Five things to know about Alabama's defensive backs in 2017
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Editor's Note: With preseason practice less than a week away, BamaInsider is previewing the upcoming Alabama football season by looking at each position group on offense, defense and special teams. This installment is on the defensive backs.
Where Alabama stands
The defensive back position will be Alabama’s biggest question mark this season. While the Crimson Tide loses only one starter from the unit that lined up against Clemson in the national championship game, depth will be an issue early on.
Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson have both departed for the NFL, but Alabama returns a talented group on its first team unit. Anthony Averett returns at cornerback after serving as the Tide’s most consistent defensive back last season. All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick will most likely return as the starting strong safety, the position he started in during the final seven games of last season after Jackson suffered a season-ending injury. Fitzpatrick will team up with free safety Ronnie Harrison in what will be one of the nation’s most talented pairings. Tony Brown figures to start at the STAR position which he took over after Fitzpatrick moved to safety.
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The only new face in the starting unit figures to be Trevon Diggs, who made the switch to the secondary this spring after serving primarily at wide receiver during his freshman year last season. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound athlete experienced some growing pains this spring but put together a solid performance during camp and has both players and coaches optimistic about his potential at the position.
"He's doing very well,” Averett said of Diggs this spring. “He's a young guy, so there's a lot of things he needs to work on, a lot of things all of us need to work on, obviously. But he's doing very well."
Where Alabama would like to be
Outside of its starting unit, Alabama has only two upperclassmen — Levi Wallace and Hootie Jones — in its reserves. That leaves little room for injuries, something the Tide was hit hard with last season.
Alabama depth at the position was dealt another blow earlier this month, as cornerback Aaron Robinson transferred out of the program. The Tide also failed to land a true cornerback in this year’s recruiting class. Fall camp will be an important time for Alabama as it figures out its rep chart in time for its opener against Florida State on Sept. 2. If things aren’t sorted out by then it could get ugly. The Seminoles ranked No. 33 in the nation in passing offense last season, averaging 264.1 yards per game.
While inexperienced, Alabama still has some nice pieces in its reserves. Wallace, a former walk-on, proved to be a steady backup last season, earning significant time off the bench during the Iron Bowl when Humphrey went down with an injury. Sophomore Shyheim Carter also looks to be a promising back up at the STAR position and, according to sources close to the team, has made significant strides this offseason.
Will Fitzpatrick stay at safety? The 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior has proven he can start at any position across the secondary. Recruited as a cornerback, the former five-star started his college career at the STAR position before moving to safety. Fitzpatrick was originally going to move back down to cornerback this spring but remained at safety after Alabama head coach Nick Saban decided Diggs was a more natural fit at corner.
The safety position also makes sense for Fitzpatrick. The junior’s defensive awareness makes him the natural fit for the strong safety spot, as the position is in charge of calling out coverage schemes to the rest of the secondary. Fitzpatrick’s physical playing style also fits into the safety role, as does his ability to serve as a ball hawk and create turnovers. Fitzpatrick led the SEC with six interceptions last season, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
If Alabama needs Fitzpatrick to move back down to corner, the most likely replacement at safety would be Jones. The senior already fills in for Harrison at free safety when the defense runs out of the dime package and would add more experience to the starting unit. That being said, Plan A still seems to be Diggs at corner and Fitzpatrick at safety.
Projected depth chart
1. Anthony Averett, R-Sr., 6-0, 185 pounds
2. Levi Wallace, Sr., 6-0, 183 pounds
3. Shyheim Carter, So., 6-0, 195 pounds
1. Trevon Diggs, So., 6-2, 195 pounds
2. Nigel Knott, R-Fr., 5-11, 183 pounds
3. Jared Mayden, So., 6-0, 197 pounds
1. Tony Brown, Sr., 6-0, 198 pounds
2. Syheim Carter, So., 6-0, 195 pounds
3. Kyriq McDonald, Fr., 5-11, 195 pounds
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jr., 6-1, 202 pounds
2. Xavier McKinney, Fr., 6-1, 197 pounds
3. Daniel Wright, Fr., 6-1, 185 pounds
1. Ronnie Harrison, Jr., 6-3, 214 pounds
2. Hootie Jones, Sr., 6-2, 215 pounds
3. Deionte Thompson, R-So., 6-2, 194 pounds
Carter will have a breakout sophomore season. The former four-star recruit played in a limited role during his freshman year but took big strides this spring. Listed at 6-foot, 195 pounds, Carter has the strength and physicality to strive at the STAR position.
While Brown will enter the season as the projected starter at the position, Carter could push the senior for playing time as the season progresses. It’s worth noting that Brown struggled during the national championship game, allowing Clemson slot receiver Hunter Renfrow to record 10 receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns. The competition should push both defenders to preform at a higher level next season.
Carter could also help provide depth at the cornerback position in the event of injury or fill in at STAR if Alabama elects to move Brown to the outside. That versatility will not only add to the Tide’s depth but also net Carter valuable reps on the field.