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Alabama 2022 Spring Football Preview: Safe and steady, the safety group looks to be a strength for the Tide

Jordan Battle, Brian Branch, and DeMarcco Hellams headline a veteran group on the back end of the defense

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

While Alabama typically deals with pretty heavy roster attrition at pretty much every position group every single year due to the constant stream of early NFL departures (Roll Tide), Nick Saban hit the jackpot going into 2022 with every single starter at the three safety spots, plus a former starter, all returning for their junior and senior seasons.

This group, along with the pass rush, is expected to be the strength of the time and provide a lot of steadying veteran leadership and experience to guide the Alabama defense to great things this season.

And, yes, I am including the Star, or slot corner, in the safety group. Since Pete Golding’s arrival as defensive coordinator, this position has been more of a hybrid safety than a cornerback. However, there’s still bound to be some crossovers in the guys playing safety and the ones playing outside cornerback.

The Departed

5th year senior Daniel Wright is believed to have technically been able to return for a 6th year, but the vet decided to move on and take a shot at making an NFL roster. Wright was maligned as a starter in 2020 before being benched, and ultimately found a decent role for himself in 2021 as a dime linebacker where he could utilize his aggressive tendencies to jumping short routes and making quick, explosive tackles.

The Returning Starters

#9 Jordan Battle

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The senior will be entering his third straight season as a starter and his fourth year as a major contributor on Alabama’s defense. While Battle hasn’t displayed the wow-factor speed and athleticism we’ve seen from some superstar safeties in the past, he has been almost totally mistake-free, is a sure tackler, and a strong leader. And when the game was on the line against Auburn, Battle was the one who drug the running back out of bounds against the man’s will to give Bryce Young enough time to go tie up the game.

The biggest thing for Battle in 2022 will be to show the world that he can consistently be an impact player as well as a security blanket on the back end.

#2 DeMarcco Hellams

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Hellams came to Alabama in the same class as Battle, but has had a bit of a different career. He didn’t really see the field as a freshman and was a backup to Daniel Wright in 2020. He eventually replaced Wright, but was re-replaced and then re-re-replaced Wright throughout the season. He was extremely inconsistent in coverage, but unleashed a few bone-shattering tackles at times to get fans excited.

He won the full time starting job in 2021 and was nothing short of excellent, but also missed chunks of time in the early to middle parts of the season before having a very strong finish. He’s a big-bodied, big-hitter with speed and coverage skills. Hopefully in his next full season as a starter, he can put it all together with consistent availability and play.

#14 Brian Branch

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A fringe 5-star prospect two classes ago, Brian Brach made waves in fall camp going into 2020 as a true freshman who was likely to win the starting job at Star. He wound up getting hurt/Covid/Undisclosed and lost ground in camp. However, he made it onto the field against the Mike Leach Air Raid with Miss State that year and played phenomenally. He continued to rotate in dime packages throughout the year, and wound up as the starter at Star by the SEC Championship game when Malachi Moore was hurt (more on him below).

He and Moore opened 2021 as co-starters, but ultimately injury and inconsistent play from Moore led to Branch being the guy for most of the second half of the season.

While he was often tasked with the impossible (covering Kyle Pitts, trying to defend endzone fades against Jalen Wydermeyer, covering deep against Ainias Smith, and defending Brock Bowers), he stepped up to the task more often than not in coverage while also being an absolute wrecking force at blowing up wide receiver screens and perimeter runs.

Once he adds some turnover production to his resume (and it’s there, the dude had a highlight reel of 1-handed catches and interceptions in high school), Branch could very well be a fast-rising player who is seen as potential first-round talent.

The Enigma

#13 Malachi Moore

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

What to even think about this guy? Moore was a relatively unheralded recruit who seemed to come out of nowhere to win the starting job at Star as a true freshman in 2020. He made some great plays throughout the season, including a couple of game-sealing interceptions against Georgia and Texas A&M, and impressed the coaches with both his coverage ability and tenacity in run support. He was an easy choice as a Freshman All-American, despite missing the postseason with an injury.

In 2021, though, Moore significantly regressed. Though he did deal with some sort of nagging injury through the final third of the season, he still played in all 15 games with very limited production. He was subject to a number of coverage busts early in the season as well as less-than-enthusiastic tackling before Brian Branch was given the full reign as starter.

Moore returns this year looking to finally stay healthy and reclaim a role in the secondary.

Returning Depth

#11 Kristian Story

The former Mr. Alabama quarterback enters his third year in the program after making the switch from a do-it-all athlete to a dedicated safety. Story is a 215-pound heavy hitter with dangerous speed and the ability with the ball in his hands to make any loose ball a defensive touchdown (he did just that in the A-Day game last year).

He’s obviously a depth piece behind Battle and Hellams but was a mainstay on special teams and clear second on the depth chart, and so he is likely thought of as the next starter in 2023.

#20 Kaine Williams

Another big safety with a rangey 6’2” frame and a penchant for big hits, Williams redshirted as a freshman last year. Unfortunately, he changed his jersey from the unequivocally great #49 to a more nondescript #20, so I’m not sure what to think about his decision making.

All jokes aside, Williams was a highly regarded recruit a year ago, and fits the mold of a hard-hitting deep guy like Battle and Hellams, and is likely to be the 2nd on the depth chart with Story.

#27 Devonta Smith

As a fringe 3-4 star recruit, the only reason most Alabama fans noticed Smith’s presence in the loaded 2021 recruiting class was his sharing of the name with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Even his roster page has all of his receiving stats listed from 2017-2021, despite him only arriving in Tuscaloosa last year (seriously... I’m waiting to see how long before some intern catches the mistake on the official roster).

While he didn’t play any defensive snaps as a freshman, he was a mainstay on special teams and a recipient of Alabama’s special teams player of the week award

Smith was viewed as a Star candidate as a recruit, but mostly worked with the deep safeties in his freshman year. He’s a shifty zone-cover guy who can really move to any defensive back position as needed, so don’t look too much into where he’s listed.