Alabama Football: Spring Practice Preview for the Defensive Backs
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
That assumption was validated after the biggest story of the opening day of practice last Saturday was the move of three offensive skill players over to the secondary, including former running back Dee Hart.
Even with Robert Lester off to the NFL, the safety spots appear to be in the capable hands of juniors Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But the biggest buzz entering the spring session surrounds ultra-talented sophomore Landon Collins.
The outlook at safety is definitely more settled than the situation at cornerback. Trying to replace Dee Milliner exacerbates the issue on edges of the secondary.
Seniors John Fulton and Deion Belue are both experienced, but neither appear to give the Tide’s secondary a dominant presence at the position like they have enjoyed in recent years. Could sophomore Geno Smith step up and assert himself as a player with that potential? Can the Tide establish enough quality depth at corner?
Those are just a pair of intriguing questions surrounding the secondary this spring. Find out everything you need to know about the Tide’s group of defensive backs in this spring practice preview.
4. Starters Entering Spring Practice
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
CB – John Fulton (Sr.)
SS – Vinnie Sunseri (Jr.)
FS – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Jr.)
CB – Deion Belue (Sr.)
Nickel – Geno Smith (Soph.)
While this list is heavy on upperclassmen with notable experience under their belts, Clinton-Dix is the only player listed that enters the spring as the clear-cut top option at his respective position.
Fulton has some of the physical attributes of past Tide greats, but he enters his final season at the Capstone hoping to put together his first full season of consistent play. His recovery from offseason toe surgery will likely limit his work this spring, which is a setback for a player that Alabama will have to rely on this fall (h/t Andrew Gribble, al.com).
Belue struggled at times as the starting corner opposite Milliner a year ago. Without a true lockdown presence flanking him, it’s imperative that Belue improves his game in the spring or else he could lose his spot to a rising talent like sophomore Geno Smith.
Smith’s play toward the end of his true freshman season could serve as a springboard for him to grab a starting spot before fall camp arrives.
Sunseri is a versatile player that has found a way to be around the football early and often during his first two seasons, but Collins is a talent that could prove to be too good to keep off the field.
Veteran safeties Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams are also dependable players that have experience and can provide solid depth at the position.
While the order of this lineup represents a guess as to how things currently stand, it’s a picture that is far from settled—with the spring representing the first opportunity for some talented younger players to step up and make a statement.
3. Biggest Spring Battle to Watch
Eileen Blass-USA TODAY Sports
Biggest Spring Battles – SS (Vinnie Sunseri vs. Landon Collins), CB (Backup Positions)
While the competition between Sunseri and Collins will undoubtedly be fierce, the battle to find depth at the corner positions will be more important to the overall picture for the defense.
Fulton’s absence gives younger players like Geno Smith, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington a chance to make an impression on the coaching staff with valuable reps ripe for the taking.
The addition of Hart and Cyrus Jones to the competition just adds another wrinkle to the equation.
With a pair of stud recruits set to enter the mix in the summer, the time is now for players like Sylve and Washington to solidify a place in the rotation.
Sunseri has displayed his knack for making big plays, but he struggled in coverage at times last season.
Collins—who spent time as a corner during his prep career—is a dynamic talent that could undergo a similar transition this spring as Clinton-Dix went through at this point a year ago.
2. Impact Newcomer
Michael Chang/Getty Images
Impact Newcomer – CBs Dee Hart and Cyrus Jones
In scanning the roster in search of athletes with the potential to add more depth to the secondary, Saban identified Hart and Jones as skill players with the necessary traits to make the transition to defense.
Hart has battled injuries in the two seasons on campus, but when healthy, he has flashed glimpses of his explosiveness and the ability to operate comfortably in space.
Jones came to Alabama listed as an athlete, and excelled as a return man during his freshman season.
Assuming both sophomores can adjust to the mental differences of playing defense, Hart and Jones offer the Tide a pair of options to combat quicker slot receivers against spread offenses.
If either player (or both) can grasp the nuances of playing corner at an SEC-caliber level, Saban and his staff will have one less worry about its secondary unit heading into the season.
1. Grade on Secondary Positions Entering Spring
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Grade on Strength of Corner Unit – C
Grade on Strength of Safety Unit – A
Alabama’s defense appears to have all of the familiar traits that has propelled them to three out of the last four BCS national titles—except one. That would be the lack of having a dominant, All-American caliber cover corner.
That does not mean that Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will not have sufficient talent to work with. However, their talent at corner is largely unrefined at this stage.
Smith is another sophomore expected to make a giant leap forward in his second year in a college system, but the Tide will need at least one more player to step up and become a solid corner.
That player could come from anyone of a group that includes Sylve or Washington, or offensive transplants Jones or Hart. If none of those options pan out, Alabama could be forced to rely on true freshmen Jonathan Cook and Maurice Smith when the season begins.
Much like last season when Lester, Sunseri and Clinton-Dix formed a three-man rotation for two spots, the expected development and emergence of Collins will allow that rotation to continue. Having established depth in the presence of Perry and Williams separates this unit as being healthier than their cohorts in the corner unit.
While the secondary may lack an imposing presence at corner, Saban and his staff have enough firepower to field one of top units in the SEC.