To close out our series of looking at all of Alabama’s incoming freshmen for this season, we’ll be breaking down the defensive backfield. The Tide lost both starting corners in Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at the end of the 2021 season, but return all four starters at safety, star, and money with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Brian Branch, and Malachi Moore. So while there is an opportunity to see the field in year 1 for some of these players, it’s going to be highly contested.
If you missed the previous installments for this recruiting class, here are the links to the other position groups covered so far:
QB and RBs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, and linebackers.
All heights, weights, and rankings come from the 247Sports composite (and noted changes on the RollTide.com roster for early enrollees), though I may mention other recruiting services if any of them have a particular noteworthy differing opinion.
Kite is a multi-sport, multi-position athlete who’s just one of those guys who’s naturally good at pretty much anything involving a ball and running. He’s a wide receiver, deep safety, and cornerback for his high school team as a two-year starter on both sides of the ball. And this is at Anniston, which, as a 4A school, is a couple of steps above tiny schools that make pretty much all of their players play both sides of the ball.
He’s expected to play safety at the college level, though many analysts think his body type projects better to cornerback.
Kite is a speedy, graceful athlete who excels as a single-high deep safety that has the freedom to chase ball carriers from sideline to sideline. His combination of speed and long arms lead to him being able to break on sideline passes from centerfield and knocking down passes he had no right being able to get to. He’s best in deep zones, but can absolutely come up and man cover a receiver in trips alignments that require him to come down closer to the line of scrimmage.
He’s pretty much the exact opposite of a headhunter as a tackler in run support, though that doesn’t mean he’s not a strong tackler. He’s very quick to break on outside running plays and will meet running backs head on to prevent them from turning up field. He’s a finesse tackler who generally does a good job of grabbing the ball carrier’s thighs and wrapping and rolling to make the tackle, but you’re never going to get those highlight ballistic missile tackles that get fans excited.
He’s also tougher to tackle than you’d expect from a skinny player, and will wiggle his way out of tackles to pick up big gains with his speed. It makes him a threat to take things to the house after interceptions and also a potential kick return candidate.
Kite doesn’t have the lateral quickness or aggressive mentality needed to play star/money for Alabama. And while I can understand some of the analysts thinking he may wind up as an outside cornerback, I think he’s best suited to playing free safety. It gives him room to chase things to the sidelines as well as making use of his free-roaming and ranging abilities to pick off passes and return them.
Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams are the Tide’s starters at safety this year, and I don’t see Kite as the kind of player to be an immediate impact on special teams as a gunner, so I fully expect a redshirt this year.
He’ll be in the thick of things to replace Battle in 2023, though, and will be the most natural deep free safety on the roster unless the Tide signs someone better in the 2023 class.
Despite Pope’s 3-star rating, he was offered by 36 programs, including Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida, LSU, and Michigan. Pope has played wide receiver, safety, and kick returner for a team that has won back-to-back 6A state championships in Georgia.
Pope is an explosive playmaker with good long speed and a knack for getting the ball. He reminds me a lot of Brian Branch’s high school analysis as a do-everything playmaker who best projects on defense but has tremendous hands and high-point ability as a receiver. Pope can play deep safety or in the box as needed. He’s got the speed to hang with receivers on deep balls and is a phenom in zones as a gambler that is a threat to pick off a ball on any given play.
As a tackler, he’s not the strongest guy or a big hitter, but he’s got no problem charging into the thick of the center of the line to try and make a stop.
He’s an accomplished kick returner as well. He’s got good speed to pull away from defenders and has enough short area agility to make a man miss in open field.
I think Pope can very easily play either safety spot, Star, or Money to fill out the depth chart wherever he’s needed. I think ultimately he can be best at strong safety as a guy who’s given the freedom to try and jump shorter routes in zone coverage.
Pope will find his way onto special teams this year, whether it’s as a gunner, blocker, or returner. That kind of speed, size, and energy just can’t be kept on the bench, even if there are no open spots on the defense.
Once those spots open up, I think Pope will be a front runner and has a good shot of becoming a fixture for a couple of years as a starting safety or Star for the Tide.
Fegans is another DB with a lot of championship experience, as he won the 6A championship with Oxford in 2019 and won the 7A championship with Thompson after transferring to the state powerhouse as a senior. He’s spent three seasons winning awards and being named to All-State teams as a cornerback, though he’s also doubled as a running back for most of his career.
He’s a muscular, well-built player with great size for a defensive back, and is listed at 6’2” 185 on Alabama’s roster after enrolling in January.
Fegans is a tremendous press-man cornerback who’s at his best lined up right on the receiver, disrupting his release, and mirroring him immediately after. He’s got quick feet for someone of his size, and can keep up with receivers trying to break in on him with slants or can stay with someone running an outside comeback. He wasn’t really ever tested deep, so I don’t have a good feel for his long speed down the sidelines.
He’s a great run support player who sheds blocking receivers like a fur coat in an Alabama summer, and then displays consistent wrap-up tackling technique to bring ballcarriers to the ground without giving up much extra yardage.
Fegans is, without a doubt, an outside cornerback in Alabama’s defense. He’s basically the prototype as someone who’s great at press, can stay with his man around the sidelines, and is a strong outside run defender.
I think he needs some time in strength and conditioning to get his size/speed right for the college game, so I don’t really expect to see him much this year unless he works his way in as a gunner. I think he could definitely follow the career path of someone like Josh Jobe, though, as a guy that’s a primary reserve for a couple of seasons and works his way into an eventual starting job if he sticks it out and fends off any talented newcomers in the future.
Earl Little Jr.
Little is one of the most college-prepared prospects in this class as a 3-year starter in the defensive backfield for American Heritage, where he was coached by the older Patrick Surtain. His dad, Earl Little, was also 9-year NFL veteran, so Little has all kinds of pro tutelage in his background.
Add in the fact that he’s had a lot of high school success with both track and soccer, and you have a well-rounded, well-taught, college-ready athlete.
What Little lacks in size, he makes up for in sheer fieriness. He’s an instinctual, aggressive, and handsy player with the fleet-of-foot quickness to be an absolute menace all over the football field. Seriously, if you watch this guy’s highlights, just take one watch-through with just looking at his feet. That level of footwork is rarely seen in football players.
He’s an exceptional cover guy out of the slot and will erase anyone willing to line up on the line of scrimmage in press coverage before sticking to them on pretty much any route they want to try to run. In zone, his NFL mentoring clearly shows, as he displays a natural understanding of passing zones between other defenders as well as the quick processing couple with quick feet to not only break on routes, but even be able to bait QBs into throwing passes they shouldn’t.
He’ll probably get his fair share of interference and holding calls in college, but he’ll more than make up for it with how many times he’ll tip away or strip out a ball on a 3rd down slant at the last second.
For all of his coverage ability, though, his feistiness against the run is even more impressive. Ball carriers can’t juke this guy, even when coming one on one at him with a whole head of steam. He’ll missile headfirst into lead blockers, bounce off of three guys, and then wind up dragging a running back to the ground in the middle of a bunch of 300+ pound blockers. And he’ll be doing his absolute best to punch the ball out the whole time.
With that said, he’s still a 170-pound guy, and that’s generous. While his tackling technique usually starts out right, most of his tackles wind up as more of the “by-any-means-necessary” variety. His man will go to the ground, but you never know if it’s going to be a highlight hit or him getting dragged around for a few years.
Little is, without a doubt, a perfect fit at Star for Alabama. His combination of quickness, aggressive play, instincts, and tackling-machine mentality make him perfect for the hybrid DB role that is becoming the lynchpin position of the Saban/Golding defensive scheme.
Brian Branch and Malachi Moore are both juniors, and Little is only 170 pounds. He needs this season to add about 10-15 pounds to his frame in Alabama’s S&C program. If one or both of Branch and Moore don’t turn to the NFL after this season, I expect them to move back and take over the safety spots in 2023, leaving the door open for Little to take over the Star position as a sophomore.
In the meantime, he’s going to make an impact play or two as a true freshman somewhere on special teams, whether it’s blocking gunners, being a gunner, or blocking a kick.
Eli Ricks was once a 5-star, top-15 prospect out of California who played at multiple powerhouse programs in Mater Dei and IMG Academy and was comped to Richard Sherman as a surefire first round NFL draft pick type of prospect with multiple state championship titles under his belt.
He immediately won a starting job at LSU in 2020, and lived up to all of the expectations, earning nods as a 1st team Freshman All-American and a 3rd team All-American while racking up 9 pass deflections and 4 interceptions in only 10 games.
Ricks picked up where he left off, looking every part the NFL cornerback on a dysfunctional LSU team, but wound up having shoulder surgery in early October, ending his sophomore season before it really got started.
He transferred to Alabama as soon as the season ended and has enrolled, with Nick Saban saying that he’s expected to make an immediate impact for the Tide and he’s looked the part after his first practice with the team.
Ricks is one of the most talented DBs at playing the ball in the air as I’ve seen come through college football in a long time. He’s at his very best when he can line up on an island on the far side of the field, run press-man coverage, and run downfield with a guy and cut him off at the sideline for a leaping interception.
He’s got the ridiculously long arms that help him to break up those deep passes, and that extra bit of leeway manifests with him being totally comfortable being able to run deep with a guy and still track the ball. He’s also great at using that same reach to run with guys on slants and crossing routes and breakup passes against faster guys over the middle. He can get caught being over-aggressive on press coverage at times, and a savvy WR can take a step back before releasing and get him off balance — this is particularly a problem if his receiver happens to be running a bubble screen.
In zone, he’s a bit of a gambler. He mostly played a deep cover 3 or quarters at LSU, and while he was able to jump his fair share of passes, he was also a bit susceptible to some utter coverage busts. Although, to be fair, it’s hard to tell how many were his zones or other players, and we all know how well coached that squad was overall...
In run support, Ricks is clearly an SEC-level tackler that can take on blocks and has no issues putting his shoulder pads into the thighs of a running back to stop him in his tracks.
Alabama typically asks their outside corners to run a cloud-quarters sideline coverage with press-bail technique, and that’s pretty much what Ricks did at LSU. It should be a seamless transition to Alabama’s defense as an outside guy, and he played both left and right in his time at LSU.
Unless Ricks comes in with a sense of entitlement or something (I’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest this is the case), I fully expect him to win the starting outside cornerback job for the Tide this year, and he’ll most likely be a one-and-done exit to the NFL.