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Alabama Crimson Tide 2021 Fall Football Preview: Safeties

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The last line of defense just might be the best of a stacked Tide defense

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As with the cornerbacks, the safety position is one that Nick Saban has always displayed a special affinity for coaching, and he’s produced NFL talent after NFL talent at that position over the last 13 years. In 2020, Alabama was forced to break in an entire new group of starters in the back end of the secondary. And while that led to some early growing pains, it pays off in 2021, as the Tide returns all of it’s starters and didn’t lose a single player from last year’s depth chart.

Alabama typically uses two deep safeties as well as a “Star” or slot corner. In the past, I’ve typically considered the Star to be more of a cornerback. However, the last two years under Pete Golding, the Star has crossed over with safety more and more as the Tide has transitioned to something more similar to a 3-3-5 defense.

The Returning Contributors

#9- Jordan Battle (Jr) 6’1” 210

Battle got on the field early in 2019 as a true freshman, garnering some playing time with the starters when injuries made a path for him for a game. He generally flashed any time he took the field, and then won the starting job in 2020.

Battle earned a reputation as a hard-hitting player from deep in the backfield as he racked up 66 tackles— good for 3rd on the team. An excellent tackler and a solid cover guy with another year of experience, Battle is now expected to take the next step and become a defensive leader and a star player. He’ll just have to clean up the targeting penalties.

#29- DeMarcco Hellams (Jr) 6’1” 208

A D.C. native from the same class as Battle, DeMarcco Hellams didn’t quite get the immediate playing time that his partner did. He played a good bit on special teams as a freshman, but lost the chance to win the other starting job going into 2020.

As time went on, though, Hellams got more and more chances. By the final three games of the year, Hellams had taken over as a full time starter alongside Battle. He’s a big, rangey guy with a lot of energy and desire to tackle folks into the ground. Hellams has seemed to have held on to the job, and is projected to get the start in 2021 as he continues to refine his pass coverage.

#13- Malachi Moore (So) 6’0” 190

One of the surprises of the 2020 fall camp, Moore arrived on campus and then won the starting job as the Star out of nowhere to open the season. Rather than looking like a lost freshman, Moore immediately jumped in and started making an impact, grabbing multiple interceptions in his first few games, including a crucial one against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Moore was named to pretty much every Freshman All-American and Fresham All-SEC team around, and is already getting some preseason All-SEC hype. He was a great tackler and sticky cover man all year long, though he did miss Alabama’s final three games with an injury.

#14-Brian Branch (So) 6’0” 190

Branch enrolled early in 2020, and many expected the electric true freshman to jump in and immediately win a starting safety job due to his recruiting comparisons to Eddie Jackson as a ballhawk and playmaker. He seemed to be on track to win the Star job in the summer until he was derailed by injury or Covid, and was passed by Malachi Moore.

Branch carved out a role as the Dime back on passing downs, though, and made his first real impact against Mississippi State’s air raid offense.

When Moore went out at the end of the season, Branch stepped in against Florida, and the true freshman was tasked with covering Uber-athlete Kyle Pitts all game long. He gave up a couple of well-contested catches, but otherwise played excellently. He continued a high level of play all the way through the college football playoffs.

The Returning Depth

#3- Daniel Wright (RSr) 6’1” 195

Wright has been a special teams ace for Alabama for years, and in 2020, the senior finally got his shot to start. While he played with a lot of energy and effort, he also played a very high-risk game. In any given game, he might get a pick-six as well as give up two long touchdowns. He was targeted early and often and drew the ire of most of the Alabama fanbase. While he did improve his consistency throughout the season, he was eventually supplanted as the starter by Hellams.

#11- Kristian Story (So) 6’1” 209

The former QB was name Mr. Alabama in high school as he made a name for himself playing both offense and defense. Story is a tremendous athlete and an instinctual playmaker, but he was always going to need a couple of years to learn how to be a full-time safety at the college level.

The Newcomers

#27-Devonta Smith (Fr) 6’0” 185

No, not that DeVonta Smith. This one is a true freshman from Ohio that Alabama managed to wrest away from Ohio State. He’s a versatile secondary player who could play safety, Star, or corner at the college level, and has thus far been seen with the safeties most often. He’s an aggressive, speedy player, but will likely need to add a little weight if he wants to fit the mold for an Alabama safety.

#49- Kaine Williams (Fr) 6’2” 203

Kaine Williams is a bit of a throwback strong safety type that some thought might even grow into a linebacker. He’s an adept blitzer who tends to leave a trail of chaos behind him, and will remind many Alabama fans of Mark Barron. He’s obviously got a long ways to go to get to that level, but has potential to be a tone-setter for the Tide defense in the future.

Depth Chart

Free Safety- DeMarcco Hellams, Daniel Wright, Devonta Smith

Strong Safety- Jordan Battle, Kristian Story, Kaine Williams

Star- Malachi Moore, Brian Branch

These positions are a bit fluid in Pete Golding’s scheme. The free and strong safety labels are fairly archaic, and the two positions are basically interchangeable. On top of that, either Moore or Branch are likely the top reserves to Battle in case of injury.

With Hellams, Battle, Moore, and Branch, Alabama really has 4 players who are legitimate difference-maker type talent for 3 starting positions. While I think Branch is, in name, going to be behind Moore, I fully expect him to get significant playing time this year as the primary backup to all three spots, the 6th DB in dime packages, and a possible starter at Star depending on certain matchups.

I am beyond excited to see this quartet in 2021, and can’t wait to see how Pete Golding utilizes them all.