills, an instinctive knack for the ball, strong tackling ability, and very good skills with the ball in the air. A three-year starter, Johnson played in all 38 games for the Crimson Tide. As a true freshman in 2006, he showed some flashes of his outstanding tackling ability — and even platooned at kick returner, but was largely a non-entity at safety.
However, when Nick Saban arrived in 2007, Johnson thrived. Given free reign to roam the defense, Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew on a very weak defense. That season he recorded 94 tackles, 5.5 TFL, picked up a sack, and notched 6 interceptions. He was Alabama’s leading tackler and led the Tide in interceptions. The following year, with a little more support, he was just as productive — picking up 89 tackles, 2 more sacks, and another 5 interceptions. For his career, Johnson returned two interceptions for scores.
His defining moment came in Alabama’s first Game of The Century, on the road against No. 8 LSU for the Crimson Tide in 2008. On a day where the defenses would play outstanding and the ball security be sloppy, Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew. He picked off Jarrett Lee three times. The first set up Alabama inside the LSU 15 yards, for Alabama’s first touchdown. The second was a pick six. And the last one sealed the game, intercepting Lee in the endzone in overtime. 27-21, Good Guys and an all-but certain date with destiny in the SEC Championship, Alabama’s first in almost a decade.
But, Johnson was much more than just that game. In three years (and, really, mainly over two seasons) he had 216 tackles, 12 TFL, 2 scores, 2 sacks, and an obscene 11 picks — and all of those 11 picks came in two seasons, but were still enough to tie him for 10th on Alabama’s all-time list.
Johnson never made an All-American team, though his play warranted it certainly. He did take home back-to-back First-Team All-SEC honors though.
Runner-Up, Justin Woodall
The physically dominant 6’2”, 205-pounder from Oxford had the world at his feet. He could have played MLB out out of high school, but instead he chose to ply his skills on the gridiron.
Playing mostly reserves and special teams in 2006 and 2007, Woodall was facing suspension for rumored PEDs and/or illegal drugs in 2009, an accusation that eventually evaporated. And, when he got the starting job in 2008, he became a quality starter in his own right. As a first-year starter, he had 47 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack, broke up eight passes and picked off another four, including a 74-yard TD return. The next year, he was just as productive: adding another 43 tackles, another three interceptions, and 2.5 more TFL.
Woodall’s ball skills and recovery speed were outstanding, and he was both a perfect fit and a joy to watch in Alabama’s “Right Safety and Left Safety”-scheme of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Unfortunately, the rumored issues with drugs that dogged Woodall all through college did eventually come back to bite him in MiLB, when he was suspended 50 games for PEDs and methamphetamines.
Though never an All-SEC or All-American player, Woodall was crucial to the Tide’s early success. He was simply a beautiful, poetic weapon of violence once given kinetic impetus...and easily one of my favorite players to watch on those emergent dynasty teams.
Shyheim Carter, Money/6th DB
Just as there was no serious question that Tony Brown would be our All-Underappreciated nickelback, nor is there any question that Shyheim is our 6th DB/dimeback.
Carter was an all-everything DB out of Louisiana, with offers from every major program. He was also easily the most athletic DB of the 2015 class, though perhaps not a SPARQ legend. But, for whatever reason, Shyheim was never quite able to make the jump to elite outside corner. However, what Carter did excel at would be the things that made him a steady contributor over the next four seasons. He is a very good tackler with an eye on the backfield. He is physical for his frame. And he has very good balls skills and length, if not overwhelmingly so. Over four years, Carter amassed 100 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 INTs, broke up 17 passes, picked off three more, forced two fumbles, and scored twice.
You’re not getting that much production out of most starting corners, much less a 5th/6th DB, and one who could start for just about any team in the country.