In case you’ve missed it, we’ve spent the last few weeks taking an in-depth look at every newcomer for the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2021 recruiting class:
Like I said last week, this series of articles is looking a bit different this year. The onset of Covid-19 last spring left all of the Nike combines cancelled, so we wound up with absolutely no verified testing or SPARQ data. On top of that, most players wound up with shortened senior seasons, so there’s even fewer highlights than normal to look at.
Regardless, we’ll be breaking down all we can about each prospect and trying to project how they’ll fit on the Crimson Tide in years to come.
To close out the series, we’re finishing up with the back end of the defense. Alabama brought in a sizeable, elite crop of both corners and safeties, so this article is going to be a long one. While there are some defensive backs that are certain to be an outside corner and some that are surefire safeties, Nick Saban has a history of cross-training those positions in order to find players to work in the nickelback (or Star) hybrid role. So a lot of the recruits tend to be more amorphous “defensive backs”... kind of like Malachi Moore and Brian Branch in the 2020 class.
No this isn’t a “Leon Sandcastle” case with Smitty coming back to Alabama under a different alias. The 4-star defensive back out of Cincinnati was a one-time Ohio State commit that flipped to Alabama back over the summer. Though a borderline 3/4-star player, many of the recruiting beat reporters said over and over again leading up to the decommitment and flip that Saban and crew had put a major focus on Smith.
He’s a fairly lean, yet still muscled 185 pounds at 6’0”, which is pretty standard for many of the Tide’s cornerback recruits over the years.
Smith is more of a hybrid nickelback that can play some safety when needed. He’s at his best when he’s diagnosing and reacting to screens and outside run plays, and he’s a powerful, aggressive tackler for someone under 190 pounds. He can blow up a blocker and grab a tackle for loss on wide receiver screens, which will make him an asset against most modern college offenses.
He’s got good enough speed to drop deep and get to the sidelines as a free safety, and he’s quick enough to play the slot and shut down out-breaking routes. He’s also got a background as a wide receiver, so he’s got the hands to pick off a poorly thrown pass.
As a player, he’s very similar to the 2020 breakout freshman, Malachi Moore.
Smith is the perfect Star (nickel) corner in Alabama’s defensive scheme. Though he could transition to play safety, or even outside corner, I think his talents would best be utilized in the slot, where he can make tackles around the line of scrimmage.
I think it takes a few years for Smith to develop, but he’s got a good shot at winding up as the starting Star after Moore and Brian Branch move on to the NFL.
Though technically the 4th highest rated recruit of the class at #17 overall (which, isn’t that just ridiculous?), McKinstry was easily the most talked-about and probably the most important recruit for the Tide to sign. A local guy from Birmingham, it would have been a huge blow had Alabama lost out to Auburn or LSU on his recruitment, and “Kool-Aid” was pretty tight-lipped the entire time until his commitment to the Tide.
He’s a player that would be a 5-star recruit as a wide receiver and a 3-star recruit as a basketball player. In fact, after enrolling early in Tuscaloosa, McKinstry has already spent a good bit of time practicing with Nate Oats and the hoops squad.
McKinstry plays pretty much every position in the secondary as well as a full-time wide receiver. He’s got a short, choppy stride that helps him to slip his way in-between and around defenders as a ball carrier, and gives him the quick feet to stay right in a receiver’s face no matter the route as a cornerback.
His basketball background has given him a natural feel for getting in-between someone else and the ball for him to make a highlight play, and he’s got elite ball skills to turn even off-target balls into crazy leaping catches or interceptions.
And when he gets the ball? Look out, because everyone trying to tackle him is going to wind up going in circles trying to corral him.
He’s got a good bit of experience playing press coverage on the outside as well, which is rare enough for a player to be good at coming out of high school.
If he wants to play wide receiver, he’ll probably have a starting job in a year or two.
However, I think Saban will strongly suggest he play outside cornerback, as players with his combination of ball skills, leaping ability, balance, and quickness are few and far between, and can make a huge difference there.
Saban has already name dropped him as a guy that he wants to see how he does in the upcoming spring scrimmages, so don’t be surprised to see him competing for the spot vacated by Pat Surtain this offseason. Nick’s not shied away from putting in elite true freshmen as an outside corner over the past 10 years.
If it turns out he’s not quite ready this season, then I fully expect him to win the starting job after Josh Jobe graduates next year.
Once a tall, unrated wide receiver coming out of high school, Jackson worked his way through the JUCO ranks at Fort Scott and East Mississippi Community Colleges and made the position switch to cornerback. He quickly developed into a game-changing defensive back with his 6’3” frame to become the #4 overall JUCO player for 2021.
A lengthy player with scarecrow-like arms, Jackson is primarily a north and south sideline player with scary straightline speed that can lead to him breaking up deep shots with ease, or turning around and missiling into a running back on the sidelines for a bone crunching hit.
He doesn’t so much as tackle as he tries to fold the offensive player in half with a full-speed shot to the gut. It’s bad enough on running backs out of the backfield, but is absolutely lethal on skinny wide receivers trying to run a curl route on him when he’s backed off in a cover-3 zone.
While he’s best in that cover-3 deep zone, he’s also got experience coming up and pressing a man at the line of scrimmage (good luck getting past those arms), and can backpedal with more speed than many receivers have going forward.
Jackson is purely an outside corner in Alabama’s scheme, and he should be able to excel in a lot of the cloud coverages that Saban likes. His run support and deep ball prevention will be perfect for that.
I think that first and foremost, Jackson will absolutely be a headhunting punt coverage gunner who gets a LOT of big hits this year in that role.
As a defensive back, he’ll be in the mix to replace Surtain on the outside this season, though he’ll face a stiff group of competition in McKinstry, Jalyn Armour-Davis, and last year’s JUCO corner, Ronald Williams.
Ultimately, I think he stays as a special teams ace and depth for his career.
A big-bodied safety out of Louisiana, Williams has been gathering awards for his play since his sophomore year, and turned down a whole bunch of offers from powerhouse football programs to be one of the earliest commits to the Tide’s 2021 class. With his size, some think he sticks to free safety, some think he plays more of a box safety, and still others think he might could even become a true linebacker in the right scheme.
Williams is a bit of a throwback that will remind Alabama fans of former Tide players like Landon Collins and Mark Barron. He’s a big dude that hits like a truck, with most of his victims having visible whiplash as they’re driven into the dirt. He’s a versatile safety that plays both deep and up near the line of scrimmage, and is used generously as a blitzer to get him into the backfield and cause havoc.
Williams is definitely a safety, and he’s right in line with current starters Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams in terms of size and athleticism. He’ll also be a natural fit in the “Money” position, a specialized linebacker/safety hybrid role in dime packages.
I think it’ll be a year or two before he’s ready, but Williams does wind up becoming a valuable role player as the Money. He’ll also be in the competition for a full-time safety after Battle and Hellams leave.
Arnold is a fringe 5-star prospect who is actually rated the #25 overall player by 247’s internal rankings. He’s also a legit blue-chip basketball recruit who, so far, is planning to actually be a contributor on the Tide’s hoops team in the future. He was one of Alabama’s earliest targets for the class, but it took him well past the ESD to decide before eventually choosing Alabama on the original National Signing Day this February.
Arnold has the kind of elite game speed, athleticism, and pure playmaking ability that is going to make it very tough to keep him off the field. If the ball is in his hands, he IS going to score. Watching him juke, weave around defenders, and outrun everyone is like watching someone playing Madden with the CPU settings all turned down to 0.
As a defender, he’s a free-ranging deep safety who can cover both sidelines from the center of the field, and is a threat to leap up and over a receiver to makes a high-flying interception. On top of that, he’s a great tackler, and is one of those guys that is going to be superman-leaping over downed blockers to make tackles by any means necessary.
While he’d likely excel as a receiver or a corner, I think he’s best suited to be a deep safety. While Saban has leaned more toward left and right safeties over the last few years, he’s also went with a single-high free safety scheme in the past when the right players were in place (like HaHa Clinton-Dix), and Arnold is exactly the type of player that would have a scheme designed around him, not the other way around.
The safety spots are filled up with Battle and Hellams this season, but don’t be surprised if Arnold finds a way on the field as kick/punt return man.
And when Battle moves on to the pros? Arnold will be the replacement, and he’ll be on his way to an early departure to the NFL as well.
Long thought to be a lock to play for his home state at Mississippi State, Calloway was a middling 3-star player that saw his stock rise rapidly his senior season to wind up as a solid 4-star recruit while putting up great stats as a rusher, receiver, and defensive player. Most project him to wind up as a safety, though he could very well become a corner or switch to offense.
Despite his 210-pound size, Calloway has speedy roadrunner feet and is a bundle of nonstop energy that’s a lot of fun to watch. He can go from standing still to full speed in all of about 2 steps, and it leads to him blasting past everyone before they even have time to process and he’s already 10 yards away.
As a defensive back, zone coverage and undercutting routes across the middle is his specialty, and he’ll absolutely bait a QB and then take it to the house before anyone know what happened. He’s a big-hitting tackler, though not the most consistent tackler out there.
Honestly, I have no clue what the coaches are going to want to do with him. He might well wind up on offense, or they may decide to use his speed/size combination as a safety. Regardless, that kind of burst and speed is something that HAD to be recruited, and a position will be decided on later.
I think he’s probably going to bounce around position groups for a few years, and will have a chance to make an impact as an upperclassman if he focuses on a certain position.
If I HAD to make a guess, I think running back will actually be his best bet in the long run.