TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If you had asked Nick Saban a year ago at what position he could least afford a major injury, the University of Alabama coach almost certainly would have said quarterback.
But his second choice may have been cornerback.
At the time, this position group had the least experience of any on the Crimson Tide, with one-year returning starter Deion Belue and a whole bunch of question marks. The coaching staff was so concerned that three offensive players spent a good part of last spring learning the position just in case, one of whom ended up staying and starting five games.
So when Saban recently had to announce that sophomore Eddie Jackson needed surgery to repair a knee ligament, it obviously was a setback. However, the situation isn’t anywhere near as dire as had a similar injury occurred in 2013.
“Eddie’s surgery went well,” Saban said Wednesday afternoon. “We feel like we've got a really good chance to get him back for the season. He was having a great spring and doing a good job. This just gives some other people some opportunity to get some reps as well.”
As Alabama prepares for its second spring scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which will be closed to media on Saturday, juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones have worked with the first unit this week. Early enrollee Tony Brown and redshirt freshman Anthony Averett have lined up on the second unit along with sophomore Maurice Smith—who has been learning the nickel spot, or “star” in Alabama’s terminology.
Barring another setback, that’s probably the way they’ll line up for A-Day on April 19th, but like with the quarterback position, it appears the competition to start will continue well into the fall and could go past the season opener Aug. 30 against West Virginia at the Georgia Dome.
Overall, the unit has a lot more experience and a ton more young talent.
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“Eddie was having a great spring and probably our best corner, most consistent,” Saban said after Jackson sustained the injury during last week’s scrimmage, when he “just jumped up in the air for a ball and came down funny.”
While it’s no secret that the coach prefers tall cornerbacks, and Jones (5’10”) and Sylve (5’11”) are his shortest players at the position, for now experience wins out.
“Bradley Sylve has had a really good spring and is doing a good job,” Saban continued. “We just seem to not be making as many mental errors as we have in the past at this time.”
Among returning cornerbacks, Jones had the most interceptions (two) and tackles (25) last year.
Coaches were pretty high on Sylve, only to see him be limited by an ankle injury the second half of the season. When healthy, he may be the fastest player on the Crimson Tide, although Brown is the one who’s also been running track this spring.
Unfortunately it’s also led to his wearing a black no-contact jersey during practices to protect a shoulder injury, originally sustained during the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game and aggravated by falling over a hurdle.
“I’m not sure exactly how much more track he’ll do the rest of the spring, but we have a schedule that says what he’s able to do,” Saban explained about the true freshman. “He’s done a good job of managing both of those things. We feel like he’s made a lot of progress and learned a lot by splitting time at spring practice.”
This summer Alabama will also add Marlon Humphrey, rated by 247Sports as the top cornerback in the nation in the recruiting Class of 2014, while Brown edged him in the composite rankings (second and third, respectively). Both were considered 5-star prospects.
“Tony is very competitive,” senior safety Nick Perry said. “He doesn't like to lose. Even out there in seven-on-seven or one-on-one, he's fighting for the ball a couple minutes after the ball has been caught.”
Now contrast to this time a year ago. Besides Belue, the only other experienced player, John Fulton, was out following surgery to repair a turf-toe injury. Belue ended up being bothered by a similar injury all of last fall while making 10 starts, while Fulton struggled during his senior year.
Sylve, who had made the move from wide receiver during the late part of the 2011 season, was a primary backup last spring. Two others, Geno Smith and Jabriel Washington, who have since moved to safety, were splitting reps with wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones, and running back Dee Hart.
It only reinforces how much of a problem the Crimson Tide had at cornerback in 2013 and helps explain why Alabama only had 11 interceptions, the fewest since Saban arrived in 2007. Just four were by a cornerback.
In contrast, things look very bright with this group.
“You’ve got Cyrus, you’ve got Bradley, who is really fast. You have Eddie who is really good,” said junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, who also made a reference to safety Laurence “Hootie” Jones, another early enrollee: “Hootie surprised me today. He made a one-handed interception. It was crazy. So those guys are all pretty talented.”
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.