After finishing off looking at the defensive line and linebackers over the last couple of weeks, we will be wrapping up the our Meet the New Guys series this week with the Tide’s incoming players in the secondary (plus a kicker!).
At Alabama, Nick Saban has consistently used a five-defensive back base defense ever since 2014, using two outside cornerbacks, two split safeties, and a Star, or nickel back, that has morphed over the years to become more of a strongside linebacker that also plays corner and safety.
With that, there’s often a lot of crossover between the three positions and what types of players wind up in what roles. I’ll do my best to mention where each of these players played in high school, what position the recruiting services ranked them at, and where I think they’ll fit best at Alabama.
Safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams have both graduated, while Star Brian Branch declared early to head to the NFL, so Alabama will have three open spots in the secondary that these newcomers will have just as much of a shot at as any of the returning depth. On top of that, Terrion Arnold wasn’t even a full-time starter at corner last season (and I think is a more natural safety anyway), so I wouldn’t even consider his job totally safe.
Only Kool-Aid McKinstry is for sure a starter next year, and, to be honest, I think he could just as easily move to Star instead of outside corner if it made sense on the depth chart.
As always, I’ll be giving a short summary on each player, any info on his athletic profile (SPARQ is dead, sadly), my thoughts on his traits, and how I think he’ll fit in Alabama’s depth chart and scheme. All rankings and heights/weights will be from the 247Sports Composite, as I think they do the best job at rating and ranking players. Though I will mention if any of the other services have a particularly different opinion on certain player.
Mitchell is a versatile athlete who played corner, nickel, and safety for the 7A powerhouse Thompson High school. He was a 4-year starter with all kinds of All-American and All-State awards and appearances in the 7A state championship game.
Going back in time, Mitchell was rated as high as #10 overall as a 5-star recruit back in the Summer of 2021, but saw his stock plummet in December 2022 after signing with the Tide, all the way down to #123. I know he missed a few games his senior year and didn’t get any interceptions, but I’m not totally sure what caused the drop. So much for the Bama Bump...
In any case, Mitchell gets a lot of points in my book for being the subject of speculation that a lot of Auburn fans thought he would flip to the Tigers on National Signing Day, only for him to stick to his pledge to Alabama.
He added over 20 pounds to his lengthy frame to become a well-built, muscled up dude over his senior year. So I expect, with that body type, he’s eyeing a role at either safety or star at Alabama.
Mitchell is one of the more instinctive players you’ll see at a high school level, and he combines that with a powerful athleticism and elite foot quickness. When dropping into zones, he can transition into charging forward with no wasted steps, or he can turn and run laterally or vertical with receivers going in any direction without losing a single step. When he changes directions, he positively explodes in the new direction.
This makes him extremely adept at both man and zone coverages, particularly out of the slot, as he can break on those out breaking routes with ease or keep up with seam routes.
He’s aggressive at the catch point and is often looking (and has the athleticism/positioning to do it) to undercut receivers. His actual ball skills needs some work, as many of his pass breakups very well should have been clean interceptions, but he’s always in position and has his hands on the ball, so I have hope the interception numbers will equalize out over his career. He can also get a bit too aggressive at times and I think will draw his fair share of pass interference calls at the college level.
As a run defender, he’s not a stonewall tackler, but he does wrap up well and rarely misses, even if it gives up a few yards. And, again, his explosiveness at transitioning from a backpedal to moving forward makes him an asset at getting to the RB in time to make a difference on the play.
While Mitchell is a versatile player with a lot of experience, I don’t think outside corner is going to be a fit for him. I think he lacks the pure long speed and the over-the-shoulder ball skills and balance to excel there, even if his coverage is good. I think he’s either a safety or a Star, and with his lateral zone abilities, I think he settles in at Star
Mitchell is a polished, college-ready player in my opinion. I think he’ll directly challenge Malachi Moore for the starting role at Star out the gate. He may have a tough time unseating the senior and former starter, but I won’t be surprised if he works his way into splitting time throughout the season... And getting more and more as the season goes on.
Similar to Mitchell, Hurley is a guy who was a top-25, five-star recruit up until December, when the recruiting services all dropped him down a little bit. He’s still a high-end 4-star player, though, as a guy who was initially an outside corner before moving to safety his senior season.
He also doubles as an accomplished wide receiver and ball carrier and then triples as an elite kick return man.
Hurley is a gangly player with tremendous long speed due to his stride, and he uses it very well to fly all over the field, whether side-to-side as a safety or going deep as a boundary corner. He’s excellent at playing jump balls and securing catches with chaos going on all around him as a wide receiver, and somewhat shows up as interceptions as a defensive back.
He’s also one of the better and more technical press-bail boundary corners you’ll see at a high school level, as he’s comfortable lining up right on top of a receiver out on an island, mirroring their release and funneling them where he wants to prevent a good route from ever getting run.
As a tackler, he’s got the willingness and the desire to hit like a missile, if not the muscle to always back it up.
And back to offense... With the ball in his hands, he tends to run like he thinks he’s actually a 210 pound running back when in traffic, and has a knack for somehow wriggling out of a pile of players, catching his balance, and turning on the jets for a big play. That could prove to be invaluable as a kick return man in the future.
I think Hurley likely hurt his recruiting ranking a bit by playing mostly safety his senior year. At the college level, he’s going to be best suited as an outside corner who can press his receiver and cover deep down the sideline. I also think he’ll factor in as a kickoff return specialist, and maybe punt returns as well.
I think Hurley definitely has a shot at competing with Terrion Arnold for a starting role at corner right out the gate. Ultimately, I think his lack of bulk will keep him from winning the job, but I definitely think we’ll hear his name rumbling around in the background throughout the year.
Also I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he winds up as the starting kick returner (though it seems like Saban picks that guy out of a hat half the time, so who knows).
Bray Hubbard is one of the more unique and intriguing players Alabama has recruited, and is similar to guys like Kristian Story and ArDarius Stewart who were excellent dual-threat QBs at small high schools that projected out to defensive back in college.
In 2022 alone, Hubbard had 2200 passing yards and 1800 rushing yards with over 40 combined touchdowns, and he added three interceptions as a defensive back.
Rumors last summer indicated that Hubbard was purely a QB before Alabama’s previous DC, Pete Golding, approached him about playing defense, and he looked like a natural at camp in Tuscaloosa, then worked on playing a little defense during his senior season. He also supposedly ran a 4.50 flat forty yard dash during his visit to Tuscaloosa last summer, so he’s got legit SEC speed for someone his size. He also recorded a decent 4.39 short shuttle and very impressive 35” vertical jump.
Of course, Golding has moved on to Ole Miss now, so who knows where Hubbard fits in from here.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to say here, and projecting Hubbard to defense is solely that... projecting. We do know he has really impressive closing speed and range as a deep centerfield safety, and that’s about it.
As a QB, he doesn’t show a whole lot on shorter routes, but he can put some really impressive touch on deep fade routes.
As a ball carrier, he has elite acceleration, and can go from standing still to full speed in a single step, which often leaves defenders grasping at air in the backfield. He’s got the long speed to outrun everyone, but can make small jukes and shoulder-shakes at top speed to slip around defenders in the open field, and he’s happy to bowl straight into and through defenders that get in his way.
He’ll wind up as a pure deep safety for Alabama. I don’t really think he fits anywhere else, but that range and closing speed with a QB brain is very tantalizing to take a risk on for the long-term conversion.
Ricks is one of the most high-upside developmental players in the class, as he was a junior in high school (and the #1 corner in that class!) before reclassifying a grade up in November to suddenly join the 2023 class. He’s added 12 pounds already since enrolling at Alabama, up to a solid 182 pounds.
He ran a 4.5 forty and an impressive 39” vertical jump (again, as a guy who should be a high school junior), so he’s got requisite SEC athleticism and can definitely improve on that. With three years of starting experience at IMG and a whole lot of work in 7-on-7 camp circuits, he’s made a name for himself as an impressive boundary corner who can win a lot of 50-50 balls.
Ricks is a cover 3/cover 4 sideline specialist who excels at the catch point with amazing balance, body control, and an understanding of common route concepts and how to cut them off from his zone. He can be a bit of a gambler, but more often than not is going to be right and make and amazing interception off of a prediction.
He’s got great, deceptive closing speed to be able to bait QBs into trying throws he can get to, and his body type looks like he was built in a lab to be an outside cornerback.
How he can hold up in the run game is a bit of an unknown, and he can definitely get beat in short area routes, so I expect he’s limited to only outside cornerback at the college level.
As I mentioned above, he’s a pure boundary corner. I don’t see any way he moves to any of the other positions in the secondary.
On one hand, I can see the potential for Ricks becoming an absolute superstar cornerback with Pat Surtain II like polish and prototypical body type. On the other, I think he has a ways to go to develop into a fully rounded player that the coaches can count on. So, with that, I’m going to predict he’s not much of a factor as a freshman.
Most of the recruiting services tend to try to somewhat follow how the NFL drafts players and rank accordingly, so positions like safety get devalued a little. Don’t let that fool you, though. I think Downs is the hands-down best player in Alabama recruiting class this year, and, in my opinion, the best player the Tide has recruited since Bryce Young and Will Anderson in 2020.
He’s a 4-year starter who’s racked up 20 interceptions, nearly 50 pass deflections, Multiple defensive player of the year awards, a National Player of the Year award, a 7A state championship, and a 7A playoff-level basketball player to boot. Oh, and he racked up nearly 1000 yards and 23 touchdowns as a running back and a receiver, and averaged 30 yards per return as a kick return man.
Just mind-numbing production and excellence at everything he does. The dude just has it.
Caleb Downs plays the game of football at a different speed than everyone else on the field. Whether on defense or offense, he’s just operating on a different plane of athleticism and instincts that, quite honestly, is a sight to behold.
He generally played as a single high deep safety, and his team would stack all 10 other players up in the box because Caleb would cover the entire field deeper than 15 yards. He has the closing speed, reaction time, and footwork to be able to close on any pass from nearly anywhere on the field... And even if he is too far away to make a play on a ball, he’s going to be there very, very soon to plant the ball carrier into the ground.
And as good as he is at playing the ball... He’s an even better tackler. And it’s not just highlight reel hits, he’s a technique tackler who wraps up, gets leverage, and drives his guy backwards. When Downs hits you, you do not keep going forward.
Oh, and he’s probably going to hit you the instant you think you’re breaking free from the scrum of the offensive line.
With the ball in his hands, Downs would be a 5-star player as a running back or a receiver. He’s fast, sudden, and powerful. He can juke three guys with consecutive hop-steps and then lower his shoulder and push two more defenders into the endzone. And as a receiver, he’ll jump up and come down with a hail mary throw right in between two defenders.
If he gets an interception... Good luck watching offensive players try to tackle him.
Downs could probably play receiver, running back, corner, star, or safety at a high level in the SEC. For my money, I think he could be a great Star, but an even better deep safety. But if things work out that he needs to play a different spot to get on the field, then he can.
I believe Downs is a day one starter for Alabama as a true freshman, and probably a freshman All-American.
Finally, Alabama did recruit a new kicker this year. There were no other special teamers, so I’m adding him on to the end of this article
As a senior, Talty averaged 50 yards on his kickoffs and got touchbacks on 57% of them. He averaged 40 yards per punt with a long of 59.
And as a field goal kicker, he made 17 of 19 with a long of 51 yards. On his career, he hit hit 32/36 and made 111/113 extra points.
Talty has a short, explosive kick stride that is going to make him pretty much immune to getting his kicks blocked. He’ll take a quick step and then give the ball a tap that shoots it up on a high arc. He rarely hits much of a power drive shot, but even his short-stepped kick makes it at 45 yards with plenty of room to spare, and his 51 yarder had plenty of distance on it even with the high arc.
With all of that said... Kickers are impossible to predict. Who really knows how his mentals can withstand the pressure of kicking a field goal for Alabama.
In any case, he won’t play in 2023, as Will Reichard is returning for a graduate senior season, and then Talty will be expected to start in 2024