As I mentioned a week ago, Alabama’s pass defense in 2022 saw a major uptick in effectiveness compared to the prior four seasons. A large part of that had to do with having such a veteran group in the backend with Jordan Battle, Brian Branch, and DeMarcco Hellams all returning as 3rd year starters.
In the past 4 years, the Star position, or slot corner, has essentially been more in line with the safeties than the corners. This was somewhat a Pete Golding thing, but Nick Saban has a 15-year history of trying to put his best athletes in the secondary at that position.
Shameless self-plug to my favorite article I’ve ever written
We’ve had some changes in the coaching ranks, though, so what the Star position morphs into in 2023 remains a bit of a mystery. For one, Kevin Steele takes over for Pete Golding at defensive coordinator, and while Steele has consistently shown to be a malleable coordinator in terms of front-seven scheme, he has consistently played a lot of press-man coverage.
The Tide also lost safeties coach Charles Kelly off to a promotion to D.C., and did not replace him, instead hiring an extra linebackers coach. Will cornerback coach Travaris Robinson take over the safeties? Remains to be seen.
- Brian Branch - An All-American in 2022 and likely first round NFL Draft pick, Brian Branch took his 193 pound frame and tackled like a 250-pound linebacker all season long. He racked up 90 tackles and a ridiculous 14 tackles for loss (second only to Will Anderson). Even with the accolades he got, I will forever contend that the nature of what Pete Golding asked him to do led to him being criminally underrated his entire career.
- Jordan Battle - A 3-year, full-time starter and permanent team captain, what Battle lacked in athleticism he made up for in leadership, instinctiveness, steady play, and rock-solid tackling. 251 total career tackles and barely a mistake in 4 years will do that for you. Most memorably, Battle made back-to-back plays (pulling Tank Bigsby out-of-bounds, then getting into the backfield on 3rd and 1) to stop the clock and get Alabama the ball back to send the 2021 Iron Bowl into overtime.
- Demarcco Hellams - Hellams came from the same recruiting class as Jordan Battle, but had a rockier start to his career, splitting time with the older Daniel Wright for a couple of seasons, playing the dimebacker spot, and dealing with some foot injury issues. In any case, he was a headhunting machine of a tackler who racked up 261 total tackles, including a team-high 108 in 2022. Hellams made a whole lot of highlight-reel hits in his career, and will be looking to make a lot more in the pros.
The Mercurial Starter
#13 - Malachi Moore
The senior was once a Freshman All-American back in 2020 as a surprise starter as a true freshman. However, he was eventually replaced by Brian Branch and saw his playing time dwindle each year. He continued to work into the rotation as the 6th DB. He’s displayed great instincts with the ball in the air but has often struggled with tackling. In 2023, he has a shot to redeem that and become the leader of a brand new secondary.
#11 - Kristian Story
A former high school Mr. Alabama as a QB, Kristian Story was always an intriguing prospect who we expected to take a few years to get to a place where he could contribute. At 211 pounds with impressive athleticism, Story has extremely high potential and, as a 4th year player, now has the seniority and experience to back it up. He should be expected to be at the top of the line to get a starting job.
#8- Devonta Smith
The junior has been a consistent contributor on special teams in his first two years, which is usually a good sign that he’s actively involved and working on ways to get onto the field. The former 4-star from Ohio is a hybrid safety/slot corner kind of player who could probably play anywhere in the secondary.
#20 - Earl Little II
Hailing from the same school as Pat Surtain II, Earl Little II is another NFL legacy corner that was a borderline 5 star prospect. He may wind up as an outside corner, but his quick feet and aggressive tackling make me think he’s going to get a good, long look at Star.
He wound up missing most of his freshman season due to injury and redshirted after only playing three games.
#21 - Jake Pope
The redshirt freshman out of the powerhouse of Buford, GA, didn’t see any playing time in his first season at Alabama. He was an interception machine with great length, ball-tracking skills, and return ability in high school, so expect him to compete for a spot on the 2-deep as a free safety.
#2 - Caleb Downs
Caleb Downs is, in my opinion, the best, most sure-fire recruiting prospect Alabama has signed since Bryce Young. The do-it-all playmaker could have been a 5-star running back, receiver, or corner if he had wanted, but instead he’s the absolute best high school safety since.... Minkah Fitzpatrick? Eric Berry?
Lofty expectations, but the guy is just that phenomenal. I fully expect Downs to be a day one starter for Alabama.
In fact, check out this clip that made rounds on Twitter last week:
Sure, everyone was talking about the throw from Jalen Milroe and the catch from Ja’Corey Brooks, but check out who was playing safety underneath... #2. Caleb Downs. He’s already getting reps with the 1s.
Hubbard is likely going to be a similar story to Kristian Story. He was an unheralded dual-threat QB out of Ocean Springs, MS, that Pete Golding and Nick Saban had a vision he could play defensive back and had him try it out in summer camp... And apparently he excelled enough to get a scholarship offer.
Hubbard is a tremendous athlete with a prototype body size, but has very little more than 0 experience playing safety.
#27- Tony Mitchell
No pictures for Tony. He’s a talented player with a great 6’2” 205 frame and most likely going to play Star. However, he was just arrested for a very large amount of weed and a firearm and has been indefinitely suspended. He’s still on the team roster, but I expect we’re not going to see him in year one while he works his way out of the doghouse.
Way-too-early depth chart
This is a fun one as all three safety spots are totally wide open. Here’s my best guess at a 2-deep:
FS: Caleb Downs, Jake Pope
SS: Kristian Story, Devonta Smith
Star: Malachi Moore OR Earl Little II